Tin House, "Off the Grid" (Spring 2008)

Shaker Mama

Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee, and the Elders with Her by Rufus Bishop and Seth Young Wells 

Experience has taught me that the word Shaker (as in the American religious movement) tends to elicit a glazed smile followed by one of two commonly held but incorrect beliefs: that the sect is synonymous with the Quakers, or that its followers are “those people in Pennsylvania.” Occasionally, I have caught a flicker of interest as my partner in conversation exclaims: “They made chairs!” “They hated sex!” “They had something to do with the washing machine!” But generally, the S-word is a chitchat sinkhole if ever there was one. 

I know this because I’ve spent the last four years researching and writing a novel set in a remote, fictional Shaker community in New England in the year 1842. And though the above-mentioned social dilemma presents itself with some frequency, I’m sympathetic. I used to feel exactly the same way—until I encountered Mother Ann Lee, the uneducated charismatic who founded the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, otherwise known as the Shakers. 

The life and works of Mother Ann have been documented in numerous books. (Why, she’s even been sonorously immortalized by Ken Burns!) From her humble beginnings as the unstable daughter of a blacksmith from Manchester, England, to the violence she endured while preaching throughout much of the Northeastern United States, “Mother” (as she was known by her flock) is a critical star in the Shaker universe—and a character to be reckoned with. As such, her story appears in, among other places, the enthusiast’s bible, The People Called Shakers, by Edward Deming Andrews; in Ann the Word, a colorful biography by Richard Francis; and in an exhaustive overview of the society called The Shaker Experience in America, by Stephen J. Stein. 

My preferred account of her life and teachings, however, comes from a text— written in 1816 by the Shakers themselves—called Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee, and the Elders with Her. Okay, so the title could use some work. But it’s the book’s weird content, combined with its strange history, that grabs me. Written by two Shaker elders named Rufus Bishop and Seth Young Wells as a kind of spiritual biography and guide for new believers, Testimonies is presented as a compendium of “eye and ear” accounts from followers who were still alive and who had experienced life with Mother Ann. And yet there’s a particularly Shaker twist where the research is concerned: each testimony is defined as a “remembrance by a special gift of God, after having been, as it were, entirely forgotten, for many years.” Though this strategy has backfired for certain modern memoirists—hello, James Frey—here the admission of hazy recall lends a miraculous quality to the work. 

As with many well-spun yarns, the main theme in Testimonies is the struggle between good and evil, between witnesses to the faith and those who fail to believe. It was written to allow members of the society to understand more fully the truths they had been taught and to strengthen their resolve as they walked the narrow path to righteousness. It was also meant to counter rumors circulating outside the community that might “vilify and calumniate the characters of the first Witnesses, and especially that of Mother.” 

Maybe so, but for a literary palliative, it certainly takes some narrative risks. Early on, Mother Ann (born in 1736) is depicted admonishing her mother against the evils of “fleshly cohabitation of the sexes” at the cost of a good whipping from her father. (Oddly enough, Ann Lee herself must have engaged in “fleshly relations” with her husband—poor sod—because she bore four children, each of whom died in infancy.) Later, she is remembered as having described a dream that further reflects her smithy past as well as her obsessive hatred of sex. “I saw a large black cloud arising, black as a thundercloud; and it was occasioned by men’s sleeping with their wives . . . Their torment appears like melted lead, poured through them in the same parts where they have taken their carnal pleasure.” Who’d have guessed that a religious group known for the earnest ditty “ ’Tis a Gift to Be Simple, ’Tis a Gift to Be Free” was born of such passionate, disturbing visions? 

On a slightly more Currier & Ives note, there is a particularly New England-ish quality to the morals and miracles that illuminate the pages of this testament. Selfless, puritanical sayings such as “Hands to work, hearts to God” and “Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow” are here in spades, thanks to Mother. And her effect on those who helped the Shakers is depicted in Hawthornian detail. Elijah Slossen—of West Stockbridge, Massachusetts—may have been ridiculed by neighbors for allowing the horses of visiting Shaker missionaries to eat bare his clover patch. But by the following Saturday, as Testimonies tells it, his field bloomed with such abundance that he offered to take in and feed the livestock of those very same neighbors. Furthermore, the cows that grazed in his blessed pasture produced “miraculous” quantities of butter and cheese. Needless to say, at the other end of the miracle train, enemies of the faith suffered the dreariest of fates: losing legs to sawmills, rotting alive from venereal disease in brothels, even dying by scalding. It’s Ethan Frome set in the seventh circle of hell. 

