Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Exorcising toxic Trump: An intentional alternative in our back yard?

Hancock Shaker Village — photo by Massachusetts Office of Tourism, used under Creative Commons License

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, March 9, 2020 by William P. Densmore

I’ve been thinking a lot about furniture lately as my sisters and I assess the provenance and best disposition of fine furniture in our parents’ Worcester home. We’re learning that “dark furniture” isn’t very valuable anymore. Kind of like the stock market after today, and quite out of our individual control so not to worry. But thinking about furniture and value inevitable leads to the mass-market tag line for the Shakers furniture. Excellent, simple, stripped of vanity and excess — furniture.

But it is not Shaker furniture on my mind for tonight. Rather, I wish to digress in perhaps contrarian fashion to a set of difference considerations about the Shakers — their status as the longest running intentional community in America — an effort at utopia which has tested a set of values in many respects relevant not only to contemporary American society but as well perhaps to some of the attributes of the culture which occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Fifteen years ago I spent six months working at Hancock Shaker Village. Like most people, I knew about furniture and celibacy and that was about it. I learned somewhat more, but ever since I’ve wanted to spend a chunk of time digging into Shaker values and practices.  This talk is the result and it stems from sit-down interviews last month with five Shaker experts — and an admittedly fast literature review.

What I will highlight, using with attribution the words of my interviewees as well as published authors is this: The Shakers can teach our contemporary politicians, and maybe Donald Trump, much about gender equity, caring for “others,” housing and economic security and the management of dissent. Seventy-five years before emancipation, and 150 years before suffrage, Shakers were already practicing social, sexual, economic and spiritual equality. For the most part, the Shakers just lived their politics, although in 1852, Shaker elder Frederick Evans was proselytizing that women should have the right to vote.

There are multiple sources — from Wikipedia to scholarly volumes, to fill in the basic Shaker history so I’ll rewrite to a few sentences. Factory worker “Mother” Ann Lee and her husband arrive near Albany, N.Y., in 1774 from Manchester, England and after several frustrating years begin to attract converts to her Protestant-offshoot idea of a community that sees women as a natural representation of God after the death of Jesus. The three tenets: celibacy, confession and community. At its peak, the Shaker movement involved 6,000 members and followers at 19 sites from Kentucky east to Maine; only two (or is it three) members remain — at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Before declining, Shaker societies were organized around “families” with 20 to 150 members of each non-biological family and a total of two to 11 such families in each geographic society.

Scholars generally agree that Shakers grew (and prospered mightily) through about 1840 when a slow decline began as many male members — the “brothers” — found better work and life outside the community. Because Mother Ann believed chastity to be a necessary part of the faith, Shakers could only maintain communities by taking in new families, children or individuals. The Hancock Bishopric declined and in 1959-1960 the property was sold to what has become Hancock Shaker Village, a living-history museum.

Filmmaker Ken Burns wrote for his 1984 PBS video special, “Hands to Work, Hearts to God,” what I found to be the most elegant summary of the Shakers and here is a small part of it. Burns wrote that by the mid-1800s:
The Shakers were suddenly appreciated as successful communitarians when Americans became interested in communities, as successful utopians when America hosted a hundred utopian experiments, as spiritualists when American parlors filled with mediums and with voices from other worlds. They invented hundreds of laborsaving devices from the clothespin to the circular saw, which they shared without patents (some of these machines launched brilliant industrial careers for the men who borrowed them), nor were they frightened of useful inventions . . . They were admired and derided, imitated for their successes and ridiculed for their eccentricities. And they are enduringly appreciated for their contribution to American crafts and architecture
With thanks to Ken Burns, that’s the basic history and story line. Let’s now focus on these five aspects which, as I say, seem to teach us to varying degree about our political moment in ways I’ll assert.

  1. Gender relationships
  2. Caring for others, and the infirm
  3. Housing and economic security
  4. Focusing on quality, and science
  5. Managing dissent


When it comes to gender relationships and society, perhaps we might invite Elizabeth Warren’s input, or perhaps some of the many women who have described relationships with Mr. Trump. I think its fair to sale we have some work to do in figuring how we value and engage women in leadership in America. The Shakers have much to teach here.

Glendyne R. Wergland of Dalton is one of the four Shaker experts I spoke with last month at HSV. Her 2011 University of Massachusetts Press book, Sisters in the Faith, draws together document research to show — as one reviewer has written — that Shaker communities achieved a remarkable degree of gender equality at a time when women elsewhere still suffered under the legal and social strictures of a traditional patriarchal order. In so doing, Wergland finds, the reviewer writes, that the experience of Shaker women served as a model for promoting women’s rights in American political culture.

Deborah E. Burns is an editor at Storey Communications in North Adams and the author of the 1993 Shaker Cities of Peace, Love and Union: A History of the Hancock Bishopric, which she took three years to write at the request of HSV’s first president and lead founder, Amy Bess Miller. Burns was one of the people I sought out for guidance on interpreting the Shakers for contemporary America. Burns believes the equality of women with men in managing and holding leadership roles in the Shaker church was a reason for its balance and stability during the growth years “in a way that we just never have had in our country.” When men slowly drifted away from Shaker societies in the late 19th century, a greater proportion of women stayed, Burns says, because for them, the stability of Shaker living was as good or better than the outside world. “The communal system and the segregation of sexes took a lot of clutter out of the brain,” Burns says.

