The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, , at sacred-texts.com
A Shaker Society consists of two classes or orders: the Novitiate and the Church Order. There is a general similarity in the life of these two; but to the Novitiate families are sent all applicants for admission to the community or Church, and here they are trained; and the elders of these families also receive inquiring strangers, and stand in somewhat nearer relations with the outer world than the Church families.
To the Church family or commune belong those who have determined to seclude themselves more entirely from contact with the outer world; and who aspire to live the highest spiritual life. Except so far as necessary business obliges deacons and care-takers to deal with the world, the members of the Church Order aim to live apart; and they do not receive or entertain strangers or applicants for membership, but confine their intercourse to members of other societies.
Formerly there was a considerable membership living in the world, maintaining the family relation so far as to educate children and transact business, but conforming to the Shaker rule of celibacy. This was allowed because of the difficulty of disposing of property, closing up business affairs, and perhaps on account of the unwillingness of husband or wife to follow the other partner into the Shaker family. There are still such members, but they are fewer in number than formerly. The Novitiate elders and elderesses keep some oversight,
by correspondence and by personal visits, over such outside members.
The Shaker family, or commune, usually consists of from thirty to eighty or ninety persons, men and women, with such children as may have been apprenticed to the society. These live together in one large house, divided as regards its upper stories into rooms capable of accommodating from four to eight persons. Each room contains as many simple cot-beds as it has occupants, the necessary washing utensils, a small looking-glass, a stove for the winter, a table for writing, and a considerable number of chairs, which, when not in use, are suspended from pegs along the wall. A wide hall separates the dormitories of the men from those of the women. Strips of home-made carpet, usually of very quiet colors, are laid upon the floors, but never tacked down.
On the first floor are the kitchen, pantry, store-rooms, and the common dining-hall; and in a Novitiate family there is also a small separate room, where strangers—visitors—eat, apart from the family.
Ranged around the family house or dwelling are buildings for the various pursuits of the society: the sisters' shop, where tailoring, basket-making, and other female industries are carried on; the brothers' shop, where broom-making, carpentry, and other men's pursuits are followed; the laundry, the stables, the fruit-house, wood-house, and often machine shops, saw-mills, etc.
If you are permitted to examine these shops and the dwelling of the family, you will notice that the most scrupulous cleanliness is every where practiced; if there is a stove in the room, a small broom and dust-pan hang near it, and a wood-box stands by it; scrapers and mats at the door invite you to make clean your shoes; and if the roads are muddy or snowy, a broom hung up outside the outer door mutely requests you to brush off all the mud or snow. The strips of carpet are easily lifted, and the floor beneath is as clean as though it were a
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SHAKER WOMEN AT WORK.
table to be eaten from. The walls are bare of pictures; not only because all ornament is wrong, but because frames are places where dust will lodge. The bedstead is a cot, covered with the bedclothing, and easily moved away to allow of dusting and sweeping. Mats meet you at the outer door and at every inner door. The floors of the halls and dining-room are polished until they shine.
Moreover all the walls, in hall and rooms, are lined with rows of wooden pegs, on which spare chairs, hats, cloaks, bonnets, and shawls are hung; and you presently perceive that neatness, order, and absolute cleanliness rule every where.
The government or administration of the Shaker societies is partly spiritual and partly temporal. "The visible Head of the Church of Christ on earth is vested in a Ministry, consisting of male and female, not less than three, and generally
four in number, two of each sex. The first in the Ministry stands as the leading elder of the society. Those who compose the Ministry are selected from the Church, and appointed by the last preceding head or leading character; and their authority is confirmed and established by the spontaneous union of the whole body. Those of the United Society who are selected and called to the important work of the Ministry, to lead and direct the Church of Christ, must be blameless characters, faithful, honest, and upright, clothed with the spirit of meekness and humility, gifted with wisdom and understanding, and of great experience in the things of God. As faithful embassadors of Christ, they are invested with wisdom and authority, by the revelation of God, to guide, teach, and direct his Church on earth in its spiritual travel, and to counsel and advise in other matters of importance, whether spiritual or temporal.