Historically, Testimonies is an equally fascinating document—indicative of an uncharacteristic misstep (for such a meticulous group), followed by a more typical exertion of control. Never intended for the eyes of “the World,” the book was not allowed by the Shaker ministry at New Lebanon to be transported to the Western societies until safe travel could be guaranteed. The explanation was blunt. “Mother [Lucy Wright, the influential leader of the Shakers at the time] . . . does not like to give that which is holy unto Dogs, nor cast pearls before swine.” 

And yet, only two years after Testimonies had been fully disseminated throughout the communities, David Darrow, a well-respected elder at New Lebanon, wrote an impassioned letter to Mother Lucy declaring his fear that, far from instructing younger believers, the depictions and messages contained within Testimonies would be misunderstood and used against the sect by “Judases” within. Of particular concern were the description of Mother Ann as one not averse to using force and “wringing noses,” and the repetition of her reputation in “the World” as “a drunken squaw.” By early 1819, all copies had been rounded up and hidden away by elders in the East, while elders in the Southern and Western societies had been cautioned to keep the text close rather than “expose it to your people.” In a historical plot twist worthy of J. K. Rowling, Testimonies became unofficially known to believers as The Book of Secrets

The threat that this mysterious volume might be misused lurked outside of the communities as well. Both in the press and the political arena, a strong campaign was being waged against the Shakers on behalf of a woman named Eunice Chapman, who had struggled for years to regain custody of her three children. (Parents who left their progeny with the Shakers were forced to sign contracts of indenture, while children living within the society were taught to renounce and despise all blood relations.) Mary Dyer, another mother seeking to reclaim her children, also published long attacks against the society. And in Lebanon, Ohio, the Western Star newspaper had begun to run negative articles. With public criticism on the rise, it’s not surprising that Shaker leaders wanted to hide a publication they feared would be too incendiary—even for the sensibilities of their own adherents. 

Today, Testimonies is still well guarded, though for archival, not political, reasons. At the main branch of the New York Public Library, I must submit to hours of interviews, fill out forms, and obtain access cards before I am allowed into the Rare Books Room, home to one of the few remaining manuscripts. The irony is glaring as I open the unmarked, brown leather cover and turn the fragile pages. Had the Shakers known that they would be remembered primarily by design aficionados and collectors enamored of the elegant lines of their tables and chairs, they might have been glad to have such a passionate declaration of faith in circulation. For, in the words of the now-deceased Mildred Barker, former leader of the last existing society of Shakers, at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, “There’s something special behind [all those artifacts]. There’s the religion.” 


Travel + Leisure, March 2006

Driving New England Shaker Settlements

Having spent her childhood surrounded by things Shaker, Rachel Urquhart takes a driving tour of the group's last New England settlements for a glimpse back at a simpler time. 


On a crisp New England day—when it seems that every tumble of stone wall and abandoned barn is one giant regional cliché—I slow my car to look at the former Shaker settlement where my family's house once stood. Before being transplanted a mile or so down the road in the 1920's, the large clapboard structure had been the Meetinghouse for the Tyringham, Massachusetts, community of Shakers. I have spent every summer of my life in that house, yet despite this pedigree, I had only casual knowledge of the sect itself, the lazy sort of knowledge one tends to have when  surrounded by the real thing. I vaguely knew the Shaker basics—that they believed in celibacy, communal life, and confession of sin. And, of course, that they shook. Now, headed west along the Mass Pike toward Hancock Shaker Village, the Shaker Museum & Library in Old Chatham, and what is left of the buildings that once made up Mount Lebanon, I am finally on a mission to learn more.

In the early 1970's, while other children visited Rye Playland or Palisades Amusement Park on hot summer days, my brother, cousins, and I were driven over to Hancock, Massachusetts to watch grown men and women in humble costumes card flax and perform wondrous feats with a lathe. The preserved village was a kind of WASP Disneyland then, with hayrides instead of roller coasters, earnest ersatz Shakers instead of giant squeaky-voiced mice, and a Round Stone Barn in place of the Magic Kingdom's castle. As an eight-year-old, I wasn't always thrilled by the thought of an afternoon spent traipsing from herb cottage to icehouse, but as a middle-aged mother gone AWOL, I find it a treat to explore what has since become one of the Berkshires' biggest destinations.

