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Transcript

The Shakers

NARRATOR (Tom Davenport): (Reading from Benson Lossing, "The Shakers," Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1857) while the camera pans over an early photograph of the parent Shaker community at Mount Lebanon, New York, on the western slope of the Berkshire Mountains) "As I walked into the village, serenity and peace seemed to pervade the very air! . . . It was Saturday evening. The weekly toil of the Community had ceased, and a Sabbath stillness brooded over the populous town. Immense dwellings filled with men and women, and extensive workshops . . . lined the one broad street. Order and Neatness there held high court with a majesty I had never before seen. The very dust in the road seemed pure, and the virtue 'next to godliness,' was apparent upon every stone."

[SINGING] "The Gift to be Simple" (sung by a Sabbathday Lake group, while the camera pans over the Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, from a hilltop to the west)

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free

'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

And when we find ourselves in the place just right

'Twill be in the valley of love and delight

When true simplicity is gained

To bow and to be we shan't be ashamed

To turn, turn will be our delight

Till by turning, turning we come 'round right

(Sr. Elsie McCool, in 1972, sweeping the sidewalk in front of the main dwelling house, at Sabbathday Lake)

SR. ELSIE: Sr. Aurelia Mace wrote in what is called the 'Family Journal" on Sunday in the early 1900's that there had been five cars that had passed the village that day, and she guessed that our days of peace and quiet were over. I don't know what she'd say today!

(A large truck roars down the hill and past her on the road through the village)

NARRATOR: (V/O and historical photographs from various Shaker societies) The Shakers, or the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, are a small American religious order. At their peak in the 1850's the Shakers numbered only 6,000 souls, but these Yankee and Midwestern farming people were creative far beyond their numbers. They stated their vision through furniture and handicrafts, buildings, dance, and song. They turned away from politics and wealth, yet influenced American agriculture and social reform. Their goal was to establish the simplicity of the primitive Christian church and to welcome all souls equally to work out their own salvations under the unfolding guidance of the Holy Spirit.

(Srs. Frances Carr and Marie Burgess at work in the kitchen of the main dwelling house at Sabbathday Lake)

SR. FRANCES: Sister Marie and I see a big change since the days when we first began to cook. At that time, if I remember correctly, I think there were sixty people eating in the dining room then, so the kitchen work used to go on all day. Even getting dinner, you know, was quite a production. We have friends who lived here when we did, were children, and grew up here, and when they come back to visit they find . . . they just can't believe it's down to so few, because from sixty—and then going down, down, down. It's quite a change. But again, it was gradual with us, because we were in it.

NARRATOR:(V/O with footage of the Sabbathday Lake sisters climbing steps to their meeting house, still photographs of the two communities, and then a close-up of the weathered wall of an abandoned building at Canterbury) The last Shaker Brother died in 1961, but in the early 1970s fourteen sisters still lived in two remaining communities, Sabbathday Lake, Maine, and Canterbury, New Hampshire. All the other Shaker villages have been abandoned and sold.

(Eldress Marguerite Frost comes out the door of a building at Canterbury, bringing food for birds and stroking a cat that has approached her)

ELDRESS MARGUERITE: Isn't it a beautiful morning? We're going to restore this place, and, well, some people have been the head of it that wanted to sell it all—sell everything—then, when we got down to a very few, to sell the place—and us go where we wished. But I don't want to go anywhere. Hello, Tiger, you going to get your picture taken? Yes, he's a nice tom. If this is what you're going to accept, although it means everybody goes the other way, you have to go on. It's not easy, and I wouldn't have anybody think it is. But they shouldn't accept the charge and start on the way unless they're determined to go through with it. (Over footage of Sr. Elizabeth Dunn at Sabbathday Lake gathering washing from the clothes line, Sr. Bertha Lindsay at Canterbury cutting apples, and Sr. Frances washing out some clothes)

(Sr. Lillian Phelps in a room in the main dwelling house at Canterbury)

SR. LILLIAN: Well, I was born in Brookline [Massachusetts], 1876, and I'm in my 94th year. I came up at the age of sixteen to spend the vacation. I went into one of the Shaker meetings, and I really felt as though I'd come in the presence of angels. They were so devoted, and I found this spirit went through their whole lives. There was a loving interest in each other. And as the days went by I became more and more attached. And when it came time to go back to Boston I said I wasn't coming back, I wanted to remain here. And I think I really was truly baptized into the work, so that I wanted it for life. I haven't regretted a day of it, and I've had 78 years. I've seen the family grow and I've seen it diminish, and we feel as though we were a nucleus of spiritual strength.