"To the Ministry appertains, therefore, the power to appoint ministers, elders, and deacons, and with the elders to assign offices of care and trust to such brethren and sisters as they shall judge to be best qualified for the several offices to which they may be assigned. Such appointments, being communicated to the members of the Church concerned, and having received the mutual approbation of the Church, or the family concerned, are thereby confirmed and established until altered or repealed by the same authority." *
"Although the society at New Lebanon is the centre of union to all the other societies, yet the more immediate duties of the Ministry in this place extend only to the two societies of New Lebanon and Watervliet. [Groveland has since been added to this circle.] Other societies are under the direction of a ministry appointed to preside over them; and in most instances two or more societies constitute a bishopric, being united under the superintendence of the same ministry."
Each society has ministers, in the Novitiate family, to instruct and train neophytes, and to go out into the world to preach when it may be desirable. Each family has two elders, male and female, to teach, exhort, and lead the family in spiritual concerns. It has also deacons and deaconesses, who provide for the support and convenience of the family, and regulate the various branches of industry in which the members are employed, and transact business with those without. Under the deacons are "care-takers," who are the foremen and forewomen in the different pursuits.
It will be seen that this is a complete and judicious system of administration. It has worked well for a long time. A notable feature of the system is that the members do not appoint their rulers, nor are they consulted openly or directly about such appointments. The Ministry are self-perpetuating; and they select and appoint all subordinates, being morally, but it seems not otherwise, responsible to the members.
Finally, "all the members are equally holden, according to their several abilities, to maintain one united interest, and therefore all labor with their hands, in some useful occupation, for the mutual comfort and benefit of themselves and each other, and for the general good of the society or family to which they belong. Ministers, elders, and deacons, all without exception, are industriously employed in some manual occupation, except in the time taken up in the necessary duties of their respective callings." So carefully is this rule observed that even the supreme heads of the Shaker Church—the four who constitute the Ministry at Mount Lebanon, Daniel Boler, Giles B. Avery, Ann Taylor, and Polly Reed—labor at basket-making in the intervals of their travels and ministrations, and have a separate little "shop" for this purpose near the church. They live in a house built against the church, and eat in a separate room in the family of the first order; and, I believe, generally keep themselves somewhat apart from the people.
The property of each society, no matter of how many families it is composed, is for convenience held in the name of the trustees, who are usually members of the Church family, or first order; but each family or commune keeps its own accounts and transacts its business separately.
The Shaker family rises at half-past four in the summer, and five o'clock in the winter; breakfasts at six or half-past six; dines at twelve; sups at six; and by nine or half-past all are in bed and the lights are out.
They eat in a general hall. The tables have no cloth, or rather are covered with oil-cloth; the men eat at one table, women at another, and children at a third; and the meal is eaten in silence, no conversation being held at table. When all are assembled for a meal they kneel in silence for a moment; and this is repeated on rising from the table, and on rising in the morning and before going to bed.
When they get up in the morning, each person takes two chairs, and, setting them back to back, takes off the bed clothing, piece by piece, and folding each neatly once, lays it across the backs of the chairs, the pillows being first laid on the seats of the chairs. In the men's rooms the slops are also carried out of the house by one of them; and the room is then left to the women, who sweep, make the beds, and put every thing to rights. All this is done before breakfast; and by breakfast time what New-Englanders call "chores" are all finished, and the day's work in the shops or in the fields may begin.
Each brother is assigned to a sister, who takes care of his clothing, mends when it is needed, looks after his washing, tells him when he requires a new garment, reproves him if he is not orderly, and keeps a general sisterly oversight over his habits and temporal needs.
In cooking, and the general labor of the dining-room and kitchen, the sisters take turns; a certain number, sufficient to
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make the work light, serving a month at a time. The younger sisters do the washing and ironing; and the clothes which are washed on Monday are not ironed till the following week.
Their diet is simple but sufficient. Pork is never eaten, and only a part of the Shaker people eat any meat at all. Many use no food produced by animals, denying themselves even milk, butter, and eggs. At Mount Lebanon, and in some of the other societies, two tables are set, one with, the other without meat. They consume much fruit, eating it at every meal; and the Shakers have always fine and extensive vegetable gardens and orchards.
After breakfast every body goes to work; and the "caretakers," who are subordinate to the deacons, and are foremen in fact, take their followers to their proper employments. When, as in harvest, an extra number of hands is needed at any labor, it is of course easy to divert at once a sufficient force to the place. The women do not labor in the fields, except in such light work as picking berries. Shakers do not toil severely.
