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.
14 responses to “Shakers Lie”
I suspect the humiliation of a partner to turn the other partner off was done mostly to the women, not the men. Am I right?
No, actually in the case written about in the book it was the man who was humiliated and made powerless. Emasculation seemed to work. The woman became very powerful in the community and “got past” her strong love for her husband. LOL.
Wow. What an eye opener. Thanks!
I was expecting a lot of quaint anecdotes from the book but it ended up being far more interesting. Thanks for reading, George.
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An interesting perspective in which, although I strongly disagree in general, you have mentioned some challenging points about the Society.
I have pretty harsh feelings about fanatics 🙂
Obviously the Shakers were not involved in genocide. They were flawed as we all are. I had nothing bad to say about them until I read this book that highlighted their hypocrisy. My great-great-great grandfather was taken in by the Shakers as a child and stayed with them for two years. They treated him well but he eventually ran away.
Love to know what things you disagree with. I’m always open to having my mind changed. 🙂
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I understand where you’re coming from, Adrienne.
It was a difficult life for them, and they held to a very harsh discipline.
Still, the simplicity of their art and lives were geared toward the idea of “hands to work, hearts to God”, and being a mystic at heart, I can’t find a thing negative to say about their motives.
I wrote a post on their site at Pleasant Hill, if you’re interested in another perspective on their society.
🙂 Cheers! 🙂
I will go check it out! Yes, I believe their intentions may have been good but I think, as far as scripture goes, misguided. My take on Christ’s teachings is that no matter what lengths we go to, no matter how arduous the path we choose, we will fall far short of God’s perfection. We’ve already proven time and again how imperfectly we handle life. It’s the reason we even needed a savior so the perfectionists of the 19th century paved the way for so much self-help stuff that leads right back to the focus on self as opposed to God… okay just rambling over my first cup of coffee this morning. As for me I could never do without the companionship of men. I like them too much. 😉
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Adrienne: I believe we are here for the purpose of refining ourselves through experience, and I do very much appreciate and agree with your perspective on perfection !! ( and also on the whole chastity thing ) . 😀
Yes. Agree 100%. We are here to be sanctified (usually through struggle and pain–ugh). I’d rather have pain creep up on me than to seek it out. It would be very painful for me to give up the masculine influences in my life. LOL. I used to be a perfectionist in the extreme so I have a very keen sense of contempt for societies that elevate the notion. But then I can be extreme in my opinions anyway. I’m not good at the simple life.
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The simple life has a wonderful appeal for a part of my mind- unfortunately, it’s the part that doesn’t have to deal with real day-to-day life. 😀
Have you ever read The Simple Life by Scott and Helen Nearing? They were extremely intense but I don’t think they realized it. 🙂
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Adrienne: I will add it onto my book shopping list , and will let you know how I liked it… self sufficiency has always held a fascination for me… I even tried it once back in the late 90’s. Thanks for the excellent suggestion ! 🙂
Adrienne: Here’s an interesting article on them I just read : https://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/living-the-good-life-zmaz77mazbon