Thursday, March 10, 2011

Shaker, Part 1

'tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free.
'tis the gift to come down
where we ought to be.

In August 1774, a small band of immigrants fleeing religious persecution arrived in New York City. They were led by a charismatic woman who would become known as Mother Ann. The church they would become would hold all things common; would live a celibate, monastic life; would treat work as worship; and would flourish in the 19th century only to nearly become extinct in the 20th. They would leave behind art and artifacts that would inspire designers, artists, and architects. And for those who listen, there would be lessons on how to live your life.

The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing is now embodied in a small group of practitioners at the Sabbath Day Lake community in Maine.  Commonly known as Shakers, they formerly had significant communities in New York, New England, the Midwest, and Kentucky. Several of their former communities have been preserved as museums. Our nearest one is the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village, which is on U.S. highway 68 between Harrodsburg and Lexington, KY.

Although celibate, the church was organized into families incorporating both men and women.  Each family had its own large dwelling, with the men living on one side and women on the other. Often there were two front doors, one for men and one for women. The doors opened to a common hallway, but stairs on either side again separated traffic by gender. Common dining rooms were segregated by table assignments, and men and women sat on opposite sides of common meeting rooms for daily worship and conversation.

The museums today seek to give visitors a peek at Shaker life, in addition to displays of artifacts and buildings.

A highlight of any Pleasant Hill visit is an interpretation of Shaker worship through song and dance, given by talented, costumed performers. Shaker church services, which once drew crowds of spectators from "the world's people," are described, and re-enacted as well as can be done in solo performances.  I still want to see one of the rare performances by a group simulating a full worship service.

Most of a tour is self-guided, which we take as license to take our time; to linger over things that appeal to us. Admittedly we're deep into this stuff. But for us, at least two days are needed for a satisfying visit, and each visit offers up more than enough to hold our interest. The Inn at Shaker Village offers overnight accommodations in several of the original Shaker buildings, in rooms furnished with Shaker reproductions. Dining is offered in the Trustees' Office. 

Occasionally we get lucky and catch a glimpse of Shaker life that humanizes the story. One such was catching two "Shaker sisters" ringing the bell atop the Centre Family dwelling to summon worshipers (visitors) to services (performances) in the Meeting House across the road.

The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is open year around.  Information may be found on their website, which can be found here.

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