“’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where you ought to be…”
Simplicity has become synonymous with the Shaker experience – as has the song Simple Gifts, emphasis on simple. The most obvious visible manifestation of the Shaker legacy of simplicity can be seen today in the form and function of their architecture and furniture, but in reality this value infused all aspects of the Shaker’s life. What we see, however, was far from simple to achieve.
Today, the word simple has come to mean plain or easily done, basic or uncomplicated, but for the Shakers, it meant something so much more.
The Shakers considered simplicity to be a sacred gift, one that members worked their entire lives to achieve. Simplicity to the shakers meant modesty and humility, and was a constant reminder to focus on faith and their spiritual path.
In music written for Shaker worship, simplicity is often portrayed as a willow tree, humbly bowing, and bending, and being open to accept God’s gifts.
“I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble, yea, bow like the willow tree.”
Themes of simplicity can also be found in the Millennial Laws, the rules that the Shakers lived by. Upon entering the Pleasant Hill community, members deeded their personal possessions to the society, and were given modest goods and attire to meet their basic needs.
All members lived communally and supported one another. To live simply meant to shed all excess and focus on the inward path of the soul, rather than on pride and vanity and material goods.
Hand labor was thought to be good for the soul, and craftsmanship in this way became a symbol for moving closer to God. “Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.”
To create a perfect piece of furniture was not an aesthetic pursuit, but a spiritual one. Craftsmanship was not perfected for personal gain or glory, and the difficult process helped to teach members humility. The Millennial Laws reiterated this by prohibiting signatures and unnecessary markings on items of manufacture so that the end product would not distract from the process and utility of the piece.
The Shakers wasted no design detail, and even their structures were built based upon functionality. As a result they appear quite simple. The peg lined walls, the large built-in cupboards, and the spacious floors of the dwelling houses – it took thoughtful design to create such orderly and simple spaces.
At Pleasant Hill, the dual spiral staircase in the Trustees’ Office is the perfect juxtaposition between the simple and the complex, as what appears to flow upward with such ease hides the intricacy that lies just beneath the surface.
Accessible through a stairwell door, the heavy structure that supports the staircase is an impressive work of engineering. The technical elements (like the massive timbers and the cantilevered steps), however, are concealed in favor of the simple and graceful free flowing aesthetic. What we are left with in the upward movement of the staircase is the embodiment of simplicity, of elevating the spirit toward the light.
The next time you see the Trustees’ Office staircase, or a piece of Shaker furniture, or you hum the tune to Simple Gifts, or you hear the lines ”When true simplicity is gained,” remember that true simplicity was hard to achieve – but that’s what made it so worth striving toward.
Social distancing. Stay at home orders. No school. No worship. Essential activities only. Take care of each other.
Sound familiar? While this sounds a lot like things that we’ve been experiencing for the past three months, all those things actually refer to the lives of the Pleasant Hill Shakers from December 1850-February 1851. In mid-December, a few of the folks in the Centre Family came down with a sickness, and within a week it was confirmed to be smallpox. On December 18, the East Family Deaconess recorded this:
“There being a contagious disease prevailing at the Centre Family at this time called the varioloid, it was concluded this morning not to take up school any more for the present & discontinued all intercourse between the Families as far as practicable, so as to prevent the spreading any further if possible…and now all business is mainly suspended in that Family except to cook and wash and take care of the sick etc.” (East Family Deaconess Journal, Filson Historical Society Shaker Collection v.4)
While the village leadership moved quickly, they weren’t able to totally contain it – cases later arose in the East and West families. In the following weeks, the Shakers tried to navigate their daily routines while managing this illness. School for the boys and girls were both suspended. Normal routines were disrupted for weeks, and nowhere was this more evident than in the weekly Sunday worship in the Meeting House. This was an important time for the entire community to meet, and yet week after week journal entries on Sunday read “Meeting at home.”