University of Alabama-Huntsville history professor Suzanne R. Thurman expands on this view in an excerpt from her book, O Sisters Ain’t You Happy, published in 2002:
Attacking the patriarchal basis for most of American family life, the Shakers cleared the way for a new society where relationships were built on love and choice, not duty and obligation, and where traditional female characteristics were upheld as normative for society . . . . women took on positions of responsibility, made choices about their bodies and their lifestyles, and were empowered by Shaker religious practices. 
Prof. Thurman says Shaker women understood the community-building features of communal, non-biological families, that still well-nurtured and educated adopted children or children of other members. As Burns reports in her scholarship, the evidence was that Shaker-raised children tended to be excellent students, their schools in Hancock were praised and sought by non-Shaker parents. Continues Prof. Thurman:
[A]s the Shakers and their reformer counterparts debated the merits of life in community and life in the biological family, as they analyzed and discussed what constituted the “best” and most “normal” kind of relationship, they touched on issues that have vexed human society for centuries. The Shakers came down squarely on the side of . . . the transforming power of communal life.


Because much focus is on celibacy when we consider the Shakers, on the grounds that it was a sort of “failure mode” for the survival of the community, I’ll mention that briefly here by saying there are contrarian views. The Shakers themselves wrote that most people left communities not because of sex but because they found it in other ways hard to put aside self-interest in favor of community interest. By not bearing children, Shakers could be sure that anyone in the faith had chosen to be there. If Shakers were recruiting converts today, they could also make the argument that celibacy is a possible rational choice in a world that scientists — apparently not Mr. Trump — see as threatened by climate change and overpopulation.

Scholars Elisa J. Sobo and Sandra Bell, (writing in their book, Celibacy, Culture and Society: The Anthropology of Sexual Abstinence (2001) report that around 1900 some Shaker writers also . . .
. . . Maintained that celibacy (specifically as freedom from marriage), was an important inducement to women to enter membership, first, because marriage sometimes licensed the physical and sexual abuse of women; second, because abstention from marriage facilitated community, and therefore egalitarian, property ownership. They argued that when women are given the opportunity to eschew economic dependence on men, they become men’s equal in all spheres of life.


In Shaker communities there was health-care for all, a lesson for today’s society. As well, there was a focus on healthy eating and living — something Shaker societies might have been better able to enforce than we are today.

Here are three examples:

  1. HSV and other sites have examples of adult-size cradles, potty chairs and other accessibility and mobility devices for the elderly. 
  2. Dwelling houses had areas designed as “infirmaries” and the social covenant included care for infirm and elderly members according to need. There brethren who functioned in roles as doctors.
  3. When members were sick, it was understood that other members of the community would take on their work until they recovered. 

Thus, unlike 30 million Americans with no health insurance, and millions without sick pay, a sick or infirm believer could rest, receive care and attention for as long as needed, without worry of financial loss or neglect to the duties of the farm. As for Covid-19 — Burns says there are no accounts of any contagions sweeping a Shaker community, but there are accounts of infirmaries taking in people with flu or pneumonia-like symptoms.

Shakers grew and profitably sold medicinal herbs — they made their own herbal tinctures. Some Shaker orders willingly adjusted food preparation to members who chose a vegetarian diet, wrote June Sprigg in her 1975 book, By Shaker Hands. Children studied physiology, a weekly hot bath was encouraged.

Sprigg added:

To keep themselves healthy, the Shakers used wisely all four earthly elements for their heavenly goal — air, fire, water and earth. Translated into health terms, that meant good ventilation; the use of static electricity as the latest in rheumatism treatment; extensive and progressive plumbing systems; and a sensible diet, herbal medicines, and for the most part no liquor or tobacco. Besides these measures, Shakers slept at least seven hours nightly and exercised not only in their work but in their worship, too [by dancing producing a healthy sweat]. 


Housing, homelesslness and economic security loom large as American issues, especially for millennials. For Shakers, these were off the table as concerns. Once a person had stayed long enough in a Shaker community to want to join the faith, they turned over all of their assets but in exchange for doing the community’s work, they were sheltered and fed.  In their own way, Shakers also addressed homelessness; they took in people in need, including widows and orphans. They sheltered and fed fugitive slaves. One might assume that they would be inclined to operate today as welcoming communities for able-bodied and committed immigrants.

Among the scholars I spoke with, one observed that millennials and retirees in the Berkshires and elsewhere are now considering alternate living arrangements, and micro-communities of like-minded people to help with gardening, household responsibilities childcare and bills. What might be learned about the mechanics and challenges of co-housing as practiced by the Shakers, this scholar asked? In the Shaker community construct, your children would be taken care of by brethren and sisters, and you could “age in place” with similar care. Another scholar asked: With the world’s resources now seen as finite, will it be necessary to think of housing and living in less individualistic fashion?

