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Monday, February 21, 2011

We are the Urban Shakers. Reflections on sects and sex.

The Shaking Quakers or Shakers were one of a wide variety of religious sects which propagated during the early history of our country. The United States of America quickly became a haven for some serious oddballs, even in the years of being colonies. I imagine an adviser going to King George and The Archbishop of Canterbury (who is in charge of the Church of England) saying,

Advisor: Your Majesty, Your Grace, we aren't quite sure what to do with this group. Shakers they call them.
Archbishop of Canterbury: They are a threat to our state-endorsed religion and our holy sacraments. What do you recommend?
Advisor: Your Majesty, Your Grace, with your mandate we can send them to the colonies.
King George: Right-e-o. We can still tax them.
Archbishop of Canterbury: And don't have to worry about their strange religion?
Together: Bonus! Let's do it!

The Quakers and the Shakers didn't believe in having human mediators (priests or archbishops). No one is quite sure, but it's believed that the Shakers came from the Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends). (The Shakers were also called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.)

The Shakers believed in the good ol' Protestant work ethic before it was called that. You could say they invented it. They believed that their hard work was an act of prayer unto the Lord.

They sang with gusto, danced during services (called turning), wrote their own songs, and made furniture. They spoke in tongues, too. Mother Ann Lee traveled around the Colonies preaching that people should repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who was coming soon.

And they were CELIBATE. Forever.

Celibacy was believed to be preparation for the Kingdom and Christ's return. It wasn't celibacy until marriage, it was celibacy forever. Sex was the source of sin, going all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden. If you were married, your marriage was dissolved. If you owned property, you surrendered it. If you had children, they were absorbed into the collective.

If you were not married, you weren't ever supposed to marry. (ever) And you certainly weren't supposed to have sex. (Never ever.) They believed in channeling their sexual energy into creativity. They worked and slept completely segregated from the opposite sex. (Sounds nice sometimes!) But they all worshiped together.

Incidentally, they were extremely productive and invented the Shaker chair, the clothespin, the flat broom, the wheel-driven washing machine, sold seeds in paper packets, made people aware of healing herbs, wrote many songs, and made additional folk art and artifacts. They also invented choralography by creating symbolic dances to their songs. You might recognize "Simple Gifts" or "Lord of the Dance." Recently REM and Weezer both used references to Shaker hymns or teachings. I can guarantee the song wasn't sung the way Jewel sings it, but it's still quite lovely.

The Shaker community was positive for women who were considered spiritual equals and held positions of leadership. Women also preached and taught since they were single and were free to serve only God rather than a husband. (Circa 1749. Wow!)

Since they didn't procreate children, they added to their numbers by adopting orphaned children. Many of those children took off as soon as they hit 21. Some notables did stay, including Isaac Newton Youngs who wrote books including one on music theory and music notation, and another on the history of the Shakers. He learned multiple trades, invented a few key things, and wrote poetry. (Maybe there's something to this.)

At their height, there were 6,000 members in multiple communities. Today there are a few Shakers left who reside at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine. I'm sure you're like, "Wait, there are still Shakers?" Yep. 3.

What slowly killed them off? The industrial revolution meant others could make cheaper goods and many people who might be otherwise inclined toward celibate life moved to cities for work. Our society is generally less religious. In the 1960s new laws prevented religious communities from adopting children. They now have to hire employees to keep their last community running. It's basically a museum.

Adults who wish to embrace Shaker life are most welcome to join...

The thing is, I think we have. But we've joined by default. And we aren't living in a community. If the church continues to preach in the manner that it does, it will shoot itself in the foot. Society at large already deals with the graying of the populace and an overextended social security system. The church tells us it's all OK, that God may have called us to singleness, that our work should be an act of prayer, that being single and celibate is BETTER. We are told to only seek worship and holiness at church. Or maybe that's just one of my pastors to me and apostate thoughts passes between singles. Or maybe the feminist cry of "you don't need a man."

Do they even know what they are saying? We are treading in shark-infested waters. And we've heard it before. We know where it leads. It leads to 3 Shakers left.

The unfortunate aspect of our modern Shakerism is that we shall not be identified as a group, or known for our collective contributions, nor do we have a sense of a community as these farming, creative, and religious communities did. There will be no equivalent of Shaker folk art, Shakers chairs, and Shaker hymns to be studied and collected. We are too divided. We don't have a self-sufficient community with its own farms.

