What do you do if you think the world as we know it is about to end and the human race, at its crowning glory, go extinct? That was what confronted Ann Lee in the squalid English dungeon where she had been tossed for espousing a radical form of Christianity.
If you are Ann Lee, you sing and dance.
Ann Lee responded to her powerful, apocalyptic doomer vision of 1722 by creating a whole new religion, one its detractors called the “Shaking Quakers” (because they danced and were pacifists) or simply “Shakers.” When she was released from prison she took her vision out into the world and found a large following.
In Mother Ann's view, the Second Coming had already happened, and the world was inhabited now, not with a Christ in the flesh but in Spirit. The world of industrial capitalism, clearances, sweat shops, child labor, closures of the commons, oppression of women and minorities, colonial wars, militarism and slavery is doomed to fail (as Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier presaged a century later with his discovery of the civilizational heat engine and the greenhouse effect), as are people, and our role now, in the remaining days, is to return Earth to a heavenly garden for eternity.
Therefore, no one needs to be acquiring and owning private property. What is it good for, if abundance is everywhere? No one needs to have slaves. No one needs to go to war. And no one should bother to have children, because this is the final generation.
To borrow the opening lines from Arthur Bestor's Backwoods Utopias,
Little wonder then that Ann Lee escaped re-imprisonment in England for her scandalous beliefs in peace, gender equality, antislavery and common property by crossing the ocean and finding land in the North American wilderness, near to where Emerson would later stand and remark:The American Republic, remarked the aging James Madison to an English visitor, is 'useful in proving things before held impossible.' Of all the freedoms by which America stood, none was more significant for history than the freedom to experiment with new practices and new institutions. What remained mere speculation in the Old World had a way of becoming reality in the New. In this process, moreover, the future seemed often to unveil itself.
In August of 1805, three Shaker missionaries, John Meacham, Benjamin Seth Youngs and Issachar Bates (relationship unknown), having traveled more than a thousand miles into the western lands by way of Cumberland Gap and the Ohio River, mostly by foot, arrived at a lovely knoll above the Kentucky River which they called Pleasant Hill.
Within a year, they had 47 converts living together on a 140 acre (57 ha) farm, the twelfth Shaker Village in North America. As new converts came in, they added more buildings and land, eventually reaching 4,369 acres (1,768 ha). By 1812 three communal families — East, Center, and West — each with about 100 members, had been formed, and a fourth, North, was established as a gathering center for prospective converts. On June 2, 1814, the Believers bound themselves together in a more formal covenant with the Shaker Ministry at New Lebanon, New York.
The year 1805 falls into a period of US history that is for some a touchstone of the birth of a great nation, and for others the point of disembarkation for genocide and clearances that continue today. It fell between the War of Independence and a failed British attempt to re-establish a colonial outpost in North America that would only end with the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. In March, 1805, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in for a second term. In April, Beethoven held his baton aloft in Vienna for the first performance of the Symphony Number 3. U.S. Marines stormed the shores of Tripoli in search of Barbari pirates while Napolean was crowned King of Italy. On June 13, Meriwether Lewis and four companions first sighted the Great Falls of the Missouri River. In France, on July 29, Hervé Louis François Jean Bonaventure Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville and Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, having just dodged the guillotine, gave birth to their son, Alexis de Tocqueville.
Tocqueville would later write, after visiting the Shakers:
The Shakers believed they were living in the last millennium, the final page of humanity, and since all people shared a brother/sister relationship, they should not marry as there was no longer a need to procreate. Instead they believed people should live communally as a family of brothers and sisters. Children who arrived with married converts or were produced through accident or divine intervention could decide whether to remain in the community when they reached the age of majority."I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it."
The site in Kentucky was on poor land a great distance from Eastern markets, but by pooling their property and skills and adopting wholesome, mindful work as their primary spiritual practice, the colony prospered. They raised broom corn and made flat brooms so good that when floated to New Orleans by river they returned home by the Natchez Trace with saddlebags full of gold. They raised fruit and sold it dried or as preserves (more than ten tons in one year). Like the other emerging Shaker communities, they sold garden seeds through catalog sales and by 1825 were a thriving, handsome community with large stone and brick dwellings and shops, grassy lawns, and stone sidewalks.
Their 40 miles of stone walls took 12 years to build.
They had a municipal water system well before some towns in their area. By 1825 they had spigots in their kitchens. Their mill had an elevator for moving grain to the upper floor, and they had a mechanical corn sheller. Each large dwelling, housing 50 to 100 residents in apartments, had a central kitchen and did laundry in machines run by horse power.
One of their barns included an upper floor for storage of grain and hay, a cutting machine for chopping fodder, and an ingenious railway for delivering feed to the cattle. Even though it was the end of the world, their sense of security endowed them with creative energy that knew few limits.
Their association, according to the Shakers,
In the words of Horace Greeley,is one of joint-interest, as the children of one family, enjoying equal rights and privileges in things spiritual and temporal, because they are influenced and led by one Spirit and love is the only bond of their union: As it is written, 'All that believed were together, and had all things common — and were of one heart, and of one soul.'
The promise of such an undertaking was seen by the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1840:Not through hatred, collision, and depressing competition; not through War, whether of Nation against Nation, Class against Class, or Capital against Labor; but through Union, Harmony, and the reconciling of all Interests, the giving scope to all noble Sentiments and Aspirations, is the Renovation of the World, the Elevation of the degraded and suffering Masses of Mankind, to be sought and effected.
