Who are the Shakers?

A Shaker Village, by William Dean Howells

Shakers Dancing in the Meeting House at New Lebanon, New York
The Shakers of New Lebanon—Religious Exercises in the Meeting House
Published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 1, 1873.

A Shaker Village

by William Dean Howells (b. 1837 – d. 1920)

We went regularly to the Shaker meeting…. The seats for spectators in the church were filled, and sometimes to overflowing, by people from the country and villages round about, as well as by summer boarders from the neighboring town of Lancaster, whose modish silks and millinery distinguished them from the rural congregation; but all were respectful and attentive to the worship which they had come to look at, and which, in its most fantastic phase, I should think could move only a silly person to laughter….

The meetings opened with singing, and then Elder Wetherbee, of the Church Family, briefly addressed the brethren and sisters in terms which were commonly a grateful recognition of the beauty of their ‘gospel relation” to each other, and of their safety from sin in a world of evil…. After the elder sat down, they sang again, and then the minister, John Whiteley, read a chapter of the Bible, and made a few remarks: then, with alternate singing and speaking (the speaking was mostly from the men, though now and then a sister rose and bore her testimony to her heartfelt happiness in Shakerism, or declared her intention to take up a cross against pe s or such a tendency of her nature), the services proceeded till the time for the marching came. Till this time the brothers and sisters had sat confronting each other on settees, which they now lifted and set out of the way against the wall. A group formed in an ellipse in the middle, with two lines of marchers outside of them, led by Elder Wetherbee. Some one struck into one of their stirring march tunes, and those in the ellipse began to rock back and forth on their feet, and to sway their bodies to the music, while the marchers with a sort of rising motion began their round, all beating time with a quick outward gesture of the arms and an upward gesture of the open palms. It was always a thrilling sight, fantastic, as I said, but not ludicrous, and it never failed to tempt the nerves to so much Shakerism at least as lay in the march. To the worshipers this part of their rite was evidently that sort of joy which, if physical, is next to spiritual transport. Their faces were enraptured, they rose and rose in their march with a glad exultation; suddenly the singing ceased, the march instantly ended, and the arms of each sank slowly down to the side. Some brother now spoke again, and when he closed, another song was raised, and the march resumed, till in the course of the singing and speaking those forming the central ellipse had been relieved and enabled to join the march. When it ended, the settees were drawn up again, and the brethren and sisters sat down as before. Generally, one or two of the younger sisters would at this point read some article or poem from the Shaker and Shakeress – the organ of the sect published at Mt. Lebanon, N.Y., and made up of contributions by members of the different families throughout the country…. When these were finished, Elder Fraser, of the North Family, came forward between the rows of Shakers, and addressed the world in the principal discourse of the day….

I am not sure whether the different faces in the march had a greater or less fascination to us after we came to know their different owners personally. Each showed his or her transport in a different way, and each had some peculiarity of step or movement that took our idle minds and made us curious about their history and character. Among them, none was more striking than the nonagenarian, whose bent frame kept its place in the round, but whose nerveless hands beat time after a very fugitive and erratic fashion. Father Abraham is very deaf; and in the singing some final bit of belated melody always stuck in his throat and came scratching and scrambling up after the others had ceased in a manner that was rather hard to bear…. At his great age he still works every day at basket-making, in which he is very skillful and conscientious…. He is rarely sick, and he takes part in all the details of the worship, as he did when he came, sixty years ago. He was then a young man, and it is said that he visited the community from idle curiosity, with his betrothed. Its life and faith made an instant impression upon him, and he proposed to the young girl that they should both become Shakers; but after due thought she refused. She said that she would not be a hindrance to his wish in the matter; if he was called to this belief, she gave him back his promise…. He has never regretted his course; she took another mate, saw her children about her knee, and died long ago, after a life that was no doubt as happy as most. But perhaps in an affair like that, a girl’s heart had supreme claims. Perhaps there are some things that one ought not to do even with the hope of winning heaven.

Excerpted from: William Dean Howells, “A Shaker Village,” Atlantic Monthly, 37 (June 1876), 699-710.
Later included in: William Dean Howells, Three Villages (Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1884). A digital edition of this book is now available on line. An annotated copy of this section of the book is also available on line.