In the second quarter of the nineteenth century numerous reform movements emerged; some people even chose to withdraw from society and form ideal or utopian communities. The Shakers were the oldest of these utopian movements. Founded by Mother Ann Lee in 1774, they abandoned the traditional family in favor of a new fellowship of men and women living as celibate brothers and sisters. Many entered Shaker communities in the 1820s and 1830s, attracted by their equality and simple, but spiritual, lifestyle. This anonymous Lowell mill worker made two visits to a Shaker community in New York State and offered a glimpse into the isolated world within. Her opinions changed over time as she found some interesting similarities to factory life; the Shakers were as industrious as any factory worker, paying close attention to their bell schedule.
Sometime in the summer of 18__, I paid a visit to one of the Shaker villages in the State of New York. Previously to this, many times and oft had I (when tired of the noise and contention of the world, its erroneous opinions, and its wrong practices) longed for some retreat, where, with a few chosen friends, I could enjoy the present, forget the past, and be free from all anxiety respecting any future portion of time. And often had I pictured, in imagination, a state of happy society, where one common interest prevailed—where kindness and brotherly love were manifested in all of the every-day affairs of life—where liberty and equality would live, not in name, but in very deed—where idleness in no shape whatever would be tolerated—and where vice of every description would be banished, and neatness, with order, would be manifested in all things.
There were men in this society who had added to the common stock thousands and tens of thousands of dollars;;; they nevertheless labored, dressed, and esteemed themselves as no better and fared in all respects, like those who had never owned, neither added to the society, any worldly goods whatever. The cheerfulness with which they bore one another’s burdens, made even the temporal calamities, so unavoidable among the inhabitants of the earth, to be felt but lightly.
This society numbered something like six hundred persons, who in many respects were differently educated, and who were of course in possession of a variety of prejudices; and were of contrary dispositions and habits. Conversing with one of their Elders respecting them, he said, “You may say that these were rude materials of which to compose a church, and speak truly: but here (though strange it may seem) they are worked into a building, with no sound of axe or hammer. And however discordant they were in a state of nature, the square and the plumbline have been applied to them, and they now admirably fit the places which they were designed to fill. Here the idle become industrious, the prodigal contracts habits of frugality, the parsimonious become generous and liberal, the intemperate quit the tavern and the grog-shop, the debauchee forsakes the haunts of dissipation and infamy, the swearer leaves off his habits of profanity, the liar is changed into a person of truth, the thief becomes an honest man, and the sloven becomes neat and clean.”
In whatever light it may appear to others, to me it appears beautiful indeed, to see a just and an impartial equality reign, so that the rich and the poor may share an equal privilege, and have all their wants supplied. That the Shakers are in reality what they profess to be, I doubt not. Neither do I doubt that many, very many lessons of wisdom might be learned of them, by those who profess to be wiser. And to all who wish to know if “any good thing can come out of Nazareth,” I would say, you had better “go and see.”
9" A Second Visit to the Shakers
I was so well pleased with the appearances of the Shakers, and the prospect of quietness and happiness among them, that I visited them a second time. I went with a determination to ascertain as much as I possibly could of their forms and customs of worship, the every-day duties devolving on the members, &c.; and having enjoyed excellent opportunities for acquiring the desired information, I wish to present a brief account of what “I verily do know” in relation to several particulars.
First of all, justice will not permit me to retract a word in relation to the industry, neatness, order, and general good behavior, in the Shaker settlement which I visited. In these re[s]pects, that singular people are worthy of all commendation—yea, they set an example for the imitation of Christians every-where. Justices requires me to say, also, that their hospitality is proverbial, and deservedly so. They received and entertained me kindly, and (hoping perhaps that I might be induced to join them) they extended extra-civilities to me.... I..notice[d],
1st. The domestic arrangements of the Shakers. However strange the remark may seem, it is nevertheless true, that our factory population work fewer hours out of every twenty-four, than are required by the Shakers, whose bell to call them from their slumbers, and also to warn them that it is time to commence the labors of the day, rings much earlier than our factory bells; and its calls were obeyed, in the family where I was entertained, with more punctuality than I ever knew the greatest “workey” among my numerous acquaintances (during the fourteen years in which I have been employed in different manufacturing establishments) to obey the calls of the factory-bell. And not until nine o’clock in the evening were the labors of the day closed, and the people assembled at their religious meetings.
Whoever joins the Shakers with the expectation of relaxation from toil, will be greatly mistaken, since they deem it an indispensable duty to have every moment of time profitably employed. The little portions of leisure which the females have, are spent in knitting—each one having a basket of knitting-work for a constant companion.
