Red Ink

Very few people have a favorite Shaker, but I do. His name is Brother Isaac Newton Youngs, and I met him thanks to a great book called One Shaker Life, by my friend, Glendyne Wergland. Youngs did a remarkable number of things well. He made beautiful clocks and pens. He was a skilled tailor and carpenter. He was a respected member of his community, entrusted by his elders to accompany them on missions to investigate everything from the behavior of the early “Visionists” to possible land deals up and down the East Coast and beyond. He was a writer and poet. But, most impressive to me, he aired his frustrations as well as his epiphanies as a Shaker in his personal journal, the keeping of which was strictly forbidden by the sect. He was a rebel.


Youngs wrote about lots of things in his diaries—the difficulty he had tempering his lust while living in a celibate society, just for starters. He also described a multitude of run-ins with authority during his 72 years as a Shaker. Many of these battles revolved around his desire to be remembered, if only in the most humble way. He recognized—and was willing to fight for—the human impulse to leave one’s mark on the world. To say, more elegantly than your average paint-packing teen standing atop a highway overpass:

Brother Isaac Was Here.

The Shakers, of course, had few problems with graffiti but they hated colored ink anyway. Considered as a superfluity—something used for fancy’s sake—Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee ordered her followers to “let all such things go to the moles and bats of the earth” and so—mystified, no doubt—they did.

But not Brother Isaac. He liked to make his own silver pens—despite their reputation as “lust of the eyes”—and even mixed his own red ink. He did it simply because he enjoyed the color and the variety it afforded him in his writing, not because he wanted to draw fanciful things. Knowing the purity of his own intentions, he ignored the edict forbidding its use.

His hubris caused more of a fuss than we—with our tweets, our YouTube videos, and our bumper stickers advertising the Ivy League schools attended by our brilliant children—could ever imagine. There were tense meetings and letters exchanged between the elders on the subject of Brother Isaac’s stubborn refusal to give up the things that kept him from “falling into union” with the other believers. “Union” was a key Shaker ideal, and though it was certainly rooted in such virtuous traits as humility and subordination of the self for the common good, it was also an extremely effective control tactic. In a society where the price of admission was very high—no sex, no worldly goods, no family relations—an iron-clad set of rules was essential. Individuality presented not only the possibility of insubordination, but also the very real risk of contagion.

Ultimately, because he understood the value of “union,” Brother Isaac threw out his beloved pens and ink. But had he been allowed to keep them, would he eventually have wanted more? His own website, for example? A Facebook page? A blog about making the perfect clock, or writing spiritual poetry, or—horrors!—the miseries of being a sexually explosive teenager forced by his religious elders to wrap his loins in icy wet muslin before retiring for the night? The man had a lot to say—more than most of us.


We think of them as quaint, but the Shakers not only embraced progress, they participated in its march forward. They hated waste—of time, of effort, of materials—hence their innovation to sell pre-packaged, high-quality seeds that were previously unavailable in such small and practical quantities. Hence their creation of the flat broom—and then, with dizzying genius—the angled flat broom. And hence their invention of at least one iteration of the washing machine. Had they been prominent as a society today, it’s highly likely they would have been first in line to “friend,” “like,” blog, and tweet. They would also, doubtless, have designed the most elegantly functional web site the world has ever known.  

So why can’t I just lighten up and have fun with my graceless tumble into the world of social media?  I feel as though it’s my giant pot of red ink, but there are no elders here. No one is really looking. No one is really listening. (Well, these days, that’s a bit naïve I suppose.) The more I stand up and wave my arms about myself and my book, the more smoothly I slip into a crowd of millions, all believers in progress, commerce and community.

Minus the attendant navel gazing, that’s pretty damn Shaker.