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ITS CULTURAL BACKGROUND
The Shaker attitude toward life and work was rooted in foundation principles so sweeping in scope as to produce a distinct philosophy and a unique American culture. These principles, which were interrelated phases of an elaborate theology based on the second coming of Christ in the person of Ann Lee, a masculine-feminine Deity, spiritual regeneration, continuous revelation and the millennium—found practical expression through the doctrines of virginal purity or celibacy, Christian communion or community of goods and separation from the world.
In its narrow original sense, purity meant freedom from carnal indulgence, but this concept (born of a special interpretation of scripture, the Puritan principle of antagonism between flesh and spirit, and doubtless on Ann's personal, tragic experiences with marriage) was expanded in the Shaker religion to include abstinence from all carnal or worldly practices. The gospel preached by Mother Ann, her brother William and James Whittaker dealt largely with primitive Christian virtues, the all-importance of freedom from evil, the absolution from sin through public confession. The first printed declaration of faith, a pamphlet written in 1790 by Joseph Meacham, successor to Ann Lee and James Whittaker as head of the church, emphasized purity and the confessional as the essential tenets of the millennial life; and the same quality and sacrament were exalted in the earliest book on Shaker doctrine, McNemar's Kentucky Revival, published in Cincinnati in 1807.
The doctrines of communism and separatism were a logical expansion of the principle of sinlessness. If purity was to be achieved, the Shaker leaders argued, men and women must unite in a common bond, with a common spirit of consecration—apart from the world. Celibacy and confession were therefore essential to the sacredness and perpetuity of this union: for if man "multiplies, he must divide; and an endless series of division and isolated interests must exist." For proof, the Believers pointed to the early failure of Pythagoras and the more recent ones of Owen and Fourier "to make the community principle coalesce with the work of generation."
Though the principles of community had not been clearly formulated by the early leaders, Whittaker had anticipated the necessity of a united society with a common stock when he declared that "the time is come for you to give up yourselves, and your all, to God—Your substance, your temporal prosperity—to possess as though you possessed not." Before he died, this young but capable, dynamic leader had directed the building of the first community meeting-house and had gathered into union the scattered groups of Believers. The task of giving definite formulation to the principles of "joint-interest" and separation was then entrusted to Elder Meacham, whose genius for organization was equaled only by his great spiritual sincerity. By 1788, the Believers at New Lebanon had verbally agreed on the basic duties of a "united inheritance," which seven years later were recorded in the first covenant adopted by the Shaker sect.
This document stated the conviction that devotion to the pure life of Christ could not be wholehearted or complete without a common faith, a common ownership of property, a common way of life. There "could be no Church in Complete order, according to the Law of Christ, without being gathered into one Joint Interest and union, that all the members might have an equal right and privilege, according to their Calling and needs, in things both Spiritual and temporal." It was also agreed that "all that should be received as members" should give what substance or property they possessed "as part of the Joint Interest of the Church ... to be under the order and Government of the Deacons and overseers of the Temporal interest of the Church, for the use and Support of the Church, and any other use that the Gospel requires...." The duty of members was not "to gather and lay up an Interest of this Worlds goods; But what we become possessed of by Honest Industry, more Than for our own support, to bestow to Charritable uses, for the relief of the poor, and otherwise as the Gospel might Require."
The ideal of oneness with Christ, of the unity of the spirit, occurs continually in the early doctrinal literature of the sect, and its effect on ritual, character and workmanship cannot be overestimated. The numerous "orders" on uniformity in dress, speech, deportment and many phases of secular activity were based on the desire for a united defense against worldliness and a joint consecration to the perfect life. The covenantal belief that "we were debtors to God in relation to Each other, and all men, to improve our time and Tallents in this Life, in that manner in which we might be most useful," evoked a deep sense of mutual obligation. Spiritual union was reflected in a cooperative system of industry which conserved native ability, and in which each individual felt himself responsible for the general welfare. Pride in honorable work was kindled by the will to serve the church and to promote "the comfort and happiness of each other."
The craftsmanship of the Shakers, being a joint or community enterprise, is definitely distinguished by that fact from the products of individual effort. One result, of course, was a tendency towards uniformity. But more important was the evolution of certain standards of excellence whose widespread application was made possible by the compactness of the group and the genuineness of its ideals. Talent was stimulated by social contacts, the constant exchange and interaction of ideas and the consciousness of a united destiny. The advantages of combination were everywhere present, of special concern to us in the economies of artisanship and in the varied ingenious devices which made furniture more useful. The workmen most skilled and most keenly attuned to the spirit of Shakerism set criteria for the rest. The result was the elevation of hitherto uninspired, provincial joiners to the position of fine craftsmen, actuated by worthy traditions and a guild-like pride. The fact that the products of the cabinetmaker's art were dedicated to the use of the community as a whole, and not in any way commercialized, also invests Shaker furniture with a peculiarly impersonal quality. Possess these pieces, one hears the early elders say, as though you possessed them not.
