Read an Excerpt
Making Authentic Shaker Furniture
With Measured Drawings of Museum Classics
By John G. Shea
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1971 Van Nostrand Reinhold Company
All rights reserved.
SHAKER CREED, CUSTOMS, COLONIZATION, AND INDUSTRIES
Shaker Creed, Customs, Colonization, and Industries
She came from England in 1774, with eight faithful followers all of whom were convinced she was Christ Incarnate. With her disciples she had embarked on the frail ship Mariah at Liverpool, on May 10, 1774. The three months' voyage across the boiling Atlantic was no less stormy than the persecutions that had been provoked by their frantic religious rituals. For the "Vision" of Mother Ann Lee came to her in a Manchester jail after demonstrations of her religious fervor brought penalty of thirty days' imprisonment for disturbing the peace. It was not her first offense — nor the first time she had been put behind the bars of a British prison.
Ann Lee was a product of the dim environment of a mid-eighteenth-century English industrial city. She lived in squalor and observed the misery of kindred souls confined to a hopeless existence of poverty and constant suffering. Deprived of any formal education — she could neither read nor write — she had been cast into the maelstrom of hard labor in a textile mill while still a child. She was married, apparently against her will, on January 5, 1762, to Abraham Standerin, a loutish Manchester blacksmith. In rapid succession, during the next few years, four children were born of the marriage — all of whom died in infancy. It is understandable that her involuntary participation and sordid experiences in matrimony engendered deep feelings of revulsion — and this undoubtedly prescribed the practice of celibacy as a prime tenet of the religion she later established.
The evangelical proclivities of Ann Lee first came to light when she joined a Quaker couple, the Wardleys, in divine worship. The Wardleys and their few followers were not conventional Quakers. They had come under the influence of the French Prophets, or Camisards, who were driven from France because of the emotional disturbances their unorthodox preachings caused among the people.
The Camisards prophesied the early return of God's kingdom to earth — an idea which did not sit too well with the current French king. When the French government put a stop to their activities, some escaped to England, where they were known as "The Prophets." But their preachments were too fanatical for export. In England their numbers dwindled to extinction — and it was not until the start of the religious revivals of the mid-eighteenth century that their prophecies were remembered.
It was during the era of religious awakening that James and Jane Wardley corroborated the Camisards' testimony by announcing that the Second Coming of Christ was near at hand. Ann Lee, imbued with the conviction that God must have intended a better lot for miserable mankind than the bitter experiences of her own youthful years, eagerly joined the Wardleys in voicing the Words of the Prophets.
Because of her natural leadership, Ann soon took over the organization and administration of the new religious sect. Later they came to be known as "The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing." For short, they called themselves "The Believers" — and not until several years later, when the physical eccentricities of their religious ritual was ridiculed by the "outside world," were they dubbed "Shakers."
While most of the revivalist movements of the "Era of Awakening" were fanatical, Ann Lee was also practical in her spiritual fervor. In her search for God, she sought reasons why mankind behaved so badly. Her own miserable experiences had engendered the conviction that man's undisciplined yielding to greed, pride, and sex caused most of his misery. Sex, in her opinion, was the worst offender.
Thus, she concluded, the conquest of self was infinitely more difficult than the conquest of nations. And she was convinced that absolute self-denial would bring Paradise back to Earth. On the basis of these beliefs she enunciated the four fundamental principles of the Shakers' faith: confession of sins; community of goods; celibacy; and withdrawal from the sinful world.
Obviously, these renunciations of the flesh and the odious ways of the world did not popularize the Believers with their less enlightened neighbors. Indeed, their utopian beliefs and their noisy meetings that sometimes lasted long into the night — and their conversions of the citizenry, which often resulted in breaking up families — caused rumblings of suspicion which flared up into mob reprisals. The Believers, like the Quakers, abhorred physical violence and their faith prevented them from returning the blows of their adversaries. Thus, time and again, members of the little sect were unmercifully beaten and imprisoned either on the complaint of their neighbors, who unjustly accused them of starting the trouble, or because the authorities deemed it wise to confine them for their own protection.
The Vision of Ann Lee
It was during one of her stays in the Manchester jail that Ann Lee received the "Vision" which certified that her place was parallel to that of Jesus as Christ's Second Emissary. Her "Vision" transported her to the lap of God, where it was revealed that she was the anointed successor of Jesus — the incarnation of the Word of God again to be given to man in this Second Coming of Christ. She was Ann the Word — and would henceforth be known as "Mother Ann."
As reports spread of Ann Lee's "Vision," membership in the Society commenced to grow. People were starving for spiritual solace and many burdened souls were brightened in Mother Ann's radiant presence. She comforted them and instructed them in gentle tones on the simple steps of self-denial which would guarantee their salvation. Thus, the select group increased its membership.
