~Shaker Hymn, used in Appalachian Spring by Aaron CoplandShaker Village of Pleasant Hill, near Harrodsburg, Ky, is America's largest restored Shaker community, and we spent a remarkable weekend there learning about this unusual group of people. I could get into history lecture mode, but will resist the urge. Instead, I encourage you to visit their website that goes into detail on the growth and decline of this religious group. The Shakers arrived in America from England just prior to the Revolutionary War. In 1805, a group of Shakers came to central Kentucky and established a village they named Pleasant Hill. Although the population peaked at almost 500 in the 1820s, the community thrived well past the mid-nineteenth century, acquiring over 4,000 acres of farmland. However, after the 1860s, changing social attitudes and the Industrial Revolution led to the community's decline.
Today we tend to think of religious sects or "cults" as being conservative in nature, eschewing modern conveniences and technology. The Shakers, however, were quite radical for the times. They practiced celibacy, pacifism, communal living, and the equality of women and men, recognizing the feminine side of God. They accepted all who asked to join them, although not all signed the covenant to live by all their practices, and would soon move on. They raised and educated any children who came their way, and taught each a trade. About a third of those children stayed on. They fed and cared for soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, and the Perryville battlefield (Kentucky's only) is not too far away.I could probably go on and on about the Shakers, but I'll let this interpreter finish for me. Just click the Play button, and remember, 'Tis the Gift to be Simple.
In agrarian Kentucky, the Shakers could build a house large enough for 80 "family" members to live, with running water and iron stoves to heat the rooms, while most other frontier people felt themselves elite to have a wood floor instead of a dirt floor for their two room log cabins. The Shakers started about the same time Abraham Lincoln was born not too far away. They invented many devises, including the circular saw and the flat-sided broom.
One adage that summarized their lives is Hands to Work, Hearts to God. They viewed their work and crafts as prayer, and perfection in everything was their goal. Shaker architecture and furniture are well known, particularly in Kentucky. The spiral staircase in the Trustees House is enough to make you dizzy when taking a photo straight up! At Sunday Meeting, they sat in silence, until the spirit moved them. Then it was joyful song and dance - with the sexes carefully separate from each other, of course. Ken Burns has a wonderful video he did for PBS in 1985 about the Shakers. If you get an opportunity, I highly recommend it.
The Center Family House now holds the museum of Shaker life. Everything was designed to be simple and useful. The many pegs on the walls of each room could hold clothes or chairs so the floor could be kept perfectly clean. Only the floor in the cellar is a replacement. All others are original to the building's 1824-1834 construction. The community closed in 1910 and the property was sold to private holders. The Meeting House was used as an automotive garage for a while, and the other buildings had various uses, or just sat vacant, yet when restored, they maintained the structural integrity built in by the Shakers.
Historical interpreters and re-enactors bring the Shakers to life again, making us think hard about our own lives and beliefs. Most people laugh and shake their heads when they first learn that the Shakers were celibate. How in the world did they expect to establish a religion that would last without marriage and children? Isn't that suicidal for their beliefs? Yet, how much time and effort do people devote to pleasing the opposite sex, or dominating and manipulating them, when that time could be spent devoted to God? I can see that women in bad marriages especially would find this very attractive doctrine. Sometimes entire families would be converted. The adults dissolved their marriage and became brothers and sisters, while the children went to live in the children's dormitories.
The Inn at Shaker Village hosts 70 guest rooms in the restored buildings, full of Shaker charm and modern conveniences. Our bedroom here was enormous, and we laughed that the Shakers probably housed 12 people in it! You can easily picture a peaceful life in the 1800's, complete with agrarian aromas if the wind blows in the right direction. As a birder, I loved hearing the Bob Whites and Meadow Larks right outside our room!