[SINGING] "How Lovely are the Faithful Souls" (Sung by Sr. R. Mildred Barker of Sabbathday Lake, over an engraving of Believers engaged in a form of the circular march in the meetinghouse at Mount Lebanon, New York, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (1873); the early lithograph "SHAKERS near LEBANON, state of N YORK, their mode of Worship," depicting a dance; an early photograph of the exterior of the meeting house at Mount Lebanon; ending with an engraving of the fantasized plan of the community Robert Owen wanted in the 1820s to create at New Harmony, Indiana)

How lovely are the faithful souls who keep the gospel treasure

And in their youthful days reject all carnal joys and pleasure

They are like branches in the bloom or like a pleasant flower

Joined to the Heavenly Bride and Groom, they're blest with holy power

NARRATOR: (V/O with historical photographs) In the nineteenth century Shaker meeting houses resounded with devotional songs and ecstatic dancing. The World's people came to observe them, and although most felt that early Shaker's religious practices were strange, and even excessive, they were impressed by their well-ordered communities and successful farms and industries. Reformers who dreamed of new heavens and of making a new earth took courage that their own utopian plans could also become a practical reality. But these paper theories usually collapsed in bankruptcy and dissention. The Shakers have endured for two centuries, although one of their chief religious beliefs is celibacy.

(Sr. Mildred Barker, in a room of the main dwelling house at Sabbathday Lake)

SR. MILDRED: In a celibate order we work for each other and have one united interest.

SR. ELSIE: In families there's always the idea of one family getting ahead of the other.

SR. MILDRED: It just wouldn't have worked out, bringing in a whole lot of families together. When they did come in and join, they joined as brother and sister, and separated like the rest of the Community.

(Eldress Marguerite Frost in her room at Canterbury, discussing Matthew 22:20)

ELDRESS MARGUERITE: "For in the Kingdom of Heaven they neither marry or are given in marriage." It isn't to say that God or that Christ disapproved of marriage, only, if they wanted to live a Kingdom of Heaven life, if they wanted to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven, a person has to be separate.

SR. LILLIAN (Over a photograph of herself as a young woman): Now I wouldn't say it didn't cost me anything to adopt a celibate life. I would have liked, probably, a home and a family, but I saw that there was a step higher. When I made up my mind to that, I saw the other side much clearer, and I grew to love it. But it was a cross. It was a cross—I was a natural girl with natural impulses.

[SINGING] "I Never Did Believe" (sung by Sr. Mildred Barker, over an early photograph of brethren and sisters entering the Mount Lebanon meetinghouse through separate doors)

I never did believe that I ever could be saved

Without giving up all to God

So I freely give the whole, my body and my soul

To the Lord God--Amen

NARRATOR: The life to which all Shakers consecrate themselves is based on the teachings of Ann Lee. (Reading from various passages in the Shaker book Testimonies of the Life and Character of Mother Ann Lee, and the Elders with Her [2d ed., 1888],over engravings of Manchester, England):

"This extraordinary female . . . in whom Christ did visibly make his second appearance," was born in 1736 in Manchester in England. "From her childhood she was the subject of religious impressions and divine manifestations. . . . But then not having attained to that knowledge of God which she so early desired . . . she grew up in the same fallen nature," and signed her marriage bans with Abraham Standerin, "who was a blacksmith . . . –by him she had four children, who all died in infancy. During this period of her cohabitation with her husband she fell under great exercise of mind . . . and sufferings of soul"

(Mother Ann): "I often rose from my bed in the night, and walked the floor in my stocking-feet for fear of waking . . . my husband . . . lest I should stir up his affections . . . Thus I labored in strong cries and groans to God, day and night, till my flesh wasted away and I became like a skeleton. . . . and then my soul broke forth to God . . . like an infant just born into the world. You must forsake the marriage of the flesh, or you cannot be married to the Lamb, nor have any share in the resurrection of Christ." "It is not I that speaks, it is Christ that dwells in me. . . ."