On January 28, good news finally arrived…but with an exception: “Tuesday 8 oclock P.M. We assembled in the meeting room, and the Elders informed us that the varioloid had so far subsided that there but three cases remaining, one in each Family, and they were kept to themselves, so that it was thought to be safe for the Families to resume their usual intercourse and pursuits. (A separation having been kept since about the 18th Ult., to prevent the disease from spreading.) But it was not thought to be prudent to assemble at the meeting house next Sabbath &c.”(FHS Shaker Collection v.7) It would be March 1, almost 3 months in total, until they collectively met at the Meeting House again. From there, life appeared to return to normal.
Our experience with COVID-19 is not the first time that a disease has shaken life at Pleasant Hill. While it isn’t exactly the same (a localized smallpox outbreak vs. a worldwide pandemic), there are similarities in our experiences. So, I’d like to notice a few lessons that the Pleasant Hill Shakers can teach us as we start to transition into a new phase of life at Pleasant Hill.
It’s Okay to Go Slow
As noted above, on January 28, the Ministry felt like it was ok to resume normal activities, except for assembling at the Meeting House. It would be another month until that happened. This makes total sense, considering what we know about Shaker worship – lots of people in close quarters, singing, dancing, shouting, shaking. Participating in this activity would likely be worse than a bunch of modern teenagers spending their spring break together at the beach. Instead, the Ministry chose a course of deliberate, phased reopening, to use terms that we are used to today.
It’s Okay to Modify Your Behavior
“One o’clock, P.M. Meeting at home by reason of affliction, the varioloid still prevailing at the Center family. We had an orderly meeting, attended with considerable life and zeal…We made no donation of clothing for fear of conveying the varioloid or small pox to such as might receive them.” (25 December 1850, FHS.v.7)
Just because they couldn’t meet at the Meeting House, didn’t mean they lost their roles or identities as Shakers. They met at home for 3 months, still worshiping with those that were able. They even suspended the donation to the poor on Christmas, an important yearly practice, because of this. They modified their behavior because the unique circumstances demanded it, and once it was over, they were luckily able to resume their standard routines.
“This morning the Center Family took their bed clothes & wooling clothing to the fulling mill to wash & clear out the small pox and the next day they went on washing the walls of their dwelling house and taking up carpets brushing & cleaning them and every thing else until they had cleared off every thing that was tainted with the pox.” (15 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal, Harrodsburg Historical Society Collection)
Don’t Forget About Others
“I went to the East House to see the sick folks and found them bad- indeed Elizabeth was bedfast, Electa’s life was fast running away with a cancer, Triphena was also confined to the room with a swelling on her thigh, John Badget had been confined to his room for some time with a cut on his foot and was now fast able to walk about a little, Samuel was quite weak & his sense much scattered but still went to the shop.” (3 December 1851, Polly Harris Journal)
Polly Harris lived in the West Family. She didn’t have to go to East Family (and she probably shouldn’t have), but I imagine she wanted to check on them. Other times, medications and vaccinations were supplied to those in need. Others had to chip in and help with jobs that couldn’t be done because of sickness. And during some of the home meetings, they would send their love to those who were sick in other families. The point is that they didn’t forget about the others around them who might need assistance.
Remember, There’s a Lot Going On
“In consequence of the small pox The Ministry & the Center Family alone attended the funeral of our Worthy Brother [Abram Wilhite] at 8 o’clock in the morning It being a very pleasant pretty day for the season of the year the Brethren & Sisters all went to the Grave yard that ware able.” (11 January 1851, Polly Harris Journal)
When she visited the East Family, Polly Harris found a lot of sickness that wasn’t smallpox. Then on top of this, there were members of the community dying, some from smallpox, but also from other causes, like Abram Wilhite. Some were unable to attend the funeral for obvious reasons, but according to another journal, some didn’t attend because they were “afraid of the pox.” Add this to the already difficult disruption of daily lives that were normally very structured. I can imagine this being extremely overwhelming to many of the Shakers.
