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The Shakers: Hands To Work, Hearts To God

December 2023
1min read

by Amy Stechler Burns and Ken Burns; Aperture, Inc.; 128 pages.

There is both beauty and surprise in this elegantly crafted book. Interspersed with splendid modern photographs and touching archival ones, a text—much more profound than most on the subject of the Shakers—describes the rise and demise of that amazing sect.

The Shakers are known mostly as a utopian society that was celibate, simple, determinedly clean, and given to oddly active religious observances, and both the adventurousness of their lives and the rigidity of their practice come as a surprise. The Shakers were inventors and innovators. At one of their Kentucky settlements, Pleasant Hill, they piped running water into their buildings for the first time in the area. Later, New Hampshire Shakers owned one of the first automobiles in the state and electrified their village while the state capital was still burning gas. They invented such items as the clothespin, the circular saw, “hair caps” for bald brethren, a washing machine, and a hernia truss. They never patented their devices, because they believed such possessiveness was selfish, and less altruistic outsiders made fortunes from their inventions. Their architecture was also ingenious. The famous Round Barn at Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts was designed for economy of labor. Since the Shakers “never saw any sense in fighting against gravity,” the barn is built into the side of a hill with entrances on three levels, enabling the farmer to stand in the center of the top floor and pitch hay down to the cattle ringed about below.

Almost from the beginning the Shakers proclaimed the equality of men and women, and in 1817 they condemned slavery, insisting that converts free any slaves they owned. The sect then welcomed such ex-slaves into their villages on a fully integrated basis.

Even stronger than the Shakers’ aversion to slavery was their devotion to pacifism. During the Civil War one of their elders went to Washington to plead for draft exemptions. Lincoln was impressed by the articulate Shaker. “We need regiments of such men as you,” he told him, but he granted the elder’s plea, making Shakers among the first conscientious objectors.

In contrast to their commercial and political progressiveness, their internal practice was rigid beyond understanding. For instance, they were given exact instructions on how bones should be piled on their plates after they had eaten; they always lined up in a prescribed order to enter a room, through separate male and female doorways, to the sound of a horn; they were required to step first on the right foot when going upstairs; and when they hitched up a team, the right-hand horse had to be harnessed first.

The Burnses are documentary film makers, and this book is based on a movie they have made about the Shakers. Fine color photographs of the pure, quiet rooms and neat villages, now open to the public as museums, give a powerful sense of what life was like for these dedicated people. As Thomas Merton said on seeing a Shaker chair, its “peculiar grace … is due to the fact that it was built by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.”

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