Said one of my interview subjects at HSV:
Millenials are thinking more broadly about how we can live together, in smaller spaces, more sustainably, holding possessions longer so we can consume less. We are rethinking our worldmaking, creating a landscape more intentional and sustainable, in its essence very Shaker. They built a world and a vocabulary for themselves like no other community in this country.
Intergenerational mixing in intentional communities is an ideal spawned by the Shakers (and other communal societies) that should be re-imagined, says Deb Burns. When might the campus of a recently closed college be envisioned for such a purpose, she suggests, balanced in age and genders.


Until the Industrial Revolution took hold, an important Shaker ethic contributed to their economic prosperity — a focus on quality in everything they made. Shaker brethren who traveled the countryside selling their packaged seeds were eagerly awaited because the seeds’ were clean and reliable. Furniture and devices built more than 200 years ago in dwellings and work buildings still work today. But eventually, scholars say, the ability for factories to turn out goods faster and cheaper became a competitive challenge to the ethic of high quality.

Yet the Shakers actually believed in science, and used inventiveness to maintain their admired position in agriculture and related fields for as long as possible.  Shaker elders considered whether to permit the introduction of labor- and time-saving devices. After initial caution — requiring a six-month period of consideration when a new such idea was offered — they ultimately decided their faith accepted that useful inventions should be encouraged even though they might impact lifestyle. They did not patent some early inventions. Paraphrasing the Wikipedia entry:

Their industry brought about many inventions like Babbitt metal, the rotary harrow, the circular saw, the clothespin, the Shaker peg, the flat broom, the wheel-driven washing machine, a machine for setting teeth in textile cards, a threshing machine, metal pens, a new type of fire engine, the common clothes pin, the first screw propeller, a machine for matching boards, numerous innovations in waterworks, planing machinery, a hernia truss, silk reeling machinery, small looms for weaving palm leaf, machines for processing broom corn and ball-and-socket tilters for chair legs.


In reviewing five aspects of the Shakers that I suggest may be relevant to our current culture and politics, I come to the final one — the management of dissent. How might this compare with contemporary politics?

One scholar says that the Shakers viewed men as representing power and women as representing wisdom. It must have been wisdom which defined what would happen when a Shaker community resident need to be dismissed. The problem was managed through constant attempts at rehabilitation, scholars say. Sometimes breathren or sisters would leave the community, only to be welcomed back. Most the time, they would leave with abundant food of gifts. In extreme case, they might have their personal effects removed to the street, however. Sometimes an individual Shaker would challenge the authority of elders, and such charismatic leaders could be asked to leave, or be ejected. “It was very tense and anxious,” says Deb Burns. “But that’s what it was, trying to give the person a chance.”


I want to wrap up with three views about why the Shakers matter, and with a poem.

First, the Shakers were in many ways not so different from the rest of us, from other people of their era, writes Joseph Manca, a Rice University art-history professor in a new work of scholarship published just last year by University of Massachusetts Press and entitled: Shaker Vision: Seeing Beauty in Early America. He writes:
In many ways, Shakers lived sensuously: They ate well, they swam regularly in their ponds and lakes and in the ocean, and they danced and sang ecstatically. They viewed landscapes, watched sunsets, pretty rains, rainbows, comets . . . enjoyed the sight of green fields, snow-covered ground and the colors and shapes of fruit on vines and limbs . . . enjoyed pretty faces and bodies, marveled at freaks of nature and admired well-made and colorful buildings.
Second, even if a day comes when the last Shaker is gone, their societies will continue to influence American thought, writes College of the Holy Cross Prof. Joanne Pierce, in her reflection “Why the legacy of Shakers will endure,” published at The Conversation online in 2017. She cites values of cleanliness, honesty, frugality, economy efficiency, quality, simplicity, hard work, debt avoidance and humility affecting social reform, agriculture, technology and innovation. She continued:
[The] Shakers’ rejection of ‘the world’ does offer us today some insightful reflections on contemporary issues such as their pacifism when confronted by terrorism; their mutual love and respect in the face of gender and racial divisions; and their cheerful blending of prosperity and simplicity as a response to the wasteful nature of many materialistic cultures.
Third, in 1977, then-Williams College President John W. Chandler wrote the foreword for Shaker Literature: A Bibliography compiled and annotated by Mary L. Richmond, published by Shaker Community Inc., distributed by University Press of Nebraska, Chandler wrote:
The alienating character of modern work, and questions about the potential for extended non-biological family communities as possible superior to nuclear, biological families drive contemporary interest in the Shakers, Chandler suggests. “Similarly, the Shaker denial of private ownership in favor of communal property attracts those who believe ownership to be a root cause of social injustice.
Chandler wrote that for all these reasons, and for the Shakers commitment to sexual balance their place in history is secure.

There is an untitled poem by Shaker Mary Whitcher, of the Canterbury, N.H., site, in the 1993 Penguin Book Simple Wisdom: Shaker Sayings, Poems and Songs. I read it now as advice to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
Be slow to anger, slow to blame,
And slow to plead thy cause.
But swift to speak of any gain
That gives thy friend applause.

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