Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mother Ann and The Shakers of Watervliet

Ann Lee

From Mount Lebanon we traveled west to Watervliet.  There, not far from what is now the Albany Airport, Ann Lee and her small band of Shakers came in 1784.  Born in Manchester, England, Ann arrived in New York with seven followers, including the husband who soon abandoned her, just as the American Revolution was breaking out.  Perhaps because of her eight children,none had  lived past six, Ann preached celibacy as a central tenet of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Reappearing. Rejoicing in their faith, which they expressed through ecstatic singing and dancing, Ann and her followers were pacifists and paid little heed to the war which raged with special ferocity in upstate New York.

Leasing a small piece of land in 1776, the first Shakers set to work draining the swampy  ground and creating a farm. In 1780 Ann made a missionary tour of New England , attracting new followers and taking in some of the many orphans whose parents were carried off by war and disease.

On the day we visited the Shaker Village at the intersection of Heritage Lane and Meetinghouse Road in Watervliet, the only visitors were a group of developmentally delayed adults who paid close attention to the tour guide as she explained to them the purpose of the various remaining buildings.

Restored interior of the 1848 Meeting House

19th century drawing of Shakers dancing in a meeting house

As we listened to the guide, we could almost hear the lively stamp of Shakers dancing in this very space, and perhaps felt just a bit of their inner joy and peace. 

Work was central to Shaker life, and their industriousness brought great prosperity to their communist societies during the first years of the American republic. Here at Watervliet, the Shakers specialized in the production of brooms and garden seeds. They also operated a cannery.

 The Great Barn

Brethrens Workshop

Wash House & Cannery

In 1926 the City of Albany purchased the property and demolished several buildings. The others, however, are in good condition structurally, although their interiors are in poor repair and not open to the public. 

Not far from the village, we found the cemetery where 400 of the Shakers rest eternally.  Walking slowly past the plain stones, many of which attest to the advanced age common to the Shakers, we found the slightly larger stone of Ann Lee among those of her devoted followers.

My interest in the Shakers has been an historical one and I found the sect to be of interest chiefly for its subsequent  influence on American life. Although the celibate group dwindled down over the years, their belief in an imminent Second Coming was shared by the Millerites, and those other uniquely American forms of millenarian Christianity like the Seventh Day Adventists, not to mention the Branch Davidians, and the Assemblies of God who play such a large part in religious and political life life today. The ecstatic form of Shaker worship, and the speaking in tongues, has also remained with us. Even the Shaker belief that the work of conversion continues on into the afterlife has long been shared by the Church of Latter Day Saints, whose origins coincided in time and place with the high point of the Shaker movement.

19th century drawing of a Shaker girl falling into a trance

 Mother Ann Lee and her followers also deserve much credit for their pioneering concepts of gender equality. Women held equal place with men among them, and their theology reflected this.  God is dual, male and female, both Father and Mother to mankind. In their view, Jesus was only one manifestation of the eternal "Christ of the Ages." For them,  Ann Lee was another such avatar of the Christ, the female counterpart of Jesus, as the official creed of the Shakers attests:

Jesus Christ not only foretold the falling away, the coming of antichrist, he also foretold a reappearing, a coming again to gather and save. In his last interviews with his disciples he uttered some mysterious words, over which theological quibbling has spent itself in vain. Not to the wise nor prudent of this world came the word of revelation, but to the child in simple trust with heart of faith. The apocalypse of mystery that descended from cloud to sea at Patmos opened its meanings, when to the child spirit of Ann Lee came the call of God. We have watched her follow that call. We have seen her wrestlings and conflicts as flesh strove with spirit, as the cross, heavy and death bringing, was taken bravely up. We have watched her. as she subdued and slew the weakness and sin of her lower nature. We have heard her cries and moans of agony as the weight of a world's woe pressed upon her heart. We have watched her in prison, every nerve throbbing with the torture of that forsaken, narrow cell, where for fourteen days she was nourished by God's gift, sustained by His power. We have seen her in the prison cell in Manchester, baptized with the Christ Spirit. From that time she never faltered in her calm assurance of knowledge that to her had been given the revelation of the Maternal Spirit of God. Ann Lee always acknowledged Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, the Head of the Church; but, when the two anointed leaders, before whom she had confessed her sins and whom she had obeyed as her spiritual guides, recognized in her a superior endowment of Divine Maternity, and with the rest of the little circle acknowledged her as now their Spiritual Mother, she did not refuse the recognition.
Women of the Shaker community on the bridge in the Watervliet settlement
from the collection of the Watervliet Shaker Village

Although I am not usually given to any kind of mysticism, I did feel an unusual sensation when I placed my hand upon Mother Ann's stone, perhaps a presence or simply a reassurance that the divine principle of the universe is indeed a loving and maternal one.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Shakers of Mount Lebanon