The principle of separation, resulting as it did in a cultural isolationfavorable to the development of a distinct folk life and native art, was inherent in that of communal oneness, and these two basic tenets were put into simultaneous practice. History offered a precedent in the medieval monastery, though the Shaker movement to live apart was possibly at first the result of persecution and an instinct for religious gregariousness. In the theology of the Believers, however, the ideal of separateness was traced to the Genesitic account of the fall of man. Man was corrupted by lust and could be redeemed only by complete abstinence from sexual gratification. Through the process of spiritual evolution he must be reborn into what the Shakers called the "resurrection state." Ann Lee and the early elders insisted that the "weakness of the flesh" was the cause of all worldliness: vulgarity, coarseness, dishonesty, extravagance, disorder, slothfulness, vanity and many other "vices." Because of the insidious nature of such habits, the sayings of Mother Ann included many homely injunctions bearing on the practical everyday life of the sect, of which the following are characteristic:
Labor to make the way of God your own, let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling.
You must not lose one moment of time, for you have none to spare.
You must ... not allow them [the children] to be idle; for if you do they will grow up just like the world's children.
Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as if you were to die tomorrow.
If you improve in one talent, God will give you more.
You must be faithful with your hands, that you may have something to give to the poor.
Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.
Avoid equally covetousness and prodigality, be kind and charitable to the poor, and keep clear of debt.
Keep your family's clothes clean and decent; see that your house is kept clean, and your victuals prepared in good order ...
Clean your room well; for good spirits will not live where there is dirt. There is no dirt in heaven.
... take good care of what you have. Provide places for your things, so that you may know where to find them at any time, day or by night ...
You ought to dress yourself in modest apparrel [sic], as becomes the people of God, and teach your family to do likewise.
You may let the moles and bats have them [viz., gold beads, jewels, silver buckles and other ornaments]; that is, the children of this world; for they set their hearts upon such things; but the people of God do not want them.
Separation from the "follies, vanities, contaminating principles, and wicked practices of fallen man, under the reigning influence of a depraved human nature" was therefore an essential condition under which chastity, purity and "the resurrection of the spirit" could be obtained. There was no thought of withdrawing from "the natural creation, which is good in its order, nor from anything in it which is virtuous, commendable, or useful to his [Christ's] true followers." Strictly speaking, it was from worldliness rather than the world that the Believers tried to sequester themselves: from such definable phases of corruption as personal adornment, "fanciful styles of architecture," dishonest business methods, shoddy workmanship, unnecessary elaboration of what was fine in its simplicity. Some form of cenobitic association was nevertheless unavoidable, that the Shakers might not be held "in bondage by the traditions of men." At an early date stringent orders governed all intercourse with life beyond the portals of the community.
Out of these three fundamental doctrines of Shakerism (purity, community and separation) arose a unified culture capable of distinctive patterns of expression in folkways and workmanship. One of the most important issues was the regard for simplicity, which in Shaker thought was an attribute of purity and unity. Oneness in faith was possible only on the basis of "perfect oneness of character." Of the twelve foundation pillars upholding the New-Jerusalem—faith, hope, honesty, continence, innocence, simplicity, meekness, humility, prudence, patience, thankfulness and charity—none had wider implications than "true gospel simplicity." The authors of A Summary View of the Millennial Church (an official statement of doctrine) defined this virtue in terms of sincerity and singleness of heart: "its thoughts, words and works are plain and simple.... It is without ostentation, parade or any vain show, and naturally leads to plainness in all things."
