HARVARD — Here in New England, history is recorded in more than books. It survives in historic architecture, living testaments to way a town, a people, a community lived — and does live.
On Saturday, Dec. 3, the Harvard Historical Society is hosted its annual Holiday House Tour where participants toured seven of Harvard’s historical homes.
Two of the homes featured on this year’s tour are former Shaker dwellings. The Shaker Meetinghouse (1791), 82 Shaker Road, in Harvard’s Shaker Village Historic District and the South Family’s Sisters Shop (c. 1850), 99 South Shaker Road, in the South Shaker Village.
While the properties can be appreciated without any former knowledge of the people who lived and worked there, learning about Shaker history nonetheless helps put the buildings in their historic context.
History of the Shakers
Many people confuse the Shakers with Quakers, and it’s not surprising seeing that the Shakers were an offshoot of that group. The Shakers, also known as the United Society of Believers in the Second Appearing of Christ, started in Manchester, England, in the mid-1700s when an illiterate factory girl named Ann Lee and a handful of others separated from the Quakers. They became known as the Shaking Quakers because of the ecstatic dancing and shaking exhibited during their worship services.
Lee was the leader of the splinter group in England, but it wasn’t until 1774 that she and eight others came to America, settling first in New York and then later in Massachusetts.
What prompted the transatlantic journey? While in prison in England, Lee reported that she had a vision of a holy land to be established in the not-so-holy New World. Why she was jailed remains controversial.
A newspaper article printed during that time says Lee and others purposefully disrupted an Anglican service. She was summarily fined and, because she was unable to pay the fine, was jailed.
Shaker historians say that Lee and others were participating in a home worship service, complete with their boisterous movements, when they were dragged from the premises and sent to jail.
One thing that distinguished the Shakers from other pacifist, communal groups popular in the 19th century was its strict adherence to celibacy. Male and female followers were housed separately. Those who joined the group as married couples had to live apart and their children were housed with the women until they reached adolescence.
According to someone who knew her well, from an early age Lee had a “great abhorrence of the fleshly cohabitation of the sexes.” She consistently spoke of sexuality as being filthy, shameful and the cause of all human miseries. She taught her followers that the only way to attain God’s favor and personal salvation was to abstain from fleshly cohabitation. Lee also said it was revealed to her in a vision that sex was the root of all iniquity — the very reason why mankind was lost.
Lee was said to have clairvoyant abilities, practiced communication with the dead and taught that salvation was attainable from the grave.
She called herself Ann the Word because she believed that Jesus Christ had already returned to earth a second time in her body. Followers called their charismatic leader Mother Ann.
Lee’s husband, incidentally, followed her to America and was, for a time, a reluctant adherent to his wife’s teachings. But he eventually forsook the Shaker community, taking his new female companion with him.
It only follows that a group that enforces strict celibacy amongst its adherents seals its own oblivion. Though many orphans and homeless people joined the Shaker community, their numbers dwindled by course.
By 1918, what remained of the Harvard Shakers was assimilated into a group in Canterbury, New Hampshire. In 1965, the few remaining Shakers — all female by this time — voted to accept no new members, and by the early 1990s, only a handful of Shakers remained.
At its peak in the 1820s and 1830s, the Shakers had about 6,000 followers nationally, with about 200 in Harvard. Today, there are only handful of Shakers living and working at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine.
The Harvard Shakers
Anyone familiar with Harvard’s history can’t help but notice the town seems to have a magnetic draw to the religiously downtrodden and disposed, to utopians, free-thinkers, social experimenters, not to mention bonafide crackpots like Shadrach Ireland.
Ireland, prompted by a call of the Lord, abandoned his wife and six children in Boston, moved to Harvard to start a religious society. He met a “spiritual consort and helpmate” and forthwith pronounced himself immortal.
The Shakers moved to Harvard in 1781 settling in the Square House, a building purchased from Ireland’s disciples. Their leader had died a mortal death a few years earlier.
On her first visit to Harvard, Lee recognized the people and places because she had seen them in a vision. From their beginning until 1918 when the last Shaker property was sold, the Shaker community in Harvard had amassed more than 2,000 acres of land. Lee considered Harvard her missionary headquarters and spent more time in Harvard than in any other Shaker community.