[paragraph continues] They are not in haste to be rich; and they have found that for their support, economically as they live, it is not necessary to make labor painful. Many hands make light work; and where all are interested alike, they hold that labor may be made and is made a pleasure.
Their evenings are well filled with such diversions as they regard wholesome. Instrumental music they do not generally allow themselves, but they sing well; and much time is spent in learning new hymns and tunes, which they profess to receive constantly from the spirit world. Some sort of meeting of the family is held every evening. At Mount Lebanon, for instance, on Monday evening there is a general meeting in the dining-hall, where selected articles from the newspapers are read, crimes and accidents being omitted as unprofitable; and the selections consisting largely of scientific news, speeches on public affairs, and the general news of the world. They prefer such matter as conveys information of the important political and social movements of the day; and the elder usually makes the extracts. At this meeting, too, letters from other societies are read. On Tuesday evening they meet in the assembly hall for singing, marching, etc. Wednesday night is devoted to a union meeting for conversation. Thursday night is a "laboring meeting," which means the regular religious service, where they "labor to get good." Friday is devoted to new songs and hymns; and Saturday evening to worship. On Sunday evening, finally, they visit at each other's rooms, three or four sisters visiting the brethren in each room, by appointment, and engaging in singing and in conversation upon general subjects.
In their religious services there is little or no audible prayer; they say that God does not need spoken words, and that the mental aspiration is sufficient. Their aim too, as they say, is to "walk with God," as with a friend; and mental prayer may be a large part of their lives without interruption to usual avocations. They do not regularly read the Bible.
The Sunday service is held either in the "meeting-house," when two or three families, all composing the society, join together; or in the large assembly hall which is found in every family house. In the meeting-house there are generally benches, on which the people sit until all are assembled. In the assembly hall there are only seats ranged along the walls; and the members of the family, as they enter, take their accustomed places, standing, in the ranks which are formed for worship. The men face the women, the older men and women in the front, the elders standing at the head of the first rank. A somewhat broad space or gangway is left between the two front ranks. After the singing of a hymn, the elder usually makes a brief address upon holiness of living and consecration to God; he is followed by the eldress; and thereupon the ranks are broken, and a dozen of the brethren and sisters, forming a separate square on the floor, begin a lively hymn tune, in which all the rest join, marching around the room to a quick step, the women following the men, and all often clapping their hands.
The exercises are varied by reforming the ranks; by speaking from men and women; by singing; and by dancing as they march, "as David danced before the Lord"—the dance being a kind of shuffle. Occasionally one of the members, more deeply moved than the rest, or perhaps in some tribulation of soul, asks the prayers of the others; or one comes to the front, and, bowing before the elder and eldress, begins to whirl, a singular exercise which is sometimes continued for a considerable time, and is a remarkable performance. Then some brother or sister is impressed to deliver a message of comfort or warning from the spirit-land; or some spirit asks the prayers of the assembly: on such occasions the elder asks all to kneel for a few moments in silent prayer.
In their marching and dancing they hold their hands before them, and make a motion as of gathering something to themselves:
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SHAKER WORSHIP—THE DANCE.
this is called gathering a blessing. In like manner, when any brother or sister asks for their prayers and sympathy, they, reversing their hands, push toward him that which he asks.
All the movements are performed with much precision and in exact order; their tunes are usually in quick time, and the singers keep time admirably. The words of the elder guide the meeting; and at his bidding all disperse in a somewhat summary manner. It is, I believe, an object with them to vary the order of their meetings, and thus give life to them.
New members are admitted with great caution. Usually a person who is moved to become a Shaker has made a visit to the Novitiate family of some society, remaining long enough to satisfy himself that membership would be agreeable to him. During this preliminary visit he lives separately from the family, but is admitted to their religious meetings, and is fully informed
of the doctrines, practices, and requirements of the Shaker people. If then he still desires admission, he is expected to set his affairs in order, so that he shall not leave any unfulfilled obligations behind him in the world. If he has debts, they must be paid; if he has a wife, she must freely give her consent to the husband leaving her; or if it is a woman, her husband must consent. If there are children, they must be provided for, and placed so as not to suffer neglect, either within the society, or with other and proper persons.
It is not necessary that applicants for admission shall possess property. The only question the society asks and seeks to be satisfied upon is, "Are you sick of sin, and do you want salvation from it?" A candidate for admission is usually taken on trial for a year at least, in order that the society may be satisfied of his fitness; of course he may leave at any time.
