The Shakers were a religious sect who believed that favoritism in love was a bad thing. They believed that passion for a partner drained the proper passion one should have for God.
Sorry, but I think they were nuts.
Back at the beginning of the nineteenth century they were considered by most people to be well-meaning flakes with weird hairstyles. The men cut their hair in mullet-like fashion, I suppose, to broadcast to the world that they were “different” and possibly superior to the rest of fallen humanity.
Occasionally rumors about secret orgies filtered out from their well-manicured compounds scattered across a few states. There were stories about couples who joined the sect struggling to relinquish their personal bonds for community bonds. One way in which the Shakers helped in the process was to have one partner witness the other being humiliated over and over. Soon the witness would find the humiliated one repulsive to her.
Am I the only one who finds this gross?
Shakers are mostly known now for their cute little boxes, austere furnishings and the hymn Simple Gifts used famously in Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. But there was a time when some people viewed the Shakers with suspicion and even hatred.
Eunice Chapman had the great misfortune of being married to an awful drunk who occasionally spit in her face. Lovely. One day James Chapman deserted Eunice and their three children leaving her penniless. After enjoying his alcoholic freedom for a while he landed on the doorsteps of a Shaker community in SHAKER COMMUNITY in Watervliet, New York.
There he had a religious experience (or just found a place to live where good food was provided and his basic self absorption could be masked as a devotion only to God). How much easier is it to profess love for all people than to love individuals? From a distance humanity looks like a glossy photo shoot for National Geographic. Up close we see wrinkles, unrest and violence. Up close people expect things from you. Emotional, messy and uncomfortable things.
Shakers set up rules for engagement with the opposite sex. How they missed the passages in the Bible about passion, sex and procreation, we will never know. What we do know is that the prominent woman who popularized the sect hated having sex with her husband. Maybe he wasn’t any good in bed but using a religious experience to get out of it and then spreading your new gospel is going too far.
Yet I understand that women in horrible marriages had very few escape routes. In New York divorces could only be granted in cases of adultery. Married women had less rights than unmarried ones. Eunice Chapman was one of those married women.
The Shakers had no interest in splitting up families. They sent James back to Eunice hoping he would convince her to join the sect. She refused, James got belligerent and then kidnapped the children who were promptly indentured to the Shakers. Eunice attempted on multiple occasions to see the children who were devastated by the loss of their mother. After a few rocky episodes James, with the help of the Shakers, secretly moved the children to a different compound in another state.
In the perpetual struggle of well-meaning humanity the pendulum of justice often swings too far in one direction or the other. People are so damned black and white in their thinking (I suppose that’s why we should fear mobs of any kind). New York was once a state where men had all the rights when it came to their offspring. Now New York is one of the worst states to live in as a man in a failed marriage.
Eunice fought in the state legislature for years to get her children back. The Shakers in all of their religiosity lied to her and helped keep the children hidden. They may have believed the ends justified the means. Wouldn’t the children be better off in their communistic, fanatical society? Never trust anyone who says the ends justify the means!
Think of all the fanatics of the past : Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Sanger. Look at what’s happening in South Africa today. Is it really okay to rape and torture white farmers because you want to take their land without compensation? Is it okay because of past grievances?
Okay, so were the Shakers of the past even close to being anything like the above mentioned fanatics? No. Not exactly, but I wonder how many steps it takes once you dive into the us-against-them mentality to move from lying about the whereabouts of children to lying about where all those Jews went to.
Fanatics are dangerous because their motives are so off kilter. I’d never start a new religion to avoid sex. I’d never torture people for the sins of the past. I don’t have the animating energy of hatred to get the job done. Hating sex is all it takes for some people. Hating political opponents is all it takes for others.
THE GREAT DIVORCE was a fascinating read but highly disturbing as well. This little sect of people eventually died out (there are a few people living a sort-of Shaker lifestyle here and there), but their weird dances and extreme rules trouble me because fanaticism, no matter how seemingly quaint, always has the seeds of things more sinister.