Like cleanliness and order, simplicity was more than a fine abstraction. Through precept and example, confession and prayer and song, these virtues were translated into confirmed attitudes and habits. It was not by chance that fabrics were woven in simple patterns and dyed in limited combinations of color; that speech followed the direct Biblical injunction of "yea, yea," and "nay, nay"; that manners were humble and reserved; that costume retained certain simplicities of rural eighteenth-century style; that houses were plain, appearing in the old woodcuts of Shaker villages like geometric diagrams; that craftsmanship in iron, leather, straw or wood was so unpretentious that its art is hardly patent. Such frank, straightforward qualities proceeded from the conscious, or perhaps subconscious, practice of what amounted to a moral law. So with the related duties of innocence, meekness and humility. Conduct should be gentle and mild. "Projects of ambition" and "worldly greatness" were transgressions from the holy path. The seven "eternal" laws derived from the twelve foundation virtues—duty to God, duty to man, separation from the world, practical peace, simplicity of language, right use of property and the virgin life—helped to determine, in their varied applications, the ethos of the sect.
An elaborate disciplinary process transformed principles into practices. Precision and well-defined aims characterized educational activity and the occupations of the dwelling, shop, garden and field. In the interests of uniformity, control over the most minor aspects of behavior was attempted, as in these family orders projected early in the last century:
IT is contrary to order to kneel with the left knees first.
It is contrary to order to put the left boot or shoe on first.
It is contrary to order to kneel with handkerchief in hand.
It is contrary to order to put the left foot on the stairs first when ascending.
Such regulations, known as "gifts" or "gifts of God," were at first periodically impressed on the members in verbal form, in the manner of the Druids. Sex-relationships were rigorously controlled, and much attention paid to the problems of cleanliness, order, humility, prudence and honesty. In 1845 these traditional rules were compiled and elaborated into manuscript order-books, known in some societies as the Millennial Laws: a secret, definitive code covering every aspect of the "resurrection life." The Laws deal with the "order, office and calling" of the ministry, the elders and deacons, the physicians and nurses; confession of sin and "opening the mind"; the "spiritual worship" of God and attendance at meetings; obligations concerning the Sabbath, Christmas, Thanksgiving and fast days; intercourse between the sexes and the language of Believers; rising and retiring, attending meals and eating; the furniture to be used in retiring-rooms; the use of books, pamphlets and writings in general; the "marking of clothes, Tools and Conveniences"; intercourse between families; travel ("going abroad") and intercourse with the world; "Literary Education, and the Schooling of Children"; and orders concerning the dead. The section on "prudence, neatness and good economy" included stringent rules to prevent loss by fire and orders on clothing, "superfluities not owned," locks and keys, dooryards and farms, beasts and "the order of the natural Creation," building, painting, varnishing and the manufacture of articles for sale.
In all these laws, precepts and principles, in the covenants of 1795 and 1801, in Meacham's declaration of faith, in McNemar's Kentucky Revival, in A Summary View of the Millennial Church and other early expositions, we find various interpretations of the doctrine of perfection, an ideal first formulated by Benjamin S. Youngs in The Testimony of Christ's Second Appearing, written in 1808 and sometimes known as the Shaker Bible. This interesting work expanded the millennial principle of living lives "without blemish," of conducting every act "according to godliness, sound, pure, wholesome, and free from error." The Shaker church is likened to a heavenly kingdom "because it is under the government of heaven, and is a state, habitation, or society, necessary to prepare mankind for the happiness of heaven itself." Its essential properties are unity and purity. "The Church is one in faith and practice; one in doctrine, discipline, and government; and one in the mutual and equal enjoyment of all things both spiritual and temporal,"
The perfect society, according to The Testimony, was a united church, not a civic body whose church embodied only the inorganic religious life of the group. The Shaker meeting-house was reserved for the forms of worship, but the dwellings and even the shops and farms were sanctified parts of the church or church society, where aspiration was transmuted into accomplishment. The idea of worship in work was at once a doctrine and a daily discipline. Labor was consecrated service, performed as in a holy place.
The monastic ideal was the pastoral or earth life, a simple economy based on agriculture and stock-raising. The patriarchal cultures of the distant past appealed to the leaders of the biblically conceived Shaker society, though the industrial conditions and demands of our early national life, the economic problems of maintaining large communities, and the mechanical skills drawn into the order with the first conversions, made it necessary to modify the idea of a utopia dependent exclusively on the soil. Many shop activities such as the sorting and packaging of garden seeds, the preparation of medicinal herbs, tanning and the drying of sweet corn and apples, were nevertheless directly related to the land; and even in those industrial branches that were partially mechanized, primitive ideals regarding the integrity of individual workmanship and a calm, unhurried devotion to task were maintained until the highly specialized methods of the "fallen world" forced the Shakers, late in the last century, to abandon most of their non-agricultural pursuits.
Excerpted from Shaker Furniture by EDWARD DEMING ANDREWS, Faith Andrews, William F. Winter. Copyright © 1964 Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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