The first and chief requirement, on admission, is that the neophyte shall make a complete and open confession of the sins of his whole past life to two elders of his or her own sex; and the completeness of this confession is rigidly demanded. Mother Ann's practice on this point I have quoted elsewhere. As this is one of the most prominent peculiarities of the Shaker Society, it may be interesting to quote here some passages from their books describing the detail on which they insist. Elder George Albert Lomas writes:
"Any one seeking admission as a member is required, ere we can give any encouragement at all, to settle all debts and contracts to the satisfaction of creditors, and then our rule is If candid seekers after salvation come to us, we neither accept nor reject them; we admit them, leaving the Spirit of Goodness to decide as to their sincerity, to bless their efforts, if such, or to make them very dissatisfied if hypocritical. After becoming thoroughly acquainted with our principles, we ask individuals to give evidence of their sincerity, if really sick of sin, by an honest confession of every improper transaction or sin that lies within the reach of their memory. This confession of sin to elders of their own sex, appointed for the purpose, we believe to be the door of hope to the soul, the Christian valley
of Achor, and one which every sin-sick soul seizes with avidity, as being far more comforting than embarrassing. And this opportunity remains a permanent institution with us—to confess, retract our wrongs as memory may recall them; and aids individuals in so thoroughly repenting of past sins that they are enabled to leave them in the rear, while they pass on to greater salvations. It often takes years for individuals to complete this work of thorough confession and repentance; but upon this, more than upon aught else, depends their success as permanent and happy members. Those who choose to use deceit, often do so, but never make reliable members: always uncomfortable while they remain; and very few do or can remain, unless they fulfill this important demand of 'opening the mind.' If we do not detect their insincerity, God does, and they are tempted of the devil beyond their wish to remain with the Shakers; while he that confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall find mercy. This is not a confession to mortality, but unto God, witnessed by those who have thoroughly experienced the practical results of the ordeal. 'My son, give glory to the God of heaven; confess unto him, and tell me what thou hast done.'" *
Another authority says on this subject:
"All such as receive the grace of God which bringeth salvation, first honestly bring their former deeds of darkness to the light, by confessing all their sins, with a full determination to forsake them forever. By so doing they find justification and acceptance with God, and receive that power by which they become dead indeed unto sin, and alive unto God, through Jesus Christ, and are enabled to follow his example, and walk even as he walked." †
A third writer reasons thus upon confession:
"As all the secret actions of men are open and known to God, therefore a confession made in secret, though professedly made to God, can bring nothing to light; and the sinner may perhaps have as little fear of God in confessing his sins in this manner as he had in committing them. And as nothing is brought to the light by confessing his sins in this manner, he feels no cross in it; nor does he thereby find any mortification to that carnal nature which first led him into sin; and is therefore liable to run again into the same acts of sin as he was before his confession. But let
the sinner appear in the presence of a faithful servant of Christ, and there confess honestly his every secret sin, one by one, of whatever nature or name, and faithfully lay open his whole life, without any covering or disguise, and he will then feel a humiliating sense of himself, in the presence of God, in a manner which he never experienced before. He will then, in very deed, find a mortifying cross to his carnal nature, and feel the crucifixion of his lust and pride where he never did before. He will then perceive the essential difference between confessing his sins in the dark, where no mortal ear can hear him, and actually bringing his evil deeds to the light of one individual child of God; and he will then be convinced that a confession made before the light of God in one of his true witnesses can bring upon him a more awful sense of his accountability both to God and man than all his confessions in darkness had ever done." *
Community of property is one of the leading principles of the Shakers. "It is an established principle of faith in the Church, that all who are received as members thereof do freely and voluntarily, of their own deliberate choice, dedicate, devote, and consecrate themselves, with all they possess, to the service of God forever." In accordance with this rule, the neophyte brings with him his property; but as he is still on trial, and may prove unfit, or find himself uncomfortable, he is not allowed to give up his property unreservedly to the society; but only its use, agreeing that so long as he remains he will require neither wages for his labor nor interest for that which he brought in. On these terms he may remain as long as he proves his fitness. But when at last he is moved to enter the higher or Church order, he formally makes over to the society, forever, and without power of taking it back, all that he owns. The articles of agreement by which he does this read as follows:
"We solemnly and conscientiously dedicate, devote, and give up ourselves and services, together with all our temporal interest, to God and his people; to be under the care and direction of such elders, deacons, or trustees as have been or may
hereafter be established in the Church, according to the first article of this Covenant.
