Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager
“…I almost expect to be remembered as a chair, or a table…”
– Shaker Sister Mildred Barker, Sabbathday Lake, Maine
Who are the Shakers? What was Pleasant Hill?
These two questions cut directly to the core of the educational mission of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Deceptively simple upon first glance, they open the door to one of the most fascinating stories to emerge from the social, cultural and religious milieu of early 19th century America.
To put the matter simply, the Shakers were a dissenting religious group in 19th century England who migrated to America in 1774. With a devotion to physical, experiential worship and a strict adherence to celibacy, more than a few contemporary observers offered admonishment and predicted the group’s demise over the years. All such predictions, it should be noted, have thus far been wrong—as of this publication, the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, is still active!
Founded in 1806, Pleasant Hill was one of roughly two dozen intentional communities the Shakers established in the United States throughout the early 1800s. At Pleasant Hill, all covenant members chose to adopt the practice of celibacy, embrace gender and racial equality, live communally, and follow the leadership of community Ministers, Elders, and Eldresses as they advanced in their particular faith.
Reaching a height of nearly 500 members by the early 1820s, the community built impressive structures, established trade networks, and prospered economically due to the success of their agricultural operations. Although they declined in the later decades of the 19th century, Pleasant Hill Shakers lived in Mercer County, Kentucky until 1923.
Throughout the 20th century, however, the historical, religious and cultural aspects of Shakerism came to be overshadowed in broader American culture by the rise of the “Shaker” aesthetic—a focus on the simple, elegant designs of Shaker furniture and architecture. It was in the height of this frenzy that Sister Mildred Barker uttered the famous line in the 1980s that she would probably be remembered as nothing more than a piece of furniture.
Although the Shaker “moment” may not be as intense now as it was then, it is undeniable that the general perception of the Shakers and Pleasant Hill has been predominantly shaped by the Shaker aesthetic and an intense focus on craftsmanship and design.
While the attention to all things Shaker is welcome, the myopic focus on the Shaker aesthetic obscures the complex, varied, and ultimately triumphant human story at the heart of the Shaker legacy that is so incredibly relevant to our modern world.
So, again, we come to those two burning questions: Who are the Shakers? What was Pleasant Hill? These queries deserve more words than this blog post will permit, but it should be enough to note that any true answer would take us into the themes of family, devotion, religion, diversity, equality, creativity, and more—ideas to which everyone of us can relate.
I should be clear: the Shakers did not always live up to the ideals they strove to attain. At Pleasant Hill the community paid for enslaved labor, individual Shakers quarreled with one another, some stole meat from smokehouses, while one even left the community to become an armed bandit after the Civil War!
So how do we remember the Shakers? What aspects of their lives, choices, and characters are most worthy of emulation? What can we as individuals and communities learn from the quest for perfect union and harmony? What is there for us to discover in their failures? Ultimately, these questions must be answered by everyone in their own time. It would be a shame, however, if all we remembered was a chair.
To take an in-depth look at Shaker history at Pleasant Hill, join us for an Historic Village Tour, running daily throughout the year. Check the Event Schedule for tour times!