Hancock's barnlike Center for Shaker Studies, founded in 2000, includes the entrance, orientation areas, research library, gallery space, adjoining café, and gift shop. The houses of the actual village look like toys laid out on a verdant blanket of lawns, pastures, and medicinal-herb gardens. Of the 56 original buildings that once stood on the 1,200-acre site, 20 are left. But from the large Brick Dwelling House to the Laundry & Machine Shop, these relics of a vastly different time and way of life have been beautifully restored. 

It is the purity of Shaker ingenuity that really makes an impression. In the brown clapboard Tan House, a windlass operated by a complicated system of pulleys raised heavy loads of animal hides from floor to floor. Water rerouted from a nearby stream powered a turbine that turned a large grinding stone used for sharpening farm implements and woodworking tools. The famous Round Stone Barn was designed so that wagons could enter on the upper level and pitch their loads into the central haymow; cattle stalls were one level down, with feed openings facing the haymow. Clearly, time and energy that might otherwise have been spent in pursuit of sex were channeled into more practical and edifying pastimes.

The quality of their products combined with the uniquely strange nature of Shaker worship services—the Shakers of the 1700's shook, jerked, and spoke in tongues, while those who came later performed ritualized dances and sang songs—have attracted tourists since the early 19th century. Among others, Leo Tolstoy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, Herman Melville, and Charles Dickens were all keenly interested in the sect. Before he decided the group's practices were "hateful and disgusting," Hawthorne may have even considered joining; Dickens (who spent a single day with the Shakers) declared them "among the Enemies of Heaven and Earth." Ever the sybarite, he described Mount Lebanon—once the largest and most active Shaker village in the country—as a "gloomy, silent commonwealth." For very different reasons, as I drive through the hilly forests on Route 20 and pull  into the settlement's empty parking lot, I'm inclined to agree. The trip to New Lebanon takes a mere 15 minutes. How long, I wonder, had it taken a minister from Hancock to struggle over rutted roads to receive the latest word from on high?

At the height of their membership, in the mid 1800's, the Shakers numbered just under 6,000 across 18 prosperous settlements from Maine to Kentucky. It is therefore all the more poignant that Mount Lebanon, the central Shaker ministry for 160 years, is such a haunted shadow of its former self. Most of the buildings that made up the eight  communal Families and housed more than 600 Believers are gone, many of them torn down or sold off as private residences or school buildings. Though one can still enter and see the basic bones of the place, the famously large vaulted Meetinghouse is now a high school library. A Sufi community—tie-dyed T-shirts and bushy facial hair as far as the eye can see—occupies the structures that once made up the South Family.

What remains open to the public are a few of the North Family buildings, including the Brethren's Workshop, the Wash House, and a small Dwelling House. I see an exhibition, created by local schoolchildren, on the Shakers who made Mount Lebanon famous for its cloaks, seeds, and furniture. But the place feels lonely and forgotten.

That is about to change. Twenty minutes south-west, toward the rolling farm country of Old Chatham, New York, the Shaker Museum & Library beckons. Housed in several beautifully laid out barns, converted into a museum space in 1950, is the world's premier collection of Shaker artifacts and archives, though the site itself had nothing to do with the Shakers. Eighty percent of collector John S. Williams Sr.'s machinery, tools, textiles, furnishings, oval boxes, and manuscripts originally came from Mount Lebanon. With Mount Lebanon listed by the World Monuments Fund in 2003 as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world, the Shaker Museum's board recently voted to acquire the North Family buildings—including the massive stone ruins of the five-story Dairy Barn—and move the Williams collection back to the village from whence it came. When the mammoth project—which includes reconstructing the barn and turning it into a museum—is finished, at least a portion of Mount Lebanon will have been restored to its former glory and another rich Shaker site created.

As a child who swam and fished in Shaker mill ponds by day and slept in a room rimmed with Shaker pegs by night, I had heard many rumors and half-truths about the sect. Local farmers, suspicious of the Shakers and their strange ways, used to call the ceremonial site in the woods above the Tyringham settlement the Devil's Playground. Bizarre rites, drunkenness, and debauchery were said to have taken place up there. Rounding out the intriguing tales, there was the rumor that on a freezing January night in 1858, 23 children averaging 14 years of age ran away from the Tyringham Shakers, never to be seen or heard from again. With equally chilling stories awaiting me farther north, I persuade my husband to join me for the New Hampshire leg of my tour.

