One of the numerous religious sects who emigrated to American shores in search of religious freedom, the Shakers followed
Mother Ann Lee to the United States in 1774. Here they established several colonies-- the first in 1776 at Nikayuna near
Albany, NY--whose governing principals included celibacy and agrarian communal living.
The term Shakers, originally used as a pejorative for members of a dissenting Quaker church which called itself the United
Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, referred to the sect's ecstatic form of worship. Founded in England in
1747 the Shakers practiced a religion that was also a lifestyle. The members lived in gender segregated, dormitory-like
housing, but came together to work, and pray. Like the Quakers they believed in personal communication with a God who was
both male and female and in the ability to find and give voice to the Inner Light. Those expressions took the form of
hymns and work songs, of which SIMPLE GIFTS is the most famous, as well as rhythmic swaying and "dancing" when the spirit
Besides leading a simple but comfortably self-sufficient existence from the fruits of their land, the Shakers came to be
known for their architecture, crafts, and furniture. Shaker design, with its clean, economic lines, is the quintessential
statement of the happy marriage of form and function--a tangible embodiment of the Shaker credo: "Beauty rests on utility."
Except for Mother Ann's missionary trips to win converts and their cottage industries in which they sold furniture and
crafts to their neighbors, the Shakers consciously insulated themselves from the rest of the world. At their peak they
boasted eighteen communities in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky,
one of the largest of which was 300 strong. The Shakers flourished into 20th century when celibacy took its toll on the
sect, and their numbers dwindled to near extinction. One of the last of the proud villages to close was The City of
Peace, or Hancock Village near Pittsfield, MA, which became a ghost town in 1960 when the last of its inhabitants moved
away. The village stands today as a museum and monument to the simplicity and integrity of the Shaker tradition and
its continuing influence on American folk art and aesthetics.
The traditional Shaker work-song-hymn, SIMPLE GIFTS was originally published in THE GIFT TO BE SIMPLE:
SHAKER RITUALS AND SONGS. Since then this folk tune has acquired the status of an American classic. One of its most
famous permutations is to be found in Aaron Copland's vocal arrangement and in his variations on the tune which conclude
his ballet, APPALACHIAN SPRING. It recently was played as a theme song for President and Mrs. Clinton when they
greeted crowds celebrating their re-election in Little Rock, AK. Its rondo-like form combines the stomping pulses of
work, with the swaying rhythms of the Shaker dancing prayer.
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where you 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.