But growth of membership also produced greater dangers in their relations with the outside world. The Believers were constantly under attack. They were stoned and whipped, and even Mother Ann herself was subjected to torture — with attempts made to take her life. Her relationship with the Deity would not let her admit of any actual suffering. (Jesus, too, she rationalized, had been stoned and whipped and suffered to carry His cross to Calvary.) But at length the persecutions became so severe that converts, in self-protection, had to abandon the faith.
It was then that Mother Ann had another "Vision." This time she was enjoined by the Almighty to take her most loyal followers to America.
As in all her undertakings, blind faith in divine providence again paved the way. For Ann Lee's penniless sect did have two moneyed members — John Townley and John Hocknell — and they eagerly financed the trip. Thus on May 10, 1774, Mother Ann Lee and her eight followers departed from England to build God's empire in the New World.
The American Adventure
Arriving as strangers in New York on August 6, 1774, the little band had to separate and seek individual employment. But Mother Ann assured them that this condition was only temporary and that soon they would settle in their own community away from the "outside world." And, as usual, her word was as good as the deed.
Shortly thereafter they learned that a tract of "cheap land" was available at Niskeyuna (now Watervliet, New York), about eight miles north-west of Albany. One of their financial benefactors, John Hocknell, accompanied by Ann's brother, William Lee, and James Whittaker went up the Hudson River to investigate. The land, although swampy, seemed suitable. So it was purchased with Hocknell's money, and under Whittaker's supervision work was begun on the first American Settlement.
In 1779, the Shakers' first house was built at Niskeyuna, only to burn to the ground shortly after its completion. Another cabin was built, however, and Mother Ann and her little family — all of whom were totally inexperienced at farming — moved in and started to plant their crops. While their isolated home in the wilderness was not located advantageously for attracting converts to the Society, Ann's gift of prophecy again assured her followers that the faith would surely spread. "They will come to us like doves," she announced. Actually, they didn't have long to wait.
The Converts Come Over
The Believers' obscure cabin at Niskeyuna gained notice during the "Great Awakening" of religious fervor which started in New England during the mid-eighteenth century. (As in England, the Shakers invariably advanced during periods of religious revival.)
One such revival erupted in June 1779 among the New Light Baptists in the neighboring towns of New Lebanon in New York and Hancock in Massachusetts. The leaders of the movement were Joseph Meacham, a lay preacher from Enfield, Connecticut, and the Reverend Samuel Johnson, who had been first pastor of the Presbyterian church in New Lebanon.
There had been revival meetings all summer long in the barn of George Darrow, a prosperous farmer of New Lebanon. Here they held nightly gatherings during which the preachers thundered dire warnings of hell and damnation which whipped their listeners into frenzied pleas for salvation. Visions, signs, and prophetic utterances were followed by hysterical shouting and screaming, which often terminated with the fainting and falling of men and women "as if slain in battle." All were convinced that the triumphant "Second Coming of Christ" was close at hand. But as the summer waned and Christ failed to appear, the enthusiasm of the revivalists commenced to vanish.
Exhausted by their emotional exertions, and largely disenchanted, the revivalists started to return to their homes. Tramping through the woods on their way back, two of them stumbled upon Mother Ann's little "family" at Niskeyuna. Here they were greeted and fed as though their visit had long been expected.
Impressed by the sanctity and obvious sincerity of Mother Ann — and conditioned by the recent revival to expect the Second Coming of Christ — the visitors promptly returned to New Lebanon and reported their discovery to the leaders of the revival. On receiving the news, Joseph Meacham decided to make his own appraisal of this mysterious "woman of the new birth."
Meacham had chosen an auspicious day for his meeting with Mother Ann. While the story may be apocryphal, it was reported that this was the famous "dark day" of May 10, 1780, when "the sun disappeared from the sky with neither clouds nor smoke in sight." People all over New England were panic-stricken by the phenomenon. They gathered in groups to gaze at the heavens, howling and wringing their hands and chanting in terror, "The Day of Judgment is come." According to legend, it was on this day and under these weird circumstances that the first public opening of the testimony was held at Niskeyuna.
The visitors from New Lebanon were deeply moved by what they heard and saw. They spoke of miracles, gifts of healing, mysterious signs, and singular rituals. That Ann Lee was a woman, apparently endowed with supernatural powers, roused the curiosity even of those who were not religiously inclined. Soon the small log house at Niskeyuna which served as both church and dwelling was crowded with visitors. And they continued to arrive for the next two months not "like doves" as Mother Ann had predicted but in droves so large that the prophetess and her family exhausted their spare provisions trying to feed them. But with characteristic hospitality, the Shakers did their best to make the visitors comfortable — and they sent them back to their own homes strongly indoctrinated in the Shaker faith.