As an extension to the previous point, don’t forget that others around you are living through a lot right now – sickness, death, unemployment, fear. Then add the growing civil and racial unrest in our country to the mix. No matter how you experience this, don’t forget about the others around you processing the exact same things, but perhaps in very different ways. There is a lot going on right now.
“One oclock Meeting to day was held at home…We was called upon in the commencement of the meeting by the elder brother to be mindful to walk thankfully and humbly before God for the great blessing we now enjoy of good health while so many of our worthy brethren and sisters are suffering in the other families from the destestible disease Small pox, bed colds &c.” (12 January 1851, FHS v.6)
When “Normal” Returns – Make it Memorable
“Holy Mother Ann’s Birth – This day was kept in commemoration of our ever blessed Mother’s birth we assembled to the meeting house at the usual hour one, where we met the good ministry and the church at large, there beloved Elder James addressed the assembly thus, “Beloved friends, brethren & sisters, I feel thankful to meet with you again in this most favored and sacred place, after an absence of near three months, and will be well for each one if they have come prepared to commemorate in truth and reality our Mothers birth, mission &c, and do honor to the cause of salvation as made manifest to us, her children through her painful travel and soul sufferings, we therefore combine together to sing dance and give honor, praise and glory to her most sacred and worthy Name…” (1 March 1851, FHS v.6)
“We then went forth in the march & circular dance, being informed at the same time that the guardian angels that attended Jesus Christ and Mother Ann while on earth were present, together with a number of our deceased friends who once lived in Pleasant Hill.” (1 March 1851, FHS v.7)
Mother Ann’s birthday was always a notable day for the Shakers. They sang and danced, and were even “visited” by a host of angels and spirits. While this might have been a pretty normal occurrence for this time period, I believe that the day as a whole had a memorable quality because of the events of the previous three months. If you could talk to the Shakers who were there that day, what would they remember?
I don’t pretend to know exactly what the future holds, but we can be encouraged by the experiences of the Pleasant Hill Shakers 170 years ago. They can give us a lot to think about. Don’t forget that even though they lived communally, separated from the outside world to a degree, they were people just like us trying to navigate all the challenges that this world threw at them. I believe, on some level, we can all sympathize with the sentiment expressed by this writer in February 1851:
“Our meetings from the last date have been orderly and ordinary up to the first of March. All seemed to be eager and anxiously waiting for a cessation of the disease, and a restoration to health, a restoration to free intermingling one with another in sociality and friendship and especially to meet again in the sacred worship of God, there to embrace each other in the sweetest enjoyment of gospel love and affection.” (FHS v.6)
“… We observed one very pleasant feature… conspicuous above many other excellencies, nearly every person in speaking makes the visitor kindly welcome to Pleasant Hill.” -Henry Blinn, “A Journey to Kentucky in the Year 1873”
Pleasant Hill has been welcoming visitors and guests to its grounds for over 200 years. Although established as a community intentionally separated from the outside world, it was never possible for the Shakers to completely isolate themselves. In addition to conducting business with outsiders, many Shakers from other communities also visited. These Shakers were among the first “guests” welcomed to Pleasant Hill.
Two Shakers visiting from New York, Isaac Newton Youngs and Rufus Bishop, provided an enlightening description of their welcome in 1834. According to the men, “Soon after we arrived at Lexington, we found Elder George Runyon and Rufus Bryant there from Pleasant Hill very glad to meet us, they pay great attention to us and do everything they can to make us comfortable.”
Nearly four decades later, Henry Blinn, visiting from New England, reported a similar feeling of warm hospitality. “Br Elhannen came to pay us a visit. He said that Elder James was always anxious that visitors should be properly attended to…Thus far the introduction into a southern society had proved itself to be one of gospel love & affection, and we retired to rest with a grateful heart.”