SR. FRANCES: One great misconception that people have about the Shakers—they make a big thing out of something that is really so simple—you know, the second appearance of Christ. And many people will say, well how can Mother Ann be the second coming of Christ when other churches are waiting for it? I don't think Mother Ann intended that. I think that she taught, and we believe, that the second coming of Christ is within each person himself. He doesn't come just once, or twice--you know with trumpets, a great fanfare, everyone is rejoicing--actually, probably a very quiet coming. It's just when we allow Christ to come into our own hearts, and when we allow him to change our lives by coming into it, you know. You know, it makes a difference where we change from our old lives into something new. And what is resurrection but new life coming out of the dead?

NARRATOR: (Over an eighteenth-century depiction of the jail in Manchester, England, and reading from the Shaker book A Summary View of the Millennial Church (1823)) Mother Ann was often "cruelly abused, and a number of times imprisoned." But her testimony continued to grow in the hearts of Believers in England.

ELDRESS MARGUERITE: (Reading from A Summary View an account of a vision seen by the early convert and leader Elder James Whittaker) "When we were in England some of us had to go twenty miles to meeting and we travelled nights on account of persecution. One Saturday night, while on our journey, we sat down by the side of the road to eat some food. While I was sitting there I saw a vision of America; and I saw a large tree, [and every leaf thereof shone with such brightness] as made it appear like a burning torch, representing the church of Christ, which will yet be established in this land." (Over the 1845 gift drawing "The Tree of Light or Blazing Tree," painted by Sr. Hannah Cohoon of Hancock, Massachusetts)

NARRATOR: (Over a series of shots taken near Watervliet, including the Shaker cemetery, photographs of Shaker communities, and engravings of early camp-meeting scenes) Mother Ann and a small band of eight followers arrived in America in 1774. They settled in the wilderness near Albany, N.Y., now the site of the Albany airport. She died only ten years later but her mission was successful. She won converts from among the Americans deserting Calvinism for more hopeful faiths in the freedom and ferment after the Revolution. Shaker Communities were founded in rapid succession—Mount Lebanon, New York, in 1787; Canterbury, New Hampshire, in 1792; Sabbathday Lake, Maine, in 1794; Union Village, Ohio, and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, in 1806—nineteen villages in all. As revivals, camp meetings, and millennial yearnings swept the backwoods, each successive wave brought new converts to Shakerism.

[SINGING] "Come Life, Shaker Life" (Sung by Sr. Mildred, over the engraving of the circular march at Mount Lebanon)

Come life, Shaker life, come life eternal

Shake, shake out of me all that is carnal

I'll take nimble steps, I'll be a David

I'll show Michal twice how he behaved

SR. MILDRED: He finally said, "Well, what would happen if all the World became Shakers, who'd build the bridges, and who'd do this and that? And I just looked at him, and I said, "The Shakers would, of course." "I didn't think of that." (laughter)

NARRATOR: (over, first, an early engraving of Canterbury and, then, a photograph of the community) There would always be two orders of man, the natural world of generation and the higher Shaker world of regeneration. But the gates of Mother's heavenly kingdom were open to anyone who accepted her twin cross of celibacy and confession of sin.

SR. FRANCES: When the Communities were struggling anyone who expressed a really sincere desire to enter and try it was never turned away. Today because we have a few assets and a comfortable community, I think often people who might have the desire to try the life are looked upon with suspicion.

ELDRESS MARGUERITE: Because they'd come in the fall, and they couldn't do enough to prove to us they wanted to be Shakers. And by spring their enthusiasm vanished, and they were ready to take the road again. We called them "Bread and Butter Shakers." Well, at one time they took a man into Hancock who professed to want to be a Shaker, and after a while the Sisters commented on the sugar that was left in his coffee cup. He said, "Well, I don't really care for it quite that sweet" (six spoonfuls maybe) "but," he said, "I want to get my share." And of course that's a very un-Shaker-like attitude. The real way was to give all you had and take as you needed.