"We further covenant and agree that it is and shall be the special duty of the deacons and trustees, appointed as aforesaid, to have the immediate charge and oversight of all and singular the property, estate, and interest dedicated, devoted, and given up as aforesaid; and it shall also be the duty of the said deacons and trustees to appropriate, use, and improve the said united interest for the benefit of the Church, for the relief of the poor, and for such other charitable and religious purposes as the Gospel may require and the said deacons or trustees in their wisdom shall see fit; Provided nevertheless, that all the transactions of the said deacons or trustees, in their use, management, and disposal of the aforesaid united interest, shall be for the benefit and privilege, and in behalf of the Church (to which the said deacons or trustees are and shall be held responsible), and not for any personal or private interest, object, or purpose whatsoever.
"As the sole object, purpose, and design of our uniting in a covenant relation, as a Church or body of people, in Gospel union, was from the beginning, and still is, faithfully and honestly to receive, improve, and diffuse the manifold gifts of God, both of a spiritual and temporal nature, for the mutual protection, support, comfort, and happiness of each other, as brethren and sisters in the Gospel, and for such other pious and charitable purposes as the Gospel may require; Therefore we do, by virtue of this Covenant, solemnly and conscientiously, jointly and individually, for ourselves, our heirs, and assigns, promise and declare, in the presence of God and each other, and to all men, that we will never hereafter, neither directly nor indirectly, make nor require any account of any interest, property, labor, or service which has been, or which may be devoted by us or any of us to the purposes aforesaid; nor bring any charge of debt or damage, nor hold any demand
whatever against the Church, nor against any member or members thereof, on account of any property or service given, rendered, devoted, or consecrated to the aforesaid sacred and charitable purpose."
As under this agreement or covenant no accounts can be demanded, so the societies and families have no annual or business meetings, nor is any business report ever made to the members.
Agriculture and horticulture are the foundations of all the communes or families; but with these they have united some small manufactures. For instance, some of the families make brooms, others dry sweet corn, raise and put up garden seeds, make medicinal extracts; make mops, baskets, chairs; one society makes large casks, and so on. A complete list of these industries in all the societies will be found further on. It will be seen that the range is not great.
Besides this, they aim, as far as possible, to supply their own needs. Thus they make all their own clothing, and formerly made also their own woolen cloths and flannels. They make shoes, do all their own carpentering, and, as far as is convenient, raise the food they consume. They have usually fine barns, and all the arrangements for working are of the best and most convenient. For instance, at Mount Lebanon the different families saw their firewood by a power-saw, and store it in huge wood-houses, that it may be seasoned before it is used. In their farming operations they spare no pains; but, working slowly year after year, redeem the soil, clear it of stones, and have clean tillage. They are fond of such minute and careful culture as is required in raising garden seeds. They keep fine stock, and their barns are usually admirably arranged to save labor.
Their buildings are always of the best, and kept in the best order and repair.
Their savings they invest chiefly in land; and many families
own considerable estates outside of their own limits. In the cultivation of these outlying farms they employ hired laborers, and build for them comfortable houses. About Lebanon, I am told, a farmer who is in the employ of the Shakers is considered a fortunate man, as they are kind and liberal in their dealings. Every where they have the reputation of being strictly honest and fair in all their transactions with the world's people.
The dress of the men is remarkable for a very broad, stiff-brimmed, white or gray felt hat, and a long coat of light blue. The women wear gowns with many plaits in the skirt; and a singular head-dress or cap of light material, which so completely hides the hair, and so encroaches upon the face, that a stranger is at first unable to distinguish the old from the
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SISTERS IN EVERY DAY COSTUME.
young. Out of doors they wear the deep sun-bonnet known in this country commonly as a Shaker bonnet. They do not profess to adhere to a uniform; but have adopted what they find to be a convenient style of dress, and will not change it until they find something better.
138:* "Summary View," etc.
146:* "Plain Talks on Practical Religion," etc.
146:† "Christ's First and Second Appearing. By Shakers."
147:* "Summary View," etc.