…and hearts to God. One of Mother Ann Lee’s precepts. This is the anniversary of her death at the age of 48 in Watervliet, NY, in 1784.
She had only been in this country for ten years when she died, having arrived with a small band of followers in 1774. She left behind in England a life of poverty and sorrow – four stillborn infants and another four who died before they were six – as well as arrest and imprisonment for her unorthodox beliefs. (Her revelations began after the loss of her children.)
Upon arrival, her husband left the group, seemingly to no one’s regret. After two years in New York City, the group found land upstate and began their first settlement. Mother Ann and one or two others went into Massachusetts in search of converts, the only way to increase the congregation since celibacy was the first rule of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing – their official name. (At some point they were referred to as ‘shaking Quakers,’ then Shakers.)
If their celibacy suggests Catholic holy orders, and their dancing not unlike Sufism, the Shakers’ daily life was purely Zen. Disciplined and hard-working, they believed that every act of labor was an act of worship. They left us a legacy of craftsmanship and beauty that is unparalleled.
They invented the flat broom, the clothespin, the seed packet and the rotary harrow. Shaker straight chairs were made with a ball and socket foot on the back legs so that the human inclination to tip back would not weaken and break the legs. They sold medicinal herbs and seeds on a very large scale.
Mother Ann was considered the female counterpart of the Christ, so gender equality was built in and every community had both male and female leaders. Cheerfully, they took in so-called ‘winter Shakers,’ men and women who were homeless and hungry and professed to believe, but who invariably left when summer came.
And they swelled their ranks by taking in orphaned and abandoned children, raising and teaching them until they were of age. At that point, many of those children set out on their own, but many stayed.
After the Civil War, their numbers declined. Manufacturing made their hand-crafted products too expensive and the development of social services and adoption laws severely diminished the pool of potential converts.
These days, the last three Shakers maintain the museum at Sabbathday Lake in Maine. They have been able to put their property in a trust so that it will always be forest or agricultural land.
All photographs shown were taken by Samuel Kravitt as part of a WPA project in the 1930s and are available at the Library of Congress site.