In previous posts I have covered many of the denominations that have embraced Kentucky. The Shakers, also known as the Society of Believers, had an interesting history in the state. A group of 18th century English Quakers earned this unusual title when many of them were taken with a different life-style and mode of worship. Mother Ann Lee, after suffering a disastrous and cold marriage, divorced her husband and said that she had begun seeing visions of the Divine. She shared these visions and began a style of worship known as the Shakers because of their worship style including shaking while rapturously dancing. Her visions became the basis of the Shaker doctrines - a direct communication between Christ and his people.
She drew upon celibacy in the goal of perfection and rejected any Calvinistic teachings of predestination and election. If the followers would but reject the world and any carnal living, they had a chance of being part of the resurrection of life. Mother Lee told her followers that the Millennium began the day she had her first vision and believers who followed her teachings were part of the Millennium. She appears to have believed that she was the female form of Christâ€™s return to earth.
After persecution in England, Mother Lee and her band of believers came to the shores of America in 1774. By the 1830â€™s there were Shaker movements in nineteen communities in the New England area and as far as New York to Ohio, Indiana and then Kentucky. Their beliefs included common ownership of property, shared workloads, and separation of the sexes into different facilities. Property was given to the Shaker community but still held in the title of the original owner. If the owner desired to leave the community, they were allowed to and everything was returned to them. Families came together but no physical contact was allowed between them, or the children. Nurses reared the children and tended them in illness, the parents were not involved. Divorces only occurred if one of the Shakers desired it, otherwise, the marriages continued but no contact could be made privately between the spouses. The State of Kentucky added a special provision for Shakers who wished to divorce. If the couple had to meet, it was only with chaperones. All were considered part of a family which ranged from fifty to 150 individuals who lived like brothers and sisters. Slaves were allowed to be part of the community and on paper, still belonged to their previous owners; however, they worked and lived separately.
Each family unit was led by two elders and two eldresses who acted as parents. They were responsible for guiding their â€œfamilyâ€ spiritually and saw that there were no infractions. An infraction normally resulted in public confession before the rest of the family with the other members crying out â€œWoeâ€, â€œWoeâ€ and periods of repentance and prayer. Strict reports were maintained which were turned into the head organization and each elder and eldress wanted to turn in a sterling report.
The families built spartan homes, more like an apartment complex with separate quarters for the men and women, with separate staircases separating the sections. The elders or eldresses took their responsibilities seriously and checked frequently that the men and women were in bed at the appropriate times and not sneaking out to meet spouse or boyfriend.
The communities were to be self-sustaining. Members were assigned particular chores for a period of time, then alternated. The women sewed, did the laundry, cooked, served, worked the vegetable gardens. The men built grist mills, worked the fields (on donated land given by the members), raised the livestock. Visitors were encouraged and the Shakers sold their goods to have the money to continue.
Schools were held for the children with teachers brought in from other Shaker communities: sometimes a non-Shaker was allowed to teach but was not allowed to teach anything that would go against the doctrines of the Shakers. Foreign languages were forbidden so as not to put too many thoughts into the heads of the young people. Primarily they were taught reading, writing, poetry and how to â€œdo figures.â€
The ladies, crowed 15-20 to a room, had only spartan life-styles. Their uniforms all matched, much like the Quaker attire, but they were allowed to have them different colors (if they could make the dye to color the dress). Little white caps had to be worn by all, no jewelry was allowed.
Typically, a Shaker day began at 4 am in the summer and 5 am in the winter. Prayer beside their beds was done first, then the Brothers (men) went about their farm chores and the Sisters cleaned. They made everyoneâ€™s bed, open and closed windows, and prepared the morning meals. All the â€œfamilyâ€ ate together with the men at one end and the women on the other, the meal eaten in total silence after kneeling by the chairs for prayer. After breakfast the normal chores were commenced. Noon meals had to be prepared, weaving and sewing, canning, making up seed packets. The men went to work in the fields, shops and mills. After the evening meal, more chores to be done until evening services of music and dancing. Then off to their rooms by 9 to rest for the next day.
The main religious service started at 1 pm Sundays. All the families gathered together at the meeting house. They marched into the building in pairs, separate doorways for each sex. They sat on long wooden benches and the two sexes faced each other. An elder led the service which would including singing, dancing, whirling and speaking in tongues. Visitors were welcome at these services as an inducement for them to become a part of the Shaker community. Families often came and went in the community; sometimes families would join in the winter and leave in the spring, these being families that didnâ€™t have enough money or supplies to last through the winter This was a safe place for them to go and be fed and clothed for the winter with no intention of joining the Shakers.
