Religion in American History Television: Shake It Like a Shaker in Enfield, NH

Randall Stephens

I like Ken Burns’s documentaries. I’m not one of those Burns haters, who accuses him of mawkish American exceptionalism. Nope, not me. Two of his films from the 1980s don’t get the kind of attention or airplay that they deserve. Thomas Hart Benton (1988) profiles the diminutive, scrappy regionalist painter who shared his name with “Old Bullion,” his great uncle, the tall, pugnacious senator from Missouri. Among other things, Benton taught Jackson Pollock how to drink. He taught him too well, obviously. The other film, a pole away, is The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984), an elegiac, wistful tour of an American original. Narrated by the avuncular David McCullough, the film wonderfully weaves together interviews, dramatic readings, and ancient daguerreotypes. (True, in this regard it is like all the other Burns movies.)

Yep, I first learned what little I know about the Shakers from that film. Burns’s documentary made me intensely curious about this fading (nearly faded) religious movement that swept across the country in the 19th century. (In 2006 there were only four Shakers left, all living in southern Maine.)

What would posses Americans from Maine to Mississippi to leave kin, embrace celibacy, shun war and private property, and live in a utopian community? Who would join the ranks of such a diehard, committed few? (Good question for an American religious history class, eh?)

Beth and I got a glimpse into this fascinating world when we toured the Enfield Shaker Village and Museum in Enfield, NH, one morning in late February. The village sits in the valley between Mt. Assurance and Mascoma Lake. Founded in 1793, the community claimed several families of Shakers at its peak in the mid-19th century. The Shakers closed the village in 1923 after a long period of decline.

Leaving family and home for religious reasons was probably more difficult in the 19th century than it is now. (See Christopher Jones's interesting, related post from last week.) Who knows what kind of sorrow and anxiety men and women suffered as a result. What may be one small glimpse of this appears in a brief piece from an 1882 issue of the Shaker Manifesto, a 19th-century Shaker periodical:

CHARLES MINER, a well known member of the North Family Shakers, Enfield, N. H. committed suicide sometime during Monday night, on May 1st, shooting himself through the head with a small rifle, in his room, at Shaker Village. He was about 62 years of age. This Spring he had charge of the sugar camp and to the many who visited him there, [he] seemed to be social and happy, but at other times he has shown signs of being a little "out." Lately he talked of leaving the Shakers, and only the P.M. before he shot himself, he was over in the village at North Enfield, endeavoring to obtain employ. His dead body was discovered in his room, on Tuesday morning, the rifle by his side.

Our excellent
tour guide at Enfield, Arthur Gagnon (interviewed in the Youtube clip embedded here), told us about some of the trials and tribulations of the Shaker community. We spent much of our time roaming around this hollowed ground not far from Dartmouth College. We viewed the gathering room, where Shaker worshippers performed their increasingly formalized, wheel-within-a-wheel dances. We saw the handicrafts made by the elders and elderesses of the commune. And we also got to know a little more about the people who once lived, worked, prayed, and sometimes squabbled with their neighbors here.

The lake and surrounding countryside are lovely. I can only imagine how beautiful the site is at the peak of summer.