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Documentary Review - Ken Burns' The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)

By Edited Jun 29, 2016 0 0

Ken Burns

Ken Burns stated that he chose the topic of the Shakers for his second film because his first project, “Brooklyn Bridge,” concerned urban American history. The story of the Shakers allowed him to explore rural American history. David McCullough is the narrator of this fascinating tale which features interviews with some of the few Shakers who are still alive, as well as comments by noted historians and philosophers. Ken Burns’ co-director for this assignment was Amy Stechler who was once married to Ken Burns.


Ken Burns

                                                                    Ken Burns, Producer

Foundation of the Shakers

The founder of the Shakers in America was a woman named Ann Lee who brought the Shaker sect from Manchester, England to the American Colonies in 1774. The sect was known in England as the Shaking Quakers because of the ecstatic shaking and dancing that they carried on in their worship. They called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Ann Lee had an unhappy arranged marriage which may be the reason she insisted that her followers remain celibate. They also sought simplicity and perfection in everything they did. Their most well-known legacy is the exquisitely fine furniture and housing which they built, which today are examples of some of the greatest architecture and furnishings in U. S. history. Few people know that they invented the clothes pin. Thomas Merton remarked that they showed such great care in making their chairs in the belief that an angel might come and sit on it.


Shaker Furniture

                                                                          Shaker Furniture

Personal Stories

At the time of the documentary, there were less than 12 Shakers left who lived in two very old villages in New Hampshire. Three of these survivors, all women, explained their beliefs and practices, giving first-hand accounts of the life they led and how it influenced them for their entire lives. The sweet simplicity of these ladies was charming. One agreed to sing a song she learned in her childhood. Another spoke of how all were treated with such love, and knew that they were loved. The sect took in orphans and educated them. At one point, they bought a slave so that he would acquire his freedom; he became a devout Shaker and never experienced any prejudice.

Beliefs and Practices

They were firm believers in pacifism and practiced natural health and hygiene habits. They supported social, economic and religious equality for all. The hamlets where they lived were always meticulously clean, and smelled good. Their desire was to represent heaven on earth. The group in America was never larger than a few thousand man and women. Yet, they accomplished an amazing feat and their legacy is out of all proportion to their numbers. Ann Lee herself was an illiterate factory worker. She bore 4 children, who all died. She and her eight companions settled in Watervliet, NY near Albany, where their revival occurred. The fearful and the hurting were drawn to her. They called her Mother Ann. No photographic or drawn image of her was ever made.

The Shakers had a love for people and for each other. They lived by the teachings of Christianity. Mother Ann traveled on foot across New England making thousands of converts from that area, attracted by the power of the new religion. Newcomers signed a Covenant. They were the first to espouse common property. To some, however, it was a frightening decision. The dictates of celibacy scared them away. They were often attacked by enemies of religion. In the Meeting House that was constructed, the men entered at the west doors, and the women at the east doors. No whispering, talking or laughing was allowed.

The Kentucky Revival occurred in 1805. Three believers traveled to Kentucky and conducted a mass camp meeting. Forty-four converts signed the Covenant in the village of Pleasant Hill. The leaders from New England were not familiar with limestone which was used in Kentucky for erecting buildings. On their second try, their effort was flawless


Shakers at Work

                                                               A Gathering of Shakers                                                                

Craftsmanship of the Shakers

Sixty years after Mother Ann came to America, 17 Shaker communities were flourishing throughout the U. S. They put their hand to many types of crafts. They were bookbinders, photographers; they raised cattle and silkworms; they distilled whiskey and ran a hotel. They sold wines, jellies, and pickles; they loomed fabrics and packaged garden seeds. They made pipes, buckles and pens. They were farmers, beekeepers, architects, carpenters, printers, bakers, chemists, and merchants. One Shaker sister invented the circular saw. Their belief was that their energy came from the sublimation of sex in their struggle to become closer to God.

The men were up at 5:30 in the morning; and at 4:30 in the summer. Work began after a silent prayer and before breakfast. The women would awake and start their indoor chores for the day, which included preparing breakfast for the men when they came in from the fields. The men often had apple pie for breakfast, as they were hungry from their work. They served God by caring about the work that they performed.


Shakers at Work
                                                                                           Shakers at Work                                   


On the Sabbath, there were sometimes 500 people at their meeting, solemnly singing in perfect harmony. A meeting might even last for 22 hours, with worshipping, dancing, chanting, and the sound of piercing shrieks. There were usually two elders and two eldresses to govern each community. The entire group got together each evening for worship, for dancing, and for socializing. Oftentimes in the winter, newcomers would ask to be taken in, under the pretext of wanting to join. They were called “winter Shakers,” and were never refused, even though it was known that they would leave come springtime. It was discovered that some of their poorer neighbors were stealing vegetables at night. Instead of confronting them, the Shakers planted additional crops, to take care of the thieves, the crows, and themselves.

Pacifism during the Civil War

With the advent of the Civil War, the Shakers’ dedication to the idea of pacifism was tested. They went to Lincoln, who exempted them from military service. They thus became the first conscientious objectors. Following the War, 100,000 Americans joined new religions. There were Transcendentalists, Mormons, the Amana and the Aurora groups. The Shakers were the oldest and the soundest of the new religions.


Shakers Dancing
                                                                       Shakers Dancing at Worship

Opportunities on the Outside

How could a group of celibates such as these last? The reality is that they did not. At their height in 1840, there were 6000 believers in the U. S. But the Society was going down gradually on the male side of the house. Younger ones were running off. It seemed like the right thing to do, because there were fewer and fewer young people. With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and mass production, the Shakers could not compete with outside wares. There were new opportunities in the business world for young people. In one area of the country, some former members made a living performing the original dances they learned when they were Shakers. The believers forgot the call to simplicity. They grew flowers, read newspapers, and traveled. They covered their floors with linoleum and oriental carpets. They became modernized, taking on current innovations.

The Shaker story is a story of devotion, invention, ingenuity, simple crafts and dancing. The documentary was filmed at a few of the existing Shaker locations, with music re-created from their original authentic songs. We are indebted to the Shakers for much that is part of the ease and comfort of our modern life in the U.S.

The Shaker Legacy: Perspectives on an Enduring Furniture Style
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