NARRATOR: Each Shaker community was divided into several family units of twenty-five to a hundred men and women who lived together on opposite ends of a large dwelling house.

SR. LILLIAN: There was a distinct difference in the association of the brothers and sisters, and while we had deep regard for each other, we never were familiar enough to have any personal contact. That was considered on the animal plane, and our association was on the spiritual plane.

NARRATOR: In keeping with their idea of God as Mother and Father, there was strict equality of the sexes, and this dualistic vision was expressed in the separate but parallel doorways of their dwellings, in the symmetrical patterns of their worship, and in the equality of their leadership. Following the example of the primitive Christian church, they lived together like children of the same parents, sharing all property, and each member consecrating himself and all his work to the good of the whole. (Over a series of illustrations that include an engraving of Benson Lossing's watercolor "The March, Shaker Worship, Lebanon, Aug. 16, 1856," followed by a photograph of one of the outdoor recreational meetings in the Pine Grove near Canaan, New York, in the 1870s, and others)

SR. ELSIE: Many years ago there used to be so many of us—sometimes there'd be two and three to a room—and that's one thing you had to adjust yourself to, learn to get along with everybody.

[SINGING] "With a New Tongue" (Sung and "motioned" by Sr. Mildred)

With a new tongue I now will speak

And keep the valley lowly

I'll watch my thoughts and words this week

And have them pure and holy

Old Cross and Crabbed I will shun

They make one feel so ugly

I'd rather speak with Mother's tongue

And keep her blessing snugly

SR. FRANCES: (chuckling) That's good.

SR. LILLIAN: It did cost something to submit your will to someone else. And of course we were brought up to defer to our leaders. And I had been brought up to rule the roost, you might say. And this submitting to others in authority was good for me.

(Ringing of the Canterbury bell and view of the hilltop)

NARRATOR: (Reading passages from the "Millennial Laws" of 1845) "None shall be gathered into the Church or first family, who cleave unto their natural kindred of Fathers, Mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, or wives . . . ; none shall be gathered into this order, but such as may by obedience stand spotless before the Lord." "It is the duty of the Elders strictly to oversee the family placed under their care, and to gather the family to them by the arm of love and the rod of correction." "And all are required to lay open to their Elders, the true state and situation of their minds." "But all are privileged to suggest such things as they deem an improvement, and offer the same for consideration, showing the propriety thereof according to their understanding."

SR. FRANCES: They almost think you're kind of a weird person because you're giving up everything that's normal. I think we've all had this, don't you?

SR. ELSIE: My brother never liked it. He was always after me that I should leave. He just didn't—he said, "I can't see why you want to be a Shaker." And I said, "Well," I told him—and he said, "I don't like it," and I said, "Well, I don't like your wife either." But I said, "You like her, and I like the Shaker life!"

[SINGING] "Let Me Have Mother's Gospel" (Motioned by Sr. Mildred as she and others sing)

Let me have Mother's gospel, Mother's soul-saving gospel

That same life that she taught, that she lived in her day

Free from all that is carnal, breathing life, life eternal

From the World, from the Flesh, 'tis away, far away

SR. LILLIAN: (Over "The Final Procession" and "The Gift of Love, Evening Meeting" from The Graphic [1870])

That was one thing that won me when I saw the first Shaker meeting. Why, I really thought it was a band of angels. And oftentimes it would bring people to tears, and other times you'd feel lifted up. And, of course, it sank deeper than feeling with some of us—but it was the all-togetherness of it and the union of it that brought the inspiration.

[SINGING] "Yielding and Simple" (Sung and motioned by Eldress Marguerite Frost)

Yielding and simple may I be

Like the flowering willow tree

Humble in heart, pure and free

Pride and bondage spurning

Heavenly zephyrs around us blow

Gently sway us to and fro

Cause my soul in truth to grow

And from wrong be turning

ELDRESS MARGUERITE: You see it's humble, and simple—and it's pride-staining, too. Simplicity is the thing that makes people spiritual.

