Monday, May 29, 2017

Celibate Christian Communists in Ohio

kinda hard to read, see text to the right
Several years ago I was out and about in rural Southwestern Ohio when I came across an old Shaker Cemetery. There were a few individual markers in this relatively large graveyard but it was the large engraved stone in the center that got my attention. It read:
Erected by the Society of Shakers
White Water Village
An Order Of Celibate Christian Communists
To Honor the Memory Of The Members Whose Mortal Remains Are Interred in This Lot

All I really knew of the Shakers was the fact that they produced plain, durable, handcrafted furniture. Maybe similar to the Amish but with added holy roller flavor. That "Celibate Christian Communists" phrase piqued my curiosity. I set out to learn more.

One of those famous chairs
The Shakers were predominantly an 18th and 19th-century religion with origins in English Quakerism. Eventually, they came to America and established their own communities.

Officially they are called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming and their worship services tended to be frenzied and ecstatic, hence the name "Shakers". The Shakers believed in equality of the sexes, the second coming of Christ, and communal living, which was called communism well before Karl Marx.
Overall they seem to fit in with 19th-century spiritualism. I've read of other communal religious societies from that time period such as the one in nearby ghost town Utopia, OH and the more famous Oneida Community in New York that claimed future President Garfield assassin Charles Giteau as a member.

It gets a bit more interesting...
Shaker Village to the North, looks nice but read the fine print
While identifying as Christian, Shakers did not consider Christ a deity but instead an agent of God. They believed men and women were made in God's image and equal. Since the first Christ was male, the second Christ would be female. They felt this already happened in the form of their religion's founder, English born former Quaker Mother Ann Lee, whose visions led her to this conclusion and brought her followers to America in 1774. Yup.
This belief meant women took leadership roles in the church. That in itself was a radical idea in 18th century America and seems progressive on the surface. The fact is, living spaces were still segregated as were schools and work-related roles. Separate but equal I guess.

Ok, that's great, now get to the sex part. Or lack thereof.

Additionally and probably the most puzzling of all, the Shakers believed all sex was a sin and celibacy was a path to God. This didn't just apply to church leaders or the unmarried. Everyone. Mother Ann Lee taught that sex was "the root and foundation of human depravity". That's a big drawback for a commune and had to be a hard sell when they got to that page of the brochure. In fact, they didn't even believe in marriage. I guess it was OK for others to be depraved because instead of sexual procreation to multiply their flock, the Shakers adopted orphaned children into their communities and relied on conversion of adults.

19th century Shakers shaking
The Shaker movement began on another continent in the early 1700s and virtually disappeared by 1920. That's a long run compared to other communal societies that tend to fizzle out after a few decades at best. While it's no surprise that Shakers went extinct, it seems surprising that it took so long.  If you aren't having babies then your membership is going to stall. As pacifists, they were conscientious objectors. They also didn't vote or generally participate in public life. This generated distrust from other Americans who expected otherwise. You would think all of the above would have done them in.
It was the US Civil War that brought on a rapid change that the Shakers could not adapt to. Major industrialization occurred in the postbellum era which started an economic decline for the Shakers. Folks were now able to purchase cheaper mass produced items instead of more expensive Shaker made goods. Membership started declining as new converts were hard to come by as the Shakers became less financially prosperous. Existing members left when they found the lifestyle too difficult to adhere to. Similar to the Amish, at age 21, folks could decide to stay or go. Additionally, adoption laws started to be reformed in the late 19th century. The Shakers were separatists in a closed society. Technological advances in transportation and communication such as trains and the telegraph altered the world and increased the difficulty of maintaining that separation.  Despite the popular notion, non-traditional Protestant Christian religions were not always welcomed in the US. Just read about the hard times of the early Mormons, Quakers, and Catholics in the US. We were even debating the idea of a Catholic President in 1960. What America really had going for it was land and plenty of it. Folks could spread out a bit and stay out of each other's way. For a while.
Another odd bit, The White Water Shaker Settlement which was active from 1824-1916, south of this cemetery attracted former Millerites who believed in the April 1843 Christ's Second Coming. Maybe you heard but that didn't pan out. The Shakers convinced some of these greatly disappointed Millerites that this already occurred in the form of Mother Ann Lee.

1816 Shaker text
As stated before, the Shakers were known for their simple furniture styles but they were also known for many inventions and improvements on existing items. Since they were a closed society they didn't patent anything. It's difficult to verify but some of the items attributed to the Shakers are the one piece clothespin, packaged seeds, dentures, and a circular saw. For some reason, there is a hydroelectric power station in Kentucky named after Mother Ann Lee. There was a Shaker village nearby but it seems strange to me that such a high tech power installation such as this would be named after the leader of an old-time religion.

The Shakers goal was to create a working Heaven on Earth during what they believed to be the time of the second reign of the Christ spirit while practicing the value of hard work. However, it is ironic their secular contributions such as furniture and labor-saving innovations will be their true legacy and not their Celibate Christian Communism.
The Shaker movement peaked during the Civil War with 6,000 members and dozens of villages. By the 20th century there were only 12 active communities and by 2017 there was one community in Maine with 2 members.They are still open to converts.

other sources and additional reading:
- Cincinnati Enquirer 04/07/1968 article on a man who lived at the village (scroll down to the OCR text)
- Ken Burns film on the Shakers