Mother Ann Lee and a handful of Shaker followers arrived in America on this day in 1774. The Shakers (the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing) numbered 6,000 by the mid-nineteenth century, but the early years were characterized by privation and persecution. Lee herself was jailed and the sect faced persistent opposition, either for advocating Quaker pacifism when the rest of the country was mobilizing a revolutionary war or for practicing an eccentric (and competing) style of worship, as reported in 1781 by an alarmed Baptist minister:
[They] lie down on the ground, make a round ring with their finger, among the dirt, puther about in it, then start up, double their fist at it, run away from it, come at it again, show the looks of vengeance at it, threaten it with postures, then run and jump into it, and stamp it all to pieces.
Mother Ann’s famous advice to “Put your hands to work and your hearts to God” inspired a long list of inventions — the flat broom, the clothespin, the circular saw — and a furniture style recognized worldwide. Among those attracted to the Shaker ideal was Thomas Merton, who famously observed, “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” Merton’s comment and the following excerpt are included in Seeking Paradise, a recent compilation of Merton’s writings on Shaker life:
One can imagine, then, the Edenic innocence which is the special glory and mystery of the Shaker work. Here we admire not the Titanic creativity of the self-conscious genius, aware of a possible mission to disturb and to awaken the world…. Shakers were not supposed to sign their work, or flaunt their marks. Their only advertisement was the work itself, and the honesty with which the product was set before the buyer. Above all, the work of the Shakers was made for use rather than for profit…. This gave it an inimitable honesty which one cannot find in the slick new model of the latest car, tailored like some unearthly reptilian fowl and flashing with pointless gadgetry, marketed to replace other models designed for obsolescence, and to be replaced itself without delay.
But the rise of the Shaker furniture was little compensation for the fall of the Shaker experiment. Sister Mildred Barker, a leader of the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, until her death in 1990, wryly noted, “I almost expect to be remembered as a chair or a table.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.