Financial difficulties in the late-1800s forced Pleasant Hill to sell land and buildings, and by 1897 the East Family Dwelling had been sold and converted into the Shaker Hotel that was operated by Sister Jane Sutton. Eventually, this building would become the Shakertown Inn, run by Nannie Embry. Embry was enamored of the history of the Shakers and drew upon the community as inspiration for her business model: “And as for the tradition of hospitality, the very building we occupy was for many years a Shaker boarding house where weary city folk came for rest.“
The Shakertown Inn would eventually close in 1940, as would another hotel operation that had been begun in the Trustees’ Office a few decades earlier, the Shaker Mary Guest House.
Overnight lodging returned to Pleasant Hill with the establishment of the non-profit organization that still operates The Inn today. Just as Shaker legacies continued to inspire the various hotel proprietors during the years after the Shakers, today at The Inn at Shaker Village we remain influenced by Shaker style and history.
The Inn at Shaker Village has 72 guest rooms spread out over 13 historic Shaker buildings. The rooms have been updated with modern amenities, but they retain their Shaker simplicity. From accommodations in buildings such as the East and West Family Dwellings that are akin to a hotel, to cottages that can be booked in their entirety, staying overnight at The Inn is a special way to experience the history of hospitality at Pleasant Hill that we continue to this day.
Visit our website to book your stay and enjoy this slice of Kentucky and American history! As Nannie Embry quipped in the 1920s, “the charm of the place is a practical peace.”
This blog post is dedicated to Rebekah Roberts who sought the truth in the past, and tried to give voice to the voiceless.
In 1899, visitors
from Berea arrived at Pleasant Hill for a meal.
As they began eating, they asked the Shaker “sister in charge”
a series of questions to learn more about the history and beliefs of the Shakers.
“‘How do you deal with such difficult
problems as woman’s rights?’
Jane Sutton, the sister in charge, responded: ‘Theoretically the brethren and sisters are equal in all things, but practically,’ with a little laugh, ‘the brethren try to keep just a little ahead.'” (The Berea Reporter, “Shakertown,” April 3, 1899)
As a woman in
power at Pleasant Hill, Jane Sutton would know!
Pleasant Hill’s first and only active female Trustee, Jane Sutton saw
the practical reality of doing business as a woman in the 19th century.
Gender equality has
always been a core belief of the Shaker faith.
Men and women were equal in all things through the Shaker’s belief in
the duality of God. This belief was
manifested in the leadership and hierarchical structure of Shaker
communities. Gender equality in practice
for the Shakers meant that all received an education, all could aspire to
leadership roles, and all had access to the same accommodations and
amenities. Yet, the Shakers were still
products of the 19th century.
During the 19th
century, men and women were thought to inhabit separate spheres in society,
with women inhabiting the private sphere and men the public sphere. Often referred to as the ‘Cult of
Domesticity,’ it was believed that woman, as traditional caregivers, had
control of the home, the children, and domestic affairs. This gendered role also dictated that women
had no place in the business world that existed outside of the home. Though the Shakers practiced gender equality
in their leadership structure, these traditional gender roles were still
present in their distribution of labor.
Shaker sisters were responsible for cleaning, cooking, laundry, and
textile production, while Shaker brethren were responsible for broom
production, furniture making, tending to the livestock and crops, and other matters
Men and women did
have equal say in matters of governance at Pleasant Hill, but women did not have
access to leadership in business for much of the 19th century. Throughout the history of Pleasant Hill,
there were usually two male Trustees that handled the community’s finances,
legal deeds and contracts, and managed commercial partnerships with businesses
of the world. Women did have a role at
the Office, but their primary responsibility was to cook and clean, and serve
meals to the visiting public.
As demographics shifted in the second half of the 1800s, however, women began to assume more responsibility based on need. Sister Jane Sutton was one such woman.
