Saturday, August 16, 2008

Shaking Toward Utopia

Canterbury, New Hampshire has never been much of a town. It’s actually more farm than town, and it isn’t what it used to be. Though from the outside this place remains essentially unchanged.

"At its peak in the mid 1800s, Canterbury was a bustling settlement of more than 300 souls and a farm of over 4,000 acres," said docent Sarah Dunham. "Its gardens grew medicinal herbs for commercial markets. It housed workshops that crafted furniture, brooms, and baskets. Its residents enjoyed indoor running water--hot and cold." And it hosted such incredibly strange religious services that citizens from around the area gathered in droves to witness them firsthand.

Welcome to the home of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, a Protestant religious sect more commonly known as the Shakers*. "The sect was founded in 1747 by Mother Ann Lee, an English lady of some means," explained Dunham. "She was the mother of four children who all died young. And when she crossed paths with an exiled French Huguenot prophet she was taken with possession by the spirit.” Mother Ann Lee became a rabble rouser. She was tossed into a London prison. She had a divine revelation to take her new-found religion to America

To make this very long story very, very short, all-told the Shakers built 19 communal settlements in America and attracted some 200,000 converts. The religion they practiced was also a lifestyle**. Its members lived in gender segregated, dormitory-like housing, worked in gender segregated trades, but came together to dine and worship. They believed in personal communication with a God who was both male and female. Their property was held communally. They were pacifists. They took in orphans and the downtrodden. They were strictly celibate. They were technophiles and even took out a number of useful patents. And they hung on into the 20th century until their practice of celibacy took its toll, and their numbers dwindled to near extinction.

Today, Canterbury is a national historic landmark and museum where modern-day pilgrims can get a feeling for life in a Shaker community. Sort of.

You begin your tour with a visit to the meeting house. Men enter on one side, women on the other--which was typical for the churchgoing crowds of the day.

Then it’s on to the workshops.

Women worked almost exclusively indoors—cooking, sewing, cleaning and washing …

… whereas men worked in the fields or shops.

After labor comes rest and reflection with a stroll through the gardens…

... and a brief pause in the old schoolhouse.

Now refreshed in mind and spirit, visitors make their way to the dormitories, mess hall, and visitor’s center.

The Canterbury Shaker Village today is very staid and quaint. This is New England, after all. Even after a quick tour of the grounds it’s clear that, like any other monastic movement, a Shaker’s life was dedicated to the pursuit of perfection. And since perfection can never be achieved in this world, the Shakers dedicated themselves to industry, the continuous confessing of sins, and an attempt to stop sinning. But unlike other movements, the Shakers took these notions to the extreme; and this is what makes the Shaker movement so interesting.

Though the Shakers shared the same dormitory buildings, men and women used different staircases and doorways: Everything here comes in matched pairs. Though they ate meals together, they sat on opposite sides of the hall. Men and women were not allowed to touch each other. They were not allowed to talk to one another, save for supervised meetings, brokered by an elder and held in a bedroom. But they were allowed to look at each other. And to dance.

It’s clear that the devil of Temptation was in plain sight and always a hairsbreadth away. Like the popular romance novels of the day, errant glances must have held profound meanings and the accidental touch must have been a source of both wicked pleasure and delicious torment. No doubt this pent-up frustration compelled many a man to turn many a table leg and many a woman to bake many a loaf of bread. It is no accident that the Shakers produced some of the most elegant, though uncomfortable, furniture ever made.

The conscientious visitor will find no fault with the Shakers and what they tried to do and how they failed at doing it. Their desire to shun the outside world, while being very much a part of it, is freedom's most profound form of expression.

The Shakers made their own rules and held fast to them (celibacy, pacifism, labor), even if it meant dooming their society. This is what makes them worthy of our attention.

The Shakers did not create a sexy cult. They were tradesmen-farmers who championed gender equality, practiced thrift, worked hard, and fixed their eyes upon God and the promise of the life hereafter. Though their society has faded into a curiosity in a history museum, even the most casual visitor will be fascinated with their quest for earthly utopia. For perhaps when we are profoundly sad and lost and hurt (like their founder, Mother Ann Lee) we find refuge from our personal tragedies by seeking goodness, joy, and glory in something bigger and stronger than ourselves.

* The name "Shakers," originally pejorative, was derived from the term "Shaking Quakers" and was applied as a mocking description of their rituals of trembling, shouting, dancing, shaking, singing, and glossolalia (a strange word that means speaking in strange and unknown languages). Apparently, the shaking and trembling were caused by the power of the Holy Spirit as He purged sin from the body of the worshipper. The Shakers, ever industrious, wholly adopted the term as their own.

** The Shakers were but one of many radical religious utopian societies that emerged in the 18th century. Included in this so-called “Awakening” are movements like the Mormons, Oneida (as in the silverware), Amana, Millerites, and many others.

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