Most people who are interested in the Shakers know of Hancock Shaker Village, a well preserved settlement near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. A visit there is  a definite must for anyone who wants to explore the Shaker heritage.
Views of Hancock ShakerVillage

However, many visitors miss another important Shaker site only a few miles west over the Ndew York State line. Mount Lebanon was the real motherhouse of the Shaker world in the 19th century and promises to offer an even fuller vision of that world.
 Shaker woman in the 1870s
from the collection of the Shaker Museum and Library

The Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham is in the process of moving to Mount Lebanon. This is the world's most complete collection of  Shaker artifacts and documents,  and owes its existence John S. Williams, a great friend of the last few Shakers. The museum's new location will be a few miles away at  Mount Lebanon, the spiritual center of Shaker life from its founding in 1787 until 1947.

  Shaker Eldresses from about 1890-1910
from the collections of The Shaker Museum & Library

We visited Mount Lebanon as par tof a project to more deeply explore the effects of this Christian sect upon American life. The Shakers are best remembered today for the  fine quality of their workmanship and for the commitment to celibacy which, in contrast to other native forms of Christianity,  doomed their denomination to extinction. The United Society of Believers in Christ's Reappearing, as they called themselves,  shared many practices and beliefs common to the still thriving Mormon and Pentecostal traditions and were pioneers in practicing the gender and racial equality that is  so fundamental to our contemporary political and cultural life. They were also, however, rare among Protestants in the creation of celibate brotherhoods and sisterhoods similar to the monastic orders of the Roman Catholic faith.

Elderly remnant of the Shaker community, in the 1920s
from the collection of the Shaker Museum & Library

Mount Lebanon is located on Shaker and Darrow Roads in New Lebanon, near the intersection of routes 20 and 22, on a mountainside near the Massachusetts border. Our first stop was  on Cherry Lane at The Inn at the Shaker Mill Farm, a pleasant hostelry  in a renovated grist mill built by the "Church Family" in 1824. According to Peter Stott, this mill served to grind grain for the entire New Lebanon community, Shaker and non-Shaker alike. (The celibate Shakers arranged themselves in working communities they called "families," such as the Church Family, the Center Family, the North Family and so on.)

The Inn at Shaker Mill Farm

 A little farther up the western slope of the Taconic Range we found the many remaining buildings of the North Family. The buildings are now largely the property of the Darrow School, and many are in active use.  The entire area is listed as a National Historic Site and major preservation work has been ongoing, although not during our visit.

ruins of the Great Stone Barn at Mount Lebanon

Built in 1859, the Great Stone Barn burned in 1979. The structure, like others at Mt. Lebanon, is now being stabilized, thanks to funding from the New York State Department of Transportation, the Federal department of Housing and Urban Development, the World Monuments Fund and private donors.

North Family Wash House (1854)

The exterior of the communal wash house is also undergoing preservation effports, while other nearby Shaker structures such as the Meacham Dwelling House  are private residences.

The Meacham Dwelling House (1818)

There still remain many buildings used by the industrious Shakers to manufacture products for local use and for sale to the public, including The Forge and The Brethrens' Workshop.

The Brethrens Workshop (1825)

 The Forge, built between 1825-1828

According to Peter Stott, the  Brethrens Workshop was the principal manufacturing building among a small group of shops drawing on a common source of water power. Carpentry, broom-making and washing machines were driven by water power, which also provided power for the bellows and triphammer in the adjacent forge.

An interesting description of this community at its height can be found in the report of Charles Nordhoff who visited Mount Lebanon in 1875 and found  "all or nearly all the Shaker people—polite, patient, noiseless in their motions except during their "meetings" or worship, when they are sometimes quite noisy; scrupulously neat, and much given to attend to their own business." Elder Frederick Evans informed Nordhoff that the society no longer took in orphans "for experience had proved that when these grew up they were oftenest discontented, anxious to gain property for themselves, curious to see the world, and therefore left the society." The recent Civil War had also led to reduced membership since some of the young Shaker men, although raised as pacifists, had acceded to the pressures of conscription and gone off to war.

The survival of so many of the original buildings of Mount Lebanon owes much to establishment of the Darrow School at the site in 1932.A decade before the last elderly Shakers left Mt. Lebanon in 1948, they set in motion plans for a school to inherit their property. The private co-ed boarding school currently enrolls about 100 students and employs 30 teachers.

The Darrow School makes active use of Shaker buildings

Gazing across the fields once tilled by Shakers, we tried to imagine the lives they must have led, working so hard and yet denying to themselves earthly love and family.  Their joys we know of, from the many witnesses whom they invited to watch their ecstatic dancing and singing, but what of their sorrows, their doubts, their despair?

Our curiosity about these influential and unusual Americans still unsatisfied, we visited the set out for the first of the Shaker villages some thirty miles to the west, where the founder of this sect, Mother Ann Lee, was revered as a female Christ.