Our singleness is a byproduct. An accident. A mistake. Most of us want to be married and in relationships. At least the Shakers were/are intentional. With the exception of the legendary celibate Morrissey, we will be remembered as an end note and a sad comment. And even Morrissey tried to find love. We certainly won't be remembered as a slightly looney sexless sect with a rich history and culture.

Please visit my Nun Wedding articles from when one of my friends became a nun.

Some music for you...

It's in the the piano part at the beginning...

Hang up your chairs to better sweep/ Clear the floor to dance/ Shake the rug into the fireplace...Mother Ann Lee

Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment!


Ms. Blasé said...

I'm not quite sure if I understood, but I would hope that today's Christian singles are intentionally celibate and living with purpose. I would hope that we as a group do not identify ourselves by our marital status, but by who we are in Christ.

I can see how singleness could be looked upon as better since one does not have to care for and be concerned for a spouse or children. However, to put a value on being single or being married is erroneous, I believe. They are both invaluable in God's sight and both situations have their challenges. One is not better than the other; they are just different.

Finally, I would say that the Shakers' demise came as a result of not having sex. No reproduction ultimately means extinction.

Miss365 said...

You know what Savvy, I've never been told anything in my Church or Churches over the years specifically or explicitly about being single. Oh, I've been prayed for that I'll get married and I've heard numerous tales of preaching about marriage and occasionally on being widowed but never on the calling of singleness. It's something that is so fraught with danger of hurt feelings and the fact that in order it seems to be a Pastor you are married anyway that it never comes up.

Give us enough time and we may be known as the 'Society of Single Online Bloggers & Forum Dwellers' because that's where I am finding my fellowship with singles these days ;)

SavvyD said...

@Miss 365 and @Ms. Blase What's missing is the actual community that these Shaker people shared.

And we might be living intentionally and serving the Lord, but we are working in a secular culture and want to marry - some very badly - and cannot find someone.

That's COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than giving it all up forever and wanting to do that and choosing to live in a community together.

SavvyD said...

Are y'all ready to move to Maine and join the remaining Shakers? It's like Catholic nuns and priests.

Let's do it!

Ms. Blasé said...

I believe community is not merely about a specific location, just as the church is not solely about the four walls of a building. Community, like church, is about a oneness and unity of beliefs, fellowshipping regularly with those of a like heart and working together to fulfill a common goal. In order to reach and positively influence the world, Christian communities must extend helping hands outward, not retreat inward.

And who knows, perhaps some of those Shakers who chose to give up marriage completely were actually predistined by God TO marry, but never realized it because they had turned their back from the possibilities. I, for example, don't particularly desire to have children, but I'm not going to COMPLETELY turn my back on the idea because, in the end, it's God's will and not my will that must be done. If God desires for me to have a child, I have faith that He will provide a righteous husband, in addition to all of the love, grace and mercy that we will need to parent a child in way that's pleasing to Him.

Yes, we as Christians live in a secular society, but we are also called to be the light and salt of the earth. We cannot fulfill that duty if we isolate ourselves in a closed-off community. As a people, I believe we must also live with our hands and hearts open to God so that He can fill them with His desires, not closed off waiting for Him to fulfill ours. Is it meant for me to marry? Only God knows. And I trust that He will reveal His will to me as I continue to walk with Him from day to day.

SavvyD said...

@ms. Blase You are missing the whole point. Single today are individuals, not a unified community. You can believe in community as a unified belief system all you want it's not the same. It has to be a unified place or places to accomplish a goal and make a mark.

The Shaker community made a mark with purposely choosing celibacy and creating a rich history together.

You are waiting on the Lord to provide a husband IF he so desires.

completely different.

Whether or not you think they were actually called to marry, this is what many of them chose for themselves, unless they were raised in it. You can't debate someone else's decision from the past. they were apparently not predestined to be married as they didn't marry in their lifetimes and are no longer living.

Our problem today is that we are NOT purposely choosing to be celibate forever as they did.

We want to marry and are waiting until we do and desperately hoping and looking, and praying and crying out to God over it.

It's just NOT the same thing at all.

Back in the 1860s at the height of their community, the only way to guarantee that you didn't have children was to declare yourself celibate and move in with the Shakers or the nuns. I daresay, considering the rate of death t women in childbirth, it didn't sound like a bad deal at the time.