The term “Shaker,” originally used as a pejorative for members of a dissenting Quaker church which called itself the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, referred to the sect’s ecstatic form of worship. Founded in England in 1747, the Shakers practiced a religion that was also a lifestyle. The members lived in gender-segregated, dormitory-like housing, but came together to work and pray. Like the Quakers, they believed in personal communication with a God who was both male and female, and in the ability to find and give voice to the Inner Light. These expressions took the form of hymns and work songs, of which “Simple Gifts” is the most famous, as well as rhythmic swaying and “dancing” when the spirit moved them.
Besides leading a simple but comfortably self-sufficient existence from the fruits of their land, the Shakers came to be known for their architecture, crafts, and furniture. Shaker design, with its clean, economic lines, is the quintessential statement of the happy marriage of form and function–a tangible embodiment of the Shaker credo “Beauty rests on utility.”
Except for Mother Ann’s missionary trips to win converts, and the cottage industries through which the Shakers sold furniture and crafts to their neighbors, the members of the sect consciously insulated themselves from the rest of the world. At their peak the Shakers boasted eighteen communities, in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky; one of the largest was 300 strong. The Shakers flourished into 20th century, when celibacy took its toll and their numbers dwindled to near extinction. One of the last of the proud villages to close was the City of Peace, or Hancock Village, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which became a ghost town in 1960 when the last of its inhabitants moved away. The village stands today as a museum and monument to the simplicity and integrity of the Shaker tradition and its continuing influence on American folk art and aesthetics.
The Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” written by Elder Joseph Bracket in 1848 and published in 1940 in The Gift to be Simple: Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers, has acquired the status of an American classic. Some of its most famous permutations are found in Aaron Copland’s vocal arrangement of the song, and in his variations on the tune that conclude the ballet Appalachian Spring. The rondo-like form of “Simple Gifts” combines the stomping pulses of work with the swaying rhythms of the Shaker dancing prayer.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Photo: Shaker barn, Hancock, New York i.e., Massachusetts, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID van 5a52961