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Book Reviews : Shakers in America: Their Gift--and Doom--to Be Simple

March 11, 1988|ROSS MILLER | Miller teaches English and American studies at the University of Connecticut. He writes frequently on architecture and design. and

The Shaker Holy Land: A Community Portrait by Edward R. Horgan (Harvard Common: $9.95, paper; 272 pages, illustrated)

Harrison Ford as a big-city cop in "Witness" stimulated new interest in an odd communitarian society where people lived simple lives on the rich farmland of Pennsylvania. Of course, in the movie version there is a beautiful woman for a love interest, a tender-eyed, fatherless boy and a thriving community going about its business much as it has for more than two centuries. "Witness" was appealing because it was an unfamiliar American story of moral and not simply material success.

While not as glamorous, this study of the Shakers relies on the same kind of curiosity about the workings of an alien culture.

Edward R. Horgan's "The Shaker Holy Land: A Community Portrait" provides a glimpse of the history and daily life of Harvard and Shirley, Mass., two of the earliest Shaker settlements. Like the more familiar tales of the Puritans and Amish, the Shakers, a radical Protestant sect, came to America to practice their version of the Gospel.

Led by a charismatic leader, called Mother Ann by her followers, the group left England for America in 1774. Their first settlement was in Upstate New York near Albany, yet in short order her public ministry shifted to Harvard (1791-1918) and Shirley (1793-1908), northwest of Boston.

Preservation Program

Neither site is active today and most of the historic buildings have been transported to Hancock Shaker Village (1790-1960) in western Massachusetts, where the most extensive preservation program exists. Horgan, a high school librarian, has performed a service in collecting anecdotes, bits of local history and evocative illustrations of lives too often viewed uncomprehendingly from the outside.

After losing four children, Mother Ann, who lived and worked in the Manchester slums, found some spiritual consolation from a group called Shaking Quakers, named for the expressive and uninhibited dance they performed during prayer. In the agony of her last childbirth, Ann Lee preached against the evils of sexual intercourse and claimed to have a vision of an earthly paradise founded on piety, chastity, community goods, separation of the sexes and retreat from society. Influenced by its matriarchal origin, the church was always guided equally by men and women.

The Shakers distinguished themselves from other prophetic religious groups by arguing that the millennium, the return of Christ to reign on earth for 1,000 years, had already begun.

Work and Confirmation

Relying on converts, they offered work and confirmation for those eagerly awaiting Christ's Second Coming. In their most successful years (1780-1826), they had 25 settlements from Maine to Ohio. To Europeans such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and American socialists such as John Humphrey Noyes of the Oneida Community, the Shakers were a model of prosperity and invention.

After William Dean Howells spent two weeks in Shirley village, he wrote: "The first impression of all is cleanliness with a suggestion of barrenness which is not inconsistent, however, with comfort, and which comes chiefly from the aspect of the unpapered walls, the scrubbed floors hidden only by rugs and strips of carpeting and the plain flat finish of the woodwork."

Others, led by the Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, viewed the Shaker community at Shirley as an ideal of social organization. His own community, Fruitlands (1840-45), near Harvard, included none of the prophetic or proscriptive aspects of its model, but was also less successful in maintaining itself.

Others Lacked Discipline

It and other more secular, even literary communities, such as Brook Farm which Hawthorne, after a brief tenancy, satirized in "The Blithedale Romance," lacked the discipline and common will to endure.

The severity of Shaker life, represented in the linear planning of its settlements and absolute functionalism of its furniture and architecture, was the outward expression of a close society that viewed the disciplined living of this life as a day-to-day preparation for the next.

Some of the stark beauty of Shaker design is captured in the book's illustrations that portray lives integrated in work, play and worship. Each moment was given its own importance, from the mundane hanging of one's hat or bonnet on a meticulously doweled peg, set precisely 7 feet above the floor, to the barns and workshops where one passed the day in productive labor.

The communal sense of a righteous and good life is an especially poignant American story. From their constitutionally protected isolation, these odd and difficult people who were forced to flee Europe found here a place to reinvent their lives. This spirit of invention translated to other aspects of their existence.

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