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A subject you probably don’t care about, but should —- The Shakers

The Shakers were a religious community founded around the mid 1700’s and at their peak throughout the 1800’s. A splinter group of the “Shaking Quakers” the Shakers lived over 20 large communal towns from New England to Indiana, and as far south as Kentucky. The main tenets of their religion revolved around austerity, simplicity, humility, hard work, and chastity (no sex).

At this point I probably have completely lost you as a reader, especially when I mentioned hard work and no sex. However, there is a point to this, and you will see that the Shakers have a huge impact on our lives today in the modern world, so please hang in there.

Known as the “United Society of Believers in Christ’s’ Second Coming”, they were known as Shakers because early on in their religion they would dance wildly with religious passion during worship. Life as a Shaker was not easy. It required lots of hard work, often starting at 4am and finishing around 5pm. The rest of the day would be used for prayer, singing, bible reading, meditation, and socializing. Shakers believed in strict celibacy (abstaining from sex), men and women lived separately and slept in separate dorms. This one of the hardest tenets of Shaker belief, and would become one of the Shaker’s downfall.

Perhaps their greatest legacy was the belief that they were living a holy life and therefore everything they did was in honor of God. Thus all labor, no matter what profession, was done with the utmost care and attention to detail. Reminiscent of Zen Buddhism they believed that the divine could found in learning a skill and practicing to the point of achieving absolute perfection. As a result Shaker goods, such as furniture, clothing, metalwork, glasswork, and foodstuffs were of the highest quality and highly sought even today. Shaker music was known for incredible melodies and perfect harmony, and over 30,000 unique songs and hymns are known to exist. After the first decade of their existence Shakers turned their wild dancing into to intricately choreographed dances. Shaker architecture was often revolutionary, built with tolerances impossible to reproduce today. Literally ever profession could be found in a Shaker community; carpenters, farmers, blacksmiths, doctors, scientists, lawyers. Literally every craft, skill, and science could be found in a Shaker commune.

Furthermore the Shakers believed in equality more than anything. In a day when women couldn’t vote, many women could become community or religious leaders. Blacks, who were often enslaved in the South, could also find opportunities with the Shakers. Finally they were especially known for their incredible generosity and kindness. They always would house destitute and homeless strangers, took in runaway slaves, fed the poor, and cared for the sick. In one community they had the problem of poor people stealing their crops. Their solution— grow more crops! During the Civil War the Shakers did not serve in the military due to the fact that they were strict pacifists, but they often served as nurses and medics, using medical techniques and technology that far surpassed that of the Army’s and treating all soldiers regardless of their side in the conflict.

During the late 1800’s the society began to die, mostly due to the industrial revolution. Goods could be made very cheaply, and mass production undercut the Shaker economy. Popularity of the religion waned, and since membership depended entirely on converts, their numbers began to dwindle. Many members left to take part in the new material world of the 1920’s. Communities closed, and Shaker property and possessions were sold at auction. As of 2011, there were only 5 Shaker remaining, living in a village in Maine.

So if you have read this far, you are still probably asking, why is this important to me? Well here is why, unlike the Amish the Shakers did not shun technology. Ingenious inventors, they created new things that would totally revolutionize our world.

Here are just a few examples,

The first mechanical washing machine.

The Circular Saw

Packaged Seeds

Waterproof Clothing

Wrinkle Resistant Clothing

Cough Drops

Various Anesthetics

The Clothespin

The Rotary Cultivator

The Flat Broom

Tilting Chairs

The Metal Pen

The Spiral Stairway

The Screw Propeller

The Apple Peeler

The song “Simple Gifts” commonly heard during Christmas and the main theme song of the musical “Lord of the Dance” was also a traditional Shaker hymn.

Shark Salt and Pepper Shakers - To use these correctly, you’ll have to circle your food with them for a while, holding one shaker in each hand while humming the theme to Jaws. Have the sharks get closer and closer to your mashed potatoes, speeding up the music and getting louder as they approach. Then, let one of the sharks bump the food - this is the sign that the sharks are ready to season. After that, scream loudly and have the sharks swoop in on the food, pretending to consume it as they empty their contents onto it. Stop when you have reached the appropriate level of salt and pepper. At this point, everyone at the table will be staring at you and you’ll have to apologize, but it will be totally worth it.

It’s strange. For a religion that engineered its own oblivion by forbidding sex, Shakerism has had a weirdly lasting influence on modern society. Sometimes, I think it’s a matter of pining for the simplicity they stood for: live together, work hard, confess, worship, strive to do and make everything “as though it were to last a thousand years and you were to die tomorrow.” In our lonely, throwaway, consumer society, there is something very appealing about all that. Shaker life is sort of a perfect antidote to the world Spike Jonze depicts in Her.
—  The Rumpus Interview with Rachel Urquhart, author of The Visionist
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