Academic journal article Communal Societies

The Emancipation of Shakerism

Academic journal article Communal Societies

The Emancipation of Shakerism

Article excerpt

Editor's Note

Philippe Chavance has been studying Shaker architecture for over twenty years. While a professor at University of Kentucky Department of Architecture between 1993 and 1998, he worked extensively analyzing the architecture of Pleasant Hill Shaker Village. As a significant contribution to Shaker scholarship, Chavance determined the location of "Holy Sinai's Plain," a site once used by the Pleasant Hill Shakers for outdoor worship, whose location was unknown in modern times. Chavance continues to study both the architecture and the spirituality of the early Shaker West, and his work on the Pleasant Hill Trustee's Office Staircase was recently featured in Kentucky by Design: Decorative Arts and American Culture (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2015). Chavance is a practicing architect who builds in both France and the United States.

Chavance delivered the keynote address at the CSA 2015 conference at Pleasant Hill Shaker Village, October 2015. Using the conference theme of "Marking the Land: How Intentional Communities Shape Their Physical and Social Landscapes," Chavance's talk examined how Shaker spirituality was made manifest in the architecture of Pleasant Hill. We are pleased to present this essay based on the 2015 conference keynote address.

In the history of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, or the Shakers, the "opening of the Gospel" in the western states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana in the early nineteenth century has often been viewed as a simple extension of eastern Shakerism, a mere distant addition of a certain number of communities. One decisive point contradicts this elementary view. Due to the Bill of Rights' integration in the US Constitution, granting "rights of conscience" to all and protection for religious minorities, the western Believers developed a renewed relationship with the world, one that was distinct from the former eastern experience. This essay will depict this critical evolution. It will expose how a more open and direct relation with the broader world deeply affected essential aspects of Shaker life and consequently represented a paradigm shift in Shakerism.

New territories, new laws

Between the foundation of Shakerism in the eastern British colonies in 1774 and its expansion in the frontier states in 1805, America became an independent country and its Constitution was established. Another major historical event occurred that would define American society: the passing of the Bill of Rights by the United States Congress in 1791. This fundamental piece of legislation offers to all US citizens liberty of conscience and freedom of the press. One of its purposes was to put an end to religious persecution, especially targeting religious minorities. In different forms, the Bill of Rights was integrated into the state Constitutions of the different frontier states: in Kentucky in 1792, and in Ohio in 1802. So when the Shaker messengers from the East entered Kentucky or Ohio, they stepped into new territories with new law. (1)

A sharp contrast

From their foundation, the early eastern Shakers lived in fear of the broader world and of the possibility of persecution. Persecution was deeply embedded in their history and their narrative. In contrast, the western Shakers would live, from the outset, with the Bill of Rights. The outside world, through its institutions, offered protection. This does not mean that they weren't attacked, and those attacks could even be physical ones. But these attacks were de facto illegal. The advent of the "rights of conscience" would deeply affect the development of Shakerism and draw a growing and sharp contrast between the eastern Shaker foundation and its western communities.

The most direct evidence of the eastern Shaker mindset is the account of Ann Lee's experience. Her encounter with the outside world, first in England and then in America, is portrayed in one of the earliest printed Shaker texts, Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Mother Ann Lee and the Elders With Her, as a litany of sufferings and persecutions. …

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