From the Berkshires, a three-hour drive up Interstate 91 through Massachusetts college towns and past crunchy Vermont food co-ops deposits us at Mascoma Lake, just a half-mile or so from the doors of the Shaker Inn in Enfield, New Hampshire. It is past midnight, but even by moonlight the enormous structure—known to the Shakers as the Great Stone Dwelling—is impressive. Designed by a well-known Boston architect named Ammi Burnham Young and built between 1837 and 1841 out of locally quarried granite, the six-story building measures 62 feet from ground to bell tower. It is the largest dwelling the Shakers ever built, with room enough to house 150 Believers. Inside, there is scarcely a nail to be found, though 800 drawers, 500 built-in cupboards, 182 windows, 200 feet of black-cherry banister, and a complicated system of flues to vent smoke from lamps and odors from chamber-pot cupboards were fashioned by hand to outfit the interior.

We push open the front door and find…no one. The innkeeper has gone to bed, and we walk the wide, empty halls, trying to pick one of the 20-foot-square sleeping chambers.  All of the doors are open. We are, it seems, the only guests. I remember from my reading that one of the rooms is said to be haunted by the ghosts of indentured children who wanted to leave the Shakers but couldn't. After coffee the next morning, Janet, the innkeeper, leads a private tour with her spaniel Mojo in tow. She regales us with tales of eerie sightings, like that of a tall, spectral figure dressed in a long cloak who was apparently standing at the top of the stairs when two guests bumped into him on their way out to dinner. The patrons were regulars; she is sure the story is true. After all, in 1863, outside the doors of this very building, a deranged veteran of the Civil War who'd been denied the right to reclaim his children had murdered Caleb Dyer, beloved Trustee of Enfield and himself the son of a woman who spent her life trying to extract her children from the firm grip of Shaker indenture. She adds that Mojo often barks at windows and doors, making a fuss for no reason, and on quiet, slow nights during the week, Janet herself has sensed that she was in spiritual company. Taking her daughter through the attic workrooms one day, she opened several built-in drawers in one of the rooms to demonstrate the quality of Shaker millwork. They were alone in the huge stone building and yet, minutes later, on their way past the room to go back downstairs, the two women found all of the drawers slammed shut. Convinces me. (The property is now closed, taken over by the nearby Enfield Shaker Museum. Beginning in April, visitors can tour the Great Stone Dwelling, but it will no longer function as an inn.)

I consider myself a skeptic by nature, but I feel the presence of "others" around me the whole time I'm here, and when I try to talk my husband into sneaking up to the attic at midnight so that we can catch a glimpse of a Shaker ghost-child, he blanches and plunges his nose resolutely into his bedtime reading.

Earlier in the day, however, he consented to driving 45 minutes on back roads to Canterbury. We passed chunks of New Hampshire granite set into fields and forests like enormous tombstones. Turning a corner in the road, our eyes were drawn to a long green hillside capped by a series of white clapboard houses ashimmer in the sunlight.

Canterbury was a prominent Shaker village for 200 years and stands as a remarkable—and picturesque—example of how Shaker life evolved over time. The last Shaker resident, Sister Ethel Hudson, died in 1992. Peering into her modest quarters—at her card table, her television set, the small stuffed animal on her bureau holding a sign that reads, YOU LITTLE DEVIL!—one grasps that she, unlike the participants in the time-frozen costume drama that unfolds daily at Hancock, was a real person. She baked and prayed and remembered the night Canterbury was first illuminated by electric light, but she also had a sharp, mischievous sense of humor and was addicted to One Life to Live. Go, Ethel. It is the continuing strength of her presence here that makes me feel, for the first time ever, a real human connection to Shaker life.

From the surprising vulgarity of early Shaker paint colors (orange, red, and yellow in the sleeping rooms!) to the famous Shaker-style Ivy League letter sweaters produced for decades by the Sisters at Canterbury, the site inspires one to think of the Shakers as people, not weird religious dinosaurs or theme-park mascots. In this austere Canterbury compound, a group long celebrated in books, articles, and Ken Burns documentaries for its discipline, ingenuity, piousness, and innate (if unintentional) sense of design finally comes alive, ghosts and all.