The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God

January 9, 2012

The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God is a beautiful documentary with an unlikely subject: the history of the Shakers, an odd, utopian religious sect that flourished in the early part of America’s history.

As the hour-long program tells it, the Shakers—so nicknamed because of their high-energy ritual dances—began with an English woman named Mother Ann Lee. When she brought her religious ideas to the American colonies in 1774, she established an order that quickly became famous for its austere lifestyle.

The hallmarks of the Shakers were their pacifism, their communism (and I use that word generically; the Shakers shared all their worldly possessions equally), and their celibacy. Completely celibate, their ranks were filled by converts, not with persons born to the sect.

The Shakers were also known for their dances. One observer compared their early, frenzied ceremonies to “witches over a black cauldron”—an interesting image, considering their other, utterly strait-laced rituals. After the first few years of their existence, Shaker dancing became more exact and refined.

Perhaps the lasting contribution of the Shakers was their exquisite craftsmanship, much of which still exists today. The documentary shows the lovely chairs, clothes, tables and architecture produced by the sect, and suggests that it was their attempt to become close to God (and, perhaps, the sublimation of their sexual energy) that created the careful, practical but exalted furniture.

The Shaker villages that sprang up through the next few decades (first in New England, but ranging as far as Kentucky and Ohio) were austere; as one Shaker said proudly, “Order is heaven’s first law. There is not in the whole village one line of ornament.” We see the villages as they stand today, and the statement is quite true.

Their pacifism was legendary. We hear of their reaction to thievery: When they discovered theft from their fields, the Shaker response was to plant more crops. As the Shakers reasoned it, the thieves needed food, too.

This documentary details the heyday of Shakerism: the 1840s, when transcendentalism and utopian ideals were on many minds, including those of writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Shakers, who numbered about 6,000, seemed to be making the utopian ideal a reality. Hawthorne said of them, “If it were not for their ridiculous ceremonies, a man could not do a wiser thing than join them.”

We also see the long decline, as members fell away in the early part of this century. Today there are still a dozen Shakers hanging on in New England, the last practitioners of the order.

The interviews with the survivors—all elderly ladies in this program—are fascinating. The last Shakers communicate great serenity and a quiet hope that somehow Shakerism will not perish. They perform Shaker songs and dances—and at this point, the program, directed by Ken Burns and Amy Stechler Burns, becomes a living record of practices that will almost surely disappear completely within a few years.

These interviews are interspersed with many old drawings and photographs, which are seen against the backdrop of folk music and David (“Smithsonian World”) McCullough’s narration. Most valuable of all are the quotes from Shaker members and leaders, read by Julie Harris and others.

The sect always was relatively small, but it had surprising sway. Aside from philosophical influence, the Shakers developed a number of practical inventions, including the circular saw. Seeing this program, the influence still holds; you can’t help but feel slightly more exalted yourself, having spent time with these people.

First published in the Seattle Times, August 23, 1985

I spent the summer doing the TV column at the Seattle Times, and this VHS cassette came across the desk one day, just another PBS documentary – this was six years before The Civil War and the making of the Ken Burns brand. Which is another way of saying I’m glad I didn’t get this one wrong; Burns is very, very good, even if easily parodied (most distinctive people can be easily parodied), and his recent six-parter on the National Parks – an extraordinary work – proves he’s actually getting better as he goes along.