Sister Jane Sutton
was born in 1832, and arrived at Pleasant Hill in 1834. By 1868 she went to live and work in the Office. Journal records indicate that Sutton joined
Pleasant Hill Trustees on trading trips throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and
oversaw the “public dining room” at the Trustees’ Office. On Oct. 1, 1894, she was officially appointed
a Trustee along with two other Shakers. In
her role as Trustee, she also oversaw the Shaker Hotel after it opened in 1897
to visitors. By 1910, however, it
appears that Sutton no longer served as a Trustee. In the contract that sold
the declining community’s lands to a local businessman, Sister Jane was not listed
as one of the official Trustees that signed their names to the contract. Though she and her fellow sisters outnumbered
the remaining men of the community, 10 to 2 in fact, the men took charge of
this final matter of business.
Sister Jane Sutton
passed away on December 29, 1912. The
following journal entry was written in the weeks before her passing, “Sister Jane is known and loved by
everyone. She has been one of the
commanding figures of Shakertown for years and is a natural leader who would
command respect and a following no matter in what walk of life she had been
placed. There are many, even outside the
Shaker Village, who will grieve that her firm hand is beginning to tremble with
the weakness of age.”
While gender equality was a staple of Shaker ideology, it appears in practice that such equity was often hard to obtain. Jane Sutton provides us with a glimpse into the world of nineteenth century business from the female point of view, and as she says, with a little laugh, “the brethren try to keep just a little ahead.”
Women in the 1700s were often considered the possessions and servants of men, but Ann Lee violated social norms, becoming one of only ten female preachers identified in the United States before 1800. As leader of the Shaker movement, she proclaimed a dual-natured Father and Mother God as a basis for gender equality.
Born February 29, 1736 in Manchester, England, Ann Lee began working twelve-hour shifts in a textile mill as a child. She never attended school, and remained illiterate her entire life. The second-oldest of eight children, Ann Lee played a vital role in raising her younger siblings and ultimately watched her mother die in childbirth.
Ann Lee was active in a group called the “Shaking Quakers” when she was forced to marry. She protested this act by never assuming her husband’s surname. She detested the concept of intercourse from a young age, and the inability to avoid the dangers of childbirth. She barely survived the birth of her four children, three of whom died in infancy, and a daughter who passed at age six. Ann Lee believed that these traumatic experiences were God’s judgement and responded with a vow of celibacy, turning away from sex and all other worldly desires.
Ann Lee took her message to the streets, proselytizing in public spaces and interrupting church services, which resulted in her repeated incarceration. While imprisoned, she envisioned God directing an escape from religious persecution in the New World. She rallied eight followers and they settled in New York in 1774 amidst the burgeoning American Revolution.
In 1781, Ann Lee left with two disciples on a missionary journey throughout New England. In opposition to the traditional church, she rejected written creeds in favor of reflection and ongoing revelation. Ann Lee was described as direct but nurturing, like a mother, and developed personal relationships with followers, referred to as her children.
Mother Ann was arrested and accused of being an enemy of the patriots. She was thought to be a man in disguise, or a witch, and was dragged from her bed and beaten. Public meetings included converts who confessed their sins to Mother Ann, alongside mobs organized by churches and ruffians alike, who drove the Shakers out of towns. Everywhere she traveled, Mother Ann attracted an audience.
Mother Ann’s message was simple: Forsake all worldly pleasures and find salvation in the Father and the Mother. This message captivated women of the 18th century. Women had no body autonomy in marriage, nor assured choice in husband. Monetary earnings from a job went to the husband, and women had no legal shelter from abuse, nor right to her children if the husband left. Women could not purchase land.
The radical commune celebrating a dual-natured God embodied independence for 18th century women, who had the opportunity to live as equals in Shaker society.
In 1784, the local newspaper published the death of “Ms. Lee, known by the appellation of the Elect Lady, or Mother Zion, and the head of that people called Shakers.”
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill | 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg KY 40330 | shakervillageky.org | 800.734.5611