By 1800, there were about 1000 members throughout the United States. By 1850, they had nearly 5,000 members. By the turn of the century, membership was down to about 1,000 again and society after society sold out or members had fled or died. Without any children being born due to the laws against co-habitation, the Shakers are now extinct.
Shaker communities in Kentucky included:
Pleasant Hill. Missionaries Issachar H Bates, Benjamin S Youngs and John Meacham came from New York on January 1, 1805. By December 1806 they had founded Pleasant Hill with 44 members. Their facilities were built on the land of Elisha Thomas in Mercer County, one of their earliest converts. They lived there until1808 and started purchasing adjoining land on a knoll which they named Pleasant Hill. They had a sawmill, gristmill, oil mill and fulling mill and did much farming. A stone meeting house was built in 1810. The â€œfamilyâ€ here was known as the â€œMill Family.â€ The more spiritually mature among them lived as the Centre family. This was added to with another dwelling house known as the â€œWestâ€ family which housed the more elderly among them. The â€œEast Familyâ€ was for the young and energetic members. The â€œNorth Lot and West Lotâ€ were for the novices where they were taught by the older Believers. Being a productive area of the state, many crops were grown here for use by the members and for sale including tobacco, wheat, rye, corn, flax, tobacco and hemp. They had extensive fruit orchards and vegetable gardens. Livestock flourished here, they also sold butter and cheese. At its peak, Pleasant Hill housed over 500. They ended up with over 4,000 acres of land, all fenced with rock and plank fences. More than 250 buildings were erected â€“ barns, shops, laundry, tannery, water pumping and supply station, and gristmill. The local architect was Micajah Burnett.
Pleasant Hill began to slowly dissolve in the 1830â€™s before the Civil War. They were unable to entice adult members, and by the Civil War time, the members were dwindling. Shakers, like the Quakers, were pacificists. They did feed thousands of meals to the military troops, Union and Rebels. The troops took their wagons and horses, and guerilla bands robbed them blind. By 1910 there were only about a dozen Shakers left at Pleasant Hill. The last one to live there was Sister Mary Settles, who was a beloved teacher. She died in 1923. In 1961, a non-profit organization was formed to restore, protect and interpret the Pleasant Hill Shakers. Earl D. Wallace and his group raised money and purchased the lands and refurbished the buildings. James L. Cogar was the first president of the Pleasant Hill organization. Now, this site draws over 280,000 visitors a year and demonstrations are given on weaving, broom-making, candle dipping, and quilting.
South Union. This village was located at South Union, Kentucky, about 12 miles southwest of Bowling Green in Logan Co. It was established or gathered in 1807. This was the smaller than Pleasant Hill and had about 350 members at its peak. They had 6,000 acres and about 200 buildings were built during its history. The Centre family contained 40 rooms and was the administrative headquarters. They had meeting houses, barns, shops, mills and the Shaker Tavern. They sold seeds, brooms, bonnets, preserves, cheesecloth, wool, carpets and chair tapes. From hundreds of mulberry trees came silk for kerchiefs and handkerchiefs. Due to its closeness to the Green River, South Union was able to ship its goods to New Orleans. One accomplishment of the group was the talent of cattle breeding. In 1822 they purchased their first Durham bull (Comet), and their merino sheep and Berkshire hogs were in great demand. Unlike Pleasant Hill, here the blacks lived in separate quarters primarily because of the pro-slavery views in the neighborhood.
South Union also suffered from the Civil War but they held on until 1922. At this time all the land and buildings, livestock and equipment were sold. The members who remained went back into the world they feared. Like Pleasant Hill, some of the buildings have been restored, partly owned now by the Benedictine fathers.
To be continued next week with deaths and burials at South Union.
Thomas D Clark and Gerald F Ham, Pleasant Hill and Its Shakers, Pleasant Hill, Ky, 1968.
Julia Neal, The Kentucky Shakers, Lexington, KY, 1977.
Janice Holt Giles, The Believers, University of Kentucky Press.
(c) Copyright 9 Jan 2003, Sandra K.Gorin, All Rights Reserved. firstname.lastname@example.org