The Harvard Shakers were, at times, severely persecuted. Committees were sent to investigate the Shaker activities, and some were driven from town. Area clergy met to interrogate some Shakers, but afterward voted to leave the group alone.
Perhaps the best-known incident of persecution came in 1782 when about 400 irate citizens stormed the Square House, incensed by the Shakers’ “singing, shouting, and clapping,” which they supposedly could hear in town. The men dragged the Shakers from the dwelling and forced them to march six miles away to Lancaster. Some endured public whippings. Others were punched and beaten with clubs.
A year later, elder Shaker James Whittaker endured a vicious beating. A stone marker in Harvard marks the place where Whittaker was whipped.
Aside from their simple yet enduring architecture, the Shakers left behind a legacy reflecting their ingenuity. Some of the inventions credited to the Shakers include the clothespin, the circular saw, the flat broom and the cast-iron chimney cap.
The 1791 Meetinghouse
This building is the handiwork of the master Shaker craftsmen Moses Johnson. Though a private residence from the early 1900s, the building has retained some of its Shaker qualities. The dual front doors recall the segregated lives the Shakers lived, while the 2,000-pound granite supports in the basement testify to the Shaker’s vigorous mode of worship.
William Plumber, a man who visited the Shakers and witnessed their worship services, described the unique Shaker service by saying, “The motion proceeded from the head to the hands, arms, and whole body, with such power as if limbs would rend from limb.” He described someone who whirled about as in a trance for nearly an hour.
He was told that the movement was beyond the person’s control — a spiritual impulse — and it could not be stopped. While observing one of the whirling sisters, Plumber grabbed her by the arms until she became still. Nothing happened, but the sister was offended by Plumber’s interference.
Another record of the Shaker service states, “ they fall a groaning and trembling … and one will fall prostrate on the floor; another on his knees and his head on his hands on the floor; another will be muttering articulate sounds which neither they nor any body can understand. Some will be singing, each one his own tune; some without words in an Indian tone, some singing jig tunes, some tunes of their own making in an unknown mutter, which they call new tongues; Some will be dancing and other laughing heartily and loudly, others will be drumming on the floor with their feet. . . others will be agonized as though in great pain; others jumping up and down.”
The Sisters Shop
Owners Judy and Andrew Warner like to refer to their home as the South Family’s Sisters’ Shop, but the distinct red building is alternately known as the 1845 Work House or the Applesauce House. Although some historical records say the dwelling was built between 1800 and 1825, Judy Warner says the building dates more likely to the 1850s. The Sisters’ Shop was where the female Shakers worked drying herbs, making candles, applesauce, and other commodities. A brother’s workhouse, made of brick but now gone, was located nearby.
The Warners purchased the dwelling in the 1974 primarily because they were attracted to the bucolic setting. At the time, the building needed extensive renovations. Aside from painting and beautifying the interior, they also installed a large tri-pane window in the front room, opening up an expansive view.
One intriguing aspect of the house is the four trap doors located in the floor of the spacious second floor living room. No one is sure what the trap doors were used for, but because there are also two oversized doors in the same room, together with a spacious opening to the attic, it’s believed that the Shakers must have hoisted some large items through the trap doors and up into the attic. It’s likely that the sisters dried their extensive supply of herbs there.
Much has been made of the egalitarian practices of the Shakers, where eldresses ruled alongside elders. But as Judy Warner points out, Shaker women played fairly traditional roles. After all, it was the women who did the laundry and the cooking, and tended to the sick. According to Arthur Twist, who lived among the Shakers for a time, the female elders “had charge of the family affairs as a mother over her family,” while their male counterparts had “the authority on business matters or matters calling for a direct change in the general affairs of the village.”
Yet as Warner also points, the Shakers at least offered women a choice in a time when choices were scarce. Those in abusive marriages, for instance, could find refuge in a Shaker community. “It was a good life in comparison to being a servant,” Warner notes.
In 1849, a visiting physician, Dr. Harriet Hunt wrote this about the Shakers: “The equality of the women is recognized in every department of Shaker Life. The duties and responsibilities of Ministers and Elders and Caretakers were equally shared by both sexes and in each of their societies, a woman is set apart as a physician because they believe she had a peculiar gift in that direction.”