Can society ever be constituted upon principles of universal Christian brotherhood? The believing Christian, the enlightened philosopher, answer — IT CAN. Will this organization commence with the entire race of man? With existing governments? Or with small isolated communities. Doubtless, the principles of this new organization must be matured in the hearts and lives of individuals, before they can be embodied in any community, but when the new organization commences, it will doubtless be in small communities.
By the autumn of 1808, Pleasant Hill was established in its current location and in 1809 the Center Family Dwelling, now the Farm Deacon's Shop, was finished. The following year a stone Meeting House was built across the road from Center Family, but the New Madrid quakes of 1811-1812 damaged its stone foundations. The foundations were elaborately rebuilt with two-foot-thick freestack supports every eight feet, and the roof made of great engineered arches to both support the stomping and dancing of 500 Shakers on the first floor, and to permit them to dance and sing unobstructed by support columns, which were made more massive and placed into the 2-foot-thick outer walls.
Access to distant markets for their goods and necessities required them to lay roads and navigate the treacherous Kentucky River. In 1813, they established the first Shaker Ferry five miles North of Pleasant Hill and constructed a wagon road on both sides of the river, lined by their distinctive stone walls. They constructed a North-South road that ran from the river, through the center of their village and then South to Harrodsburg. When the railroad arrived, it crossed the river by high iron trestle just upstream of the Shaker landing.
Economic sustainability was a cornerstone, so brooms, seeds, medicinal herbs, cheese, canned goods, buckets, straw hats, carpets, cloth and shuttles moved on the river, first by flatboat, then keelboat, and later by steam paddlewheel to Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans. Tool castings, building materials, pickling spices, tea, sugar and glass jars came back the other way.
|Deacon's House, likely home of Issachar Bates|
As pacifists and abolitionists the Shakers ran afoul of local opinion, especially in times of heated tempers, before and during the War of Northern Aggression.
It is ironic that it should be the Great Civil War that brought Pleasant Hill low, because that was a war, first and foremost, between combatant paradigms. The rapidly industrializing northern states, fueled by coal, oil (including whale oil), and the latest energy saving machinery from England and Germany, could afford to replace human slaves with energy slaves to considerable financial advantage. They eyed the slave economy of the South, with its cotton and coal wealth, as a way to supply their machines.
Abolition of slavery was not a central goal of the war-makers, and indeed, the Union, as it formed to oppose the Secessionists, contained the slave states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia.
The Shakers at Pleasant Hill were devout abolitionists. They adopted the practice of buying and freeing slaves, and since freed slaves could not work or own property in Kentucky, they offered them sanctuary and equal stake as members of Pleasant Hill. In 1825 a pro-slavery, anti-pacifist mob attacked Pleasant Hill and destroyed some of its facilities.
Nonetheless, during the War the community fed thousands of soldiers, from both sides, who came marching up the North-South road, the main artery between Harrodsburg and Lexington, that passed straight through the center of the village. Given the choice between rape, pillage and plunder and Christian charity, the Shakers poured out of their dwellings and placed food in the hands of weary soldiers and cared for their wounds. Both armies "nearly ate [them] out of house and home," a Shaker witness reported, but they survived the war intact.
The worse tragedy came after the war, when Lincoln's policy of reconciliation and restoration died with him and the original Northern industrialist goal of regional subjugation returned to the fore. The Shaker's lifeline, the river, was cut off to them, with all Southern commerce on the Mississippi banned and high tariffs imposed on Kentucky trade goods. Living in rural Tennessee, we can personally attest that these policies continue in more subtle forms to the present and most strongly affect border states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where children are still forced by economic necessity (student loans and medical blackmail) to go down into the mines and pick at hard rock seams or operate giant bulldozers, scrapers and cranes to remove whole mountains, to extract coal too dirty to be burned in the United States for export to China.
The policy of celibacy insured that the Shaker religious society would not long outlive the first generation, and by 1900, only 34 remained at Pleasant Hill. The Shaker community was dissolved in 1910 and in 1923, the last member, Mary Settles, died. She was pleased to live long enough to see women's suffrage and planned to vote a straight Democratic ticket on her first ballot. She said that Shaker sisters had always had equal rights within their communal society.
After her demise, the village slowly began going back to nature. Some of the pasture land was used or absorbed into neighboring farms, but occasionally pilgrims would arrive and marvel at what remained. One such visitor was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who wrote:
After Mary Settles passed, the land went into private hands and was parceled up. The Meeting Hall, with its well-supported grand ballroom, became an automobile repair garage. Oil stains the hardwood floors.
In 1961 a group of Lexington-area citizens launched an effort to restore the property. By 1964 the Friends of Pleasant Hill had organized a non-profit corporation, raised funds for operating expenses, and secured a $2 million loan to purchase and restore the site. Eight buildings were restored by 1968 and placed on public display.
Today, with 34 original 19th-century buildings and 2,800 acres (1100 ha.) of restored farmland, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is "the largest historic community of its kind in America." It is a place of continuing enchantment. Ann Lee herself recognized how revolutionary her ideas were when she said, "We [the Shakers] are the people who turned the world upside down." The walls echo the music and dance of a people who believed they were the last of their kind, but as it turned out, they weren't. At least, not yet.