Their habits of order are, in many things, carried to the extreme. The first bell for their meals rings for all to repair to their chambers, from which, at the ringing of the second bell, they descend to the eating-room. Here, all take their appropriate places at the tables, and after locking their hands on their breasts, they drop on their knees, close their eyes, and remain in this position about two minutes. Then they rise, seat themselves, and with all expedition swallow their food; then rise on their feet, again lock their hands, drop on their knees, close their eyes, and in about two minutes rise and retire. Their meals are taken in silence, conversation being prohibited.
Those whose chambers are in the fourth story of one building, and whose work-shops are in the third story of another building, have a daily task in climbing stairs, which is more oppressive than any of the rules of a manufacturing establishment.
2d. With all deference, I bet leave to introduce some of the religious views and ceremonies of the Shakers.
From the conversation of the elders, I learned that they considered it doing God a service, to sever the sacred ties of husband and wife, parent and child—the relationship existing between them being contrary to their religious views—views which they believe were revealed from heaven to “Mother Ann Lee,” the founder of their sect, and through whom they profess to have frequent revelations from the spiritual world. These communications, they say, are often written on gold leaves, and sent down from heaven to instruct the poor, simple Shakers in some new duty. They are copied, and perused, and preserved with great care. I one day heard quite a number of them read from a book, in which they were recorded, and the names of several of the brethren and sisters to whom they were given by the angels, were told me. One written on a gold leaf, was (as I was told) presented to Proctor Sampson by an angel, so late as the summer of 1841. These “revelations” are written partly in English, and partly in some unintelligible jargon, or unknown tongue, having a spiritual meaning, which cannot be understood only by those who possess the spirit in an eminent degree. They consist principally of songs, which they sing at their devotional meetings, and which are accompanied with dancing, and many unbecoming gestures and noises.
Often in the midst of a religious march, all stop, and with all their might set to stamping with both feet. And it is no uncommon thing for many of the worshipping assembly to crow like a parcel of young chanticleers, while others imitate the barking of dogs; and many of the young women set to whirling round and round—while the old men shake and clap their hands; the whole making a scene of noise and confusion, which can be better imagined than described. The elders seriously told me that these things were the outward manifestations of the spirit of God.
Apart from their religious meetings, the Shakers have what they call “union meetings.” These are for social converse, and for the purpose of making the people acquainted with each other. During the day, the elders tell who may visit such and such chambers. A few minutes past nine, work is laid aside; the females change, or adjust, as best suits their fancy, their caps, handkerchiefs, and pinners, with a precision which indicates that they are not altogether free from vanity. The chairs, perhaps to the number of a dozen, are set in two rows, in such a manner that those who occupy them may face each other. At the ringing of a bell, each one goes to the chamber where either he or she has been directed by the elders, or remains at home to receive company, as the case may be. They enter the chambers sans ceremonie, and seat themselves—the men occupying one row of chairs, the women the other. Here, with their clean, checked, home-made pocket-handkerchiefs spread in their laps, and their spit-boxes standing in a row between them, they converse about raising sheep and kine, herbs and vegetables, building wall and raising corn, heating the oven and pearing [paring] apples, killing rats and gathering nuts, spinning tow and weaving sieves, making preserves and mending the brethren’s clothes,—in short, every thing they do will afford some little conversation. But beyond their own little world, they do not appear to extend scarcely a thought. And why should they? Having so few sources of information, they know not what is passing beyond them. They however make the most of their own affairs, and seem to regret that they can converse no longer, when, after sitting together from half to three-quarters of an hour, the bell warns them that it is time to separate, which they do by rising up, locking their hands across their breasts, and bowing. Each one then goes silently to his own chamber.
It will readily be perceived, that they have no access to libraries, no books, excepting school-books, and a few relating to their own particular views; no periodicals, and attend no lectures, debates, Lyceums, &c. They have none of the many privileges of manufacturing districts—consequently their information is so very limited, that their conversation is, as a thing in course, quite insipid. The manner of their life seems to be a check to the march of mind and a desire for improvement; and while the moral and perceptive faculties are tolerably developed, the intellectual, with a very few exceptions, seem to be below the average.
I have considered it my duty to make the foregoing statement of facts, lest the glowing description of the Shakers, given in the story of my first visit, might have a wrong influence. I then judged by outward appearances only—having a very imperfect knowledge of the true state of the case. Nevertheless, the facts as I saw them in my first visit, are still facts; my error is to be sought only in my inferences. Having since had greater opportunities for observation, I am enabled to judge more righteous judgment.
Source: Lowell Offering; A Repository of Original Articles, Written Exclusively by Females Actively Employed in the Mills.... First Volume. Lowell, MA: Powers & Bagley; Boston: Saxton & Peirce, and Jordan & Co., 1841, pages 279–281; 337–340.