Monday, July 15, 2013

The Shaker Experience in America by Stephen Stein

Today's post comes from Mr. Walrath.

This spring and early summer I have had to read three books for a week long workshop for the National Endowment for the Arts program on the Shakers held at Siena College.  Some of the books were better than others.

    The first book was titled The Shaker Experience in America by Stephen Stein.  It tells the history of the Shaker religion, and it reads almost like a textbook.  The Shaker religion started in America in 1774 when Ann Lee and eight followers landed in New York City from England.  They quickly bought some land near what is today the Albany Airport and formed a community.  They preached the gospel around New England trying to form more communities and then in the early 1800s spread into the states of Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio.  At the height of Shakerism there were probably 5-6 thousand practicing Shakers within about 20 communities.  Today there are three practicing Shakers in one community in the state of Maine. 

    The term "Shaker" comes from the phenomenon of often shaking and sometimes rolling around on the floor while speaking or yelling in strange languages during times of intense religious worship.  Shakers have some interesting beliefs.  They are a communal society meaning they all live together in large dormitory style buildings.  They work together and put the community ahead of their own well-being.  Sounds good, but another aspect of Shakerism is that celibacy is a must.  You can only become Christlike by living like Christ, and he never married.  Sometimes families became Shakers, but the husband and wife had to become like brother and sister when they joined the community.  In the communities men ate at one end of the dining hall while women ate at the other.  Also, in the all important worship service, men and women faced each other from opposite ends of the meeting hall.  These customs help explain why Shakerism has almost died out.  Shakers cannot have any children after they join.  It also explains why the number of men became fewer and fewer as the 1800s progressed.

    I learned a lot from this book, but I cannot say that I enjoyed reading it.

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