During the next few years groups of Shaker converts met in private homes at New Lebanon, and Hancock. Then the Word spread throughout New England. Proselyting efforts of Mother Ann and her little Niskeyuna group were augmented by the new American converts who traveled afar to start branches of the faith at Enfield, Connecticut; Canterbury, New Hampshire; Tyringham, Massachusetts; Alfred, Maine; Enfield, New Hampshire; Harvard and Shirley, Massachusetts; and New Gloucester (Sabbathday Lake) , Maine. The first of these groups was the Society at New Lebanon, where the first Shaker meeting house was completed on September 8, 1784.
As in England, when the word started to spread and membership began to increase, the "outside world" took unfriendly notice. So, as the faith continued to grow, a reign of terror, even more cruel than the persecutions of Manchester, was again inflicted on the peace-loving Shakers. At first the "world's people" in America regarded this queer sect with contemptuous amusement. But soon their jeers and catcalls changed to violence.
To start with, the townspeople of New Lebanon resented Ann Lee's easy conversion of their two ministers — Baptist Joseph Meacham and Presbyterian Samuel Johnson. They also resented the manner in which the Shakers would enter a community and break up families in their recruitment of converts. To add fuel to their antagonistic fury, it was observed that the original Shakers came from England — with which the American colonies were then at war. Thus the slander was spread among their Yankee tormentors that they had been sent here as "English spies."
Persecutions increased in intensity wherever the Shakers appeared. On a trip undertaken by Mother Ann and the elders, between Niskeyuna and Harvard, Massachusetts, hostile mobs met them at every town along the way. They were constantly beaten and were often jailed on trumped-up charges. But the spirit of Mother Ann prevailed undaunted throughout this period of torture — and despite hostile opposition she and her disciples continued to spread the faith throughout New England. But there is no doubt that the hardships and physical injuries she sustained during her missionary travels contributed to Ann Lee's early death on September 8, 1784. Her brother William, his skull fractured by an angry mob, had died too, only a few weeks before the passing of Mother Ann.
The Perpetuation of Mother Ann's Work
Even by those who discounted her divine pretensions, Mother Ann Lee was respected as a singularly gifted woman. Having voiced premonitions that her life in America would be brief (she died ten years after her arrival), she had instructed only the ablest men and women to carry on with her work. Her first apostle was James Whittaker. James shared Ann's "Vision" of the founding of the Church of Christ in America. Endowed with gifts of wisdom and leadership and the ability to preach the Word and convert others to his beliefs, Father James became the head of the church immediately after Ann Lee's death.
Joseph Meacham, born in Enfield, Connecticut, on February 22, 1741, was, before his conversion to Mother Ann's faith, a forceful preacher of the New Light Baptist Church at New Lebanon, New York. He was a man of considerable ability. Father Joseph served in second place as counsel and mentor to Father James Whittaker until Whittaker's death in 1787, when he became the first American-born leader of the Society.
Gathering in Gospel Order
When Father James Whittaker began his ministry, the Believers were living in scattered private homes. But both Whittaker and Meacham were intent on having them live together so they could withdraw from the hostile "outside world" and become entirely self-sufficient and self-supporting. The first such Shaker community to be gathered in "Gospel Order" was at New Lebanon in 1787.
All Shaker societies were organized into "Family" branches. Usually one "Family" occupied a complex of buildings. Supreme authority was vested in the central ministry at New Lebanon. This was originally headed by Father Joseph Meacham and Mother Lucy Wright, but was later made up of two elders and two eldresses. The central ministry appointed the branch ministries of the other societies. Like large corporations today, it was all one organization, with many branches but one central headquarters from which policies and orders were issued.
Each "Family" of Shakers was governed in all things, spiritual and temporal, by the eldership, which, in turn, received its orders from the central ministry. But the temporal affairs of each "Family" were the direct responsibility of the deacons or trustees, of which there were two of each sex. They obtained their instructions from the elders.
Following the establishment of the first Shaker community at New Lebanon, communal dwellings were built at other places where the Believers hitherto had lived apart or in the houses of their more affluent members.
In the development of all these communities the administration of the central ministry played a vital part. Like Mother Ann, who had endured persecution in her travels to widely separated places — and who had so diligently sown the seeds which later blossomed into full-bloom Shaker communities — Father Joseph Meacham and Mother Lucy Wright, with their entourage of elders and eldresses, made constant visits to the outlying communities, directing and advising them on the conduct of their affairs.
Excerpted from Making Authentic Shaker Furniture by John G. Shea. Copyright © 1971 Van Nostrand Reinhold Company. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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