Digital Photography by George Cassidy Payne
Throughout the diverse and tumultuous history of Christianity, there have been hundreds if not thousands of denominations and sects. Only a few of these communities practiced gender equality. Even fewer followed a woman as a spiritual leader. And only one, that I am aware of, considered that woman to be as important as Jesus Christ. The sect I am referring to are the Shakers, one of the most intriguing and successful Utopian societies in American history. The woman was Anne Lee (29 February 1736-8 September 1784), commonly known as Mother Ann Lee.
On a recent pass through the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, I found time to stop by the historic Shaker village of Hancock, the third of 18 communities established by the Shakers throughout the Northeastern and Midwestern United States from 1776 to 1830. According to the museum’s well designed website, “At its peak — in the 1830s — Hancock`s agriculture-based economy, supplemented by some manufacturing, enabled the sect to become almost self-sufficient… grown under the leadership of Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright, with land donated by converted farmers… the Hancock community had more than 3,000 acres and 300 members. The community gradually declined, in part due to the urban migration that followed the Industrial Revolution. By the early 1900s, only 50 members remained, most of them children. Eventually, excess land was sold and many buildings were destroyed.”
Although the village I stumbled upon on a grey and frigid February morning only stirred with the farm noises of sheep and cattle, the preserved buildings, tools, and main chapel felt enlivened by the perennial genius of world class woodworkers, stone masons, and furniture makers. There is an aura to the place.
Theologically, the Shakers were hardly alone in their beliefs, but they still managed to carve out a unique reputation based on how they practiced their faith. In addition to believing in strict gender equality, the Shakers adhered to pacifism, celibacy, simplicity, communal living, and, most significantly, Christian millenarianism. Believing the Second Coming was imminent, they called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ`s Second Appearing. But it was another characteristic that gave them their popular identity and name. They danced. Shaker religious expression took the form of singing and ecstatic dance, earning them the half teasing moniker, “The Shaking Quakers.”
Shaker service — often sending participants into convulsions and trances — became a tourist attraction as early as the 1840s. Yet not everyone was allowed to observe the sacred gatherings. One famous visitor to the village hoping to catch a glimpse of the spectacle was a miffed Charles Dickens, who wrote: “we walked into a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs, and the time was grimly told by a grim clock.” (Another notable visitor who may have actually witnessed the ritual included the naturalist Henry David Thoreau.)
On this trip there was no dancing for me either. But the starkness of the landscape and single digit temperature aside, I found nothing grim in the air at Hancock. As a museum and preservation site, it is a remarkable accomplishment, one that invites guests to transport themselves to another time when utopias were not only imagined but tried out with dramatic results. If Hancock failed to sustain its impressive success, that was an inevitable byproduct of mistaken theology. Even in failure, they still managed to create an American story that left behind a legacy of admiration, courage, and excellence. — GCP
Hancock Shaker Village is located on Route 20 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, just west of the junction of Routes 20 and 41.
• From Albany, New York (approximately 1 hour)
Take Route I-90 east to Exit 11E (Route 20) Nassau
Follow Route 20 east into Massachusetts. The Village’s entrance is on the right, approximately 3 miles from the New York/Massachusetts border.