Touring the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, one enjoys the magnificent scenery and recreation. There are the beautiful meadows, mountains, rivers, lakes, and bed and breakfasts, as well as hotels, inside quaint towns such as Stockbridge, Lennox, Pittsfield and Great Barrington, just to name a few.
Besides all the fascinating cultural events that mark the Berkshires today, I enjoyed learning about our country's religious history. One of the most unique stories is the history of the Shakers. Like the Quakers, the Shakers originated from England in the movement to bring more emotion and spirit to the Christian experience outside of the Church of England's religious tradition.
The Shakers denomination was started by a woman named Ann Lee from Manchester, England, who broke away from the Church of England and joined the Quakers in the mid-18th century. She wanted a religious experience focused on the power of the spirit and connected in a deeply personal way with God.
They originally called themselves the "Shaking Quakers," but by the time Anne Lee arrived in America, the community's official name was "The United Society of Believers in the Second Coming of Christ."
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After they arrived in America, they began to create independent and self-sustaining agricultural settlements, which today remind us of communes. The adherents created communities, for example, in Mount Lebanon, N.Y., right near Albany, N.Y., and Hancock, Mass. They began to expand, forming farming communities of about 100 to 150 people.
From 1790 to 1860, the Shakers built many self-contained agricultural communities throughout the Eastern part of the country and as far south as Kentucky. At the height of the Shaker movement, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 disciples.
One of the most famous stories about the Shakers was during the Civil War, when their representatives met with President Abraham Lincoln to appeal to him that they were, like the Quakers, pacifists and requesting exemption from military duty. Lincoln agreed. As a token of their appreciation, they gave him one of their famous rocking chairs.
They became known for their craftwork, especially making furniture. By 1960, most of the Shaker communities disbanded -- probably because one of their tenets was abstinence between the sexes, though they did raise orphan children. No doubt the impact of industrialization in America also diminished the economic viability of the Shaker communities. Today, a few remaining Shakers live in Maine.
Besides their craftwork and architecture, the Shakers also became famous for their charismatic view of Christianity, which included renowned communal dance rituals using music to stir the spirit. Their songs and prayers made them famous in the 19th century.
Their religious beliefs centered on confession of sin, celibacy and communal living in order to live their faith and strive to live a complete Christian life. One song written by Elder Joseph in the 19th century was called "Simple Gifts."
"Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free
Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right."
They lived a truly simple life, with the hope that their faith would create a new feeling of heaven on Earth. They are now a part of the history of American Christian revivalism and belong to the rich history of New England, particularly its diverse religious landscape in the 18th and 19th centuries.
What was true for the Shakers then, as it is for many seekers of a more intense religious experience today, is that America has been ripe for religious experimentation and innovation. Our history comprises seekers of economic opportunity as well as religious freedom. The Shakers represent one example of how religion isn't just something that one does once a week. It's a way of life, from sunrise to sunset.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.