NARRATOR: (Over three woodcuts from David Lamson, Two Years among the Shakers [1848] and over two gift drawings by Sr. Hannah Cohoon and four by Polly Collins, both of Hancock, Massachusetts, and one by Polly Ann Reed and one by Miranda Barber, both of Mount Lebanon) The inspirational drawings and many of the songs that Shakers remember today are from an extraordinary period called The Era of Mother Ann's Work. Toward the middle of the last century all the Shaker societies were overwhelmed by a wave of intense spiritual activity. Mediums delivered powerful messages from Heavenly Father and Holy Mother, calling for repentance and confession. Outdoor meetings were held around a visionary fountain whose waters could be seen rising to the very heaven of heavens by those with spiritual eyes. Here Mother's children danced and sang with departed spirits and with angels and feasted on her holy gifts of spiritual food and wine.

[SINGING] "Who Will Bow and Bend like the Willow" (Sung a Sabbathday Lake group)

Who will bow and bend like the willow, who will turn and twist and reel

In the gale of simple freedom, from the bower of union flowing

Who will drink the wine of power, dropping down like a shower

Pride and bondage all forgetting, Mother's wine is freely working

Oh ho, I will have it, I will bow and bend to get it

I'll be reeling, turning, twisting, shake out all the starch and stiff'ning

ELDRESS MARGUERITE: They felt that they were close to the angels, that the angels walk with us. I think they do.

SR. MILDRED: The little song that I'm going to sing right now has a special significance to me, because when I was a child there was an older sister named Paulina Springer. Sister Paulina was very, very dear to me. I loved her. She was ninety years old, and she used to ask if I could be the one to come and help her do her chores every morning, make her bed, and clean up her room. And it was my greatest delight to do it, because I thought she was just an angel, nothing else. She lived to be ninety years old, (over photograph of Sr. Mildred as a young girl) and when she was dying she asked if the children could come in and see her. When I came up to her bed, she took my hand and said, "Mildred, I want you to promise me something." At that point in my life I'd have promised her anything in the world, I didn't care what it was. So I certainly would, I'd promise her anything. And she said, "Promise me that you'll be a Shaker." Of course I promised her, but it took me a great many years to fulfill the promise and to really come to the point where I knew what that promise meant. But it's always followed me—and as I've gone along through life, this little song which she sang—not especially at that particular time, but some years before, she had had the gift of this little song. But after she talked with us, we left, and she said to the sisters in the room, "I'm not going to be here much longer. She says, "There's two angels standing over by the cupboard door waiting for me." About twelve o'clock she just passed away. So this is the song:

[SINGING] "Mother Has Come with Her Beautiful Song" (Sung by Sr. Mildred)

Mother has come with her beautiful song—ho ho talla me ho

Mother has come with her beautiful song—ho ho talla me ho

She's come to bless her children dear—ho ho talla me ho

And Christ your Savior will be near—ho ho talla me ho

SR. MILDRED: She told us that she learned that from a little bird.

SISTER LILLIAN: Occupation, and being busy, was part of our salvation. As we gained this growth in spirit we showed it by the way our hands were put to work. We were to do our duty, do our work as though we were to live a thousand years and as though we were to die tomorrow, that there would be no regrets.

NARRATOR: Shaker workmanship became known throughout nineteenth-century America for its dependability, ingenuity, and excellence. The world bought their products and praised their labor-saving inventions. Although adult conversions began to wane, their villages became havens for homeless children, and membership was sustained by those who chose to stay. By 1860 Shaker landholdings had expanded to many thousands of acres, and they began to hire outsiders to help maintain these large and prosperous farms. Their material success did much to make them respectable in the eyes of the world, a world that had begun to change rapidly after the Civil War.

ELDRESS MARGUERITE: Well, around 1870 America began to develop steam, and then not too long after came electricity, and it began to be different. And boys don't want to live to grow up to be just farmers, so that drew them to the cities and away from their Shaker homes. And, well, some regretted it and some didn't.

SR. BERTHA LINDSAY: (V/O with shots of Canterbury, starting with one of Sr. Bertha as a young girl there) Well, when I first came here, there were over a hundred people here. The North Family was in existence, and the buildings of the Upper North Family were still standing. When I came, I didn't expect that it would ever go out of existence. I thought it would remain forever.

[SINGING] "Gratitude" (From Shaker Hymnal by the Canterbury Shakers [1908], sung by Sr. Bertha, accompanied by Sr. Lillian on the piano)

So much need have I to thank Thee For Thy mercy, care and love,

That I have no heart to murmur, And no lips but to approve.

Teach me how I best may serve Thee, Ev'ry conscious hour control;

Then but little have I given For the wealth that greets my soul.

ELDRESS MARGUERITE: (V/O with photographs of a Union Village dwelling and its appearance after a Victorian remodeling, a Shaker sister in late-nineteenth-century dress, and young Marguerite Frost with a trombone) Through my own early life they remember that Jesus had said to come out from among them, be separate, but as the years went by, less and less severity was countenanced, and oftentimes it became so that it was hard to tell the Church and the World apart.

SR. BERTHA: (V/0 with a view of Canterbury) The decision in 1957 was made to close the village to new members. At that time many of us were very sad about the decision, but we found that different people came for different purposes—some for the loaves and the fishes, very few for the religious ideals.

ELDRESS MARGUERITE: (V/O with a shot of Sabbathday Lake) The generality of people are satisfied to marry and give in marriage without much thought of spiritual things and probably that'll always be so. But there'll always be a few who will like to live unto God. Those few will do something. It may not be they'll call themselves Shakers, but they will still have that feeling inside of their joining with God.

(The sisters at Sabbathday Lake in prayer in the meeting room of the family dwelling, with cut-aways to the interior of their 1794 meeting house across the road)

[SINGING] "O Holy Father" (Sung by Sabbathday Lake group)

O holy Father I will be

A child of peace and purity

Full well I know Thy hand will bless

The seeker after righteousness

SR. MILDRED: Mother said that the time would come when Shakers would come down to a place where a child of four could count them on one hand. They would come up against a wall. But the work would go on. That was the prophecy.

SR. MILDRED: Amen.

[SINGING] "O, Brighter than the Morning Star" (Sung by the Sabbathday Lake group, over a gift drawing by Polly Collins of Hancock, with Credits superimposed)

O brighter than the morning star is the heart that's pure and free

And the light that's ever glowing there—the Star of Purity

The sun may wane, the stars go down, and reign of time be o'er

But the living light in the heart that's pure shall shine forevermore

The gems within the ocean deep, and the wealth her caverns bear

Let the ocean and her caverns keep, in darkness hidden there

But O, almighty Father, send Thine angels from above

To kindle in my heart a fire of purity and love

Credits:

Producers

Tom Davenport

Frank DeCola

Editor

Louise B. Stieg

Advisor

Dan Patterson

Research

Toby Foote

Sound

Don Berman

Mimi Davenport

Dan Barnett

Special Advisor to Sabbathday Lake

Ted Johnson

Archival materials

The Canterbury Shakers

Hancock Shaker Village

The Library of Congress

Manchester, England, Public Library

Manchester, New Hampshire, Historical Society

New York Historical Society

Old Chatham Shaker Museum

Elmer Ray Pearson

Sabbathday Lake Library

Shakertown, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

Western Reserve Historical Society

Winterthur Museum

Opening narration written by Benson Lossing, 1857

Special thanks to the Shaker sisters

Mildred Barker

Marie Burgess

Frances Carr

Elisabeth Dunn

Marguerite Frost

Minnie Green

Alice Howland

Ethel Hudson

Bertha Lindsay

Elsie McCool

Ethel Peacock

Lillian Phelps

Eleanor Philbrook

Gertrude Soule

Miriam Wall

Produced on grants to the American Crafts Council from

Ann Rockefeller Coste

and

The National Endowment for the Humanities

Director

Tom Davenport

Dedicated to the memory of Frank DeCola

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