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Essay  – 

Heavenly Work: The Fleeting Legacy of the Shakers

Ten years have passed since my first visit to Canterbury Shaker Village, but walking again past the apple trees and old wooden buildings, I’m struck by the same feeling. In this small settlement nestled among New Hampshire’s green, rolling hills, a serenity seeps into my bones and muscles, compelling me to walk slowly, deliberately, with reverence. The Shakers believed they were creating and living in a heaven on earth, and that belief feels tangible here, a surviving legacy. But the sentiment also implies a tension—between permanence and transience, between mortal and eternal existence—that is itself ephemeral, difficult to grasp.

Canterbury, now run as a historical museum, is one of nine public preserved communities of the Shakers, known formally as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. The society formed in England in 1747, breaking off from the Quakers (who were themselves radical for their day, believing that every person had direct access to God). After a vision of “divine light” received by a woman named Ann Lee, followers came to view her as the female counterpart to Christ, and they positioned her as their leader. In 1774, Mother Ann, as they called her, and seven other members of the society came to the United States, setting up their first community in New Lebanon, outside of Albany, New York. The nickname “the Shakers” was given by outsiders, or “the world’s people,” as the Shakers called them, and was later adopted by the society itself. It comes from the style of frenetic dancing done in their formal worship services, and remains one of the things they’re most often remembered for today—a physical embodiment of shaking the sin away.

Living in self-sufficient communal villages, dissolving exclusive family ties, and sharing property and goods, the Shakers established nineteen communities across the eastern United States, numbering about six thousand followers at their peak in the 1840s. Canterbury, founded in 1792, was the seventh Shaker village.

As we file into the white clapboard meetinghouse to begin our tour, women through one door, men through another, we’re careful to step over the threshold and not on it. Our tour guide, Michael Pugh, has told us the Shakers would have entered like this. A track of unadorned Shaker singing plays on a loop in the background. Something near the ceiling catches my eye: the baby-blue trim, unchipped and vibrant. As if noticing my gaze, Michael points it out, telling us that it’s the original color, painted in 1792. The Shakers, he explains, believed in doing something well the first time, so the work doesn’t need to be done again.

This idea is practical and hard to argue with—as are many Shaker beliefs, by modern standards: feminism, frugality, pacifism. In the Shakers’ era, these principles were viewed by mainstream society as foreign, or progressively anachronistic. Some of their doctrines can still seem difficult to fathom. The opening scene of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Canterbury Pilgrims” depicts two young Shakers running away in order to pursue their love. The Shakers famously practiced celibacy, a choice still likely to bring to mind scenarios like Hawthorne’s. But considered alongside the Shakers’ other founding principles, it seems less extreme. Celibacy was intertwined with the society’s steadfast commitment to gender equality, and it mirrored the familial, but not exclusive, relationships they imagined to exist in heaven.

“The belief that God is both mother and father is the theological basis for the Shaker belief in the basic equality of the sexes,” writes Christian Becksvoort in The Shaker Legacy: Perspectives on an Enduring Furniture Style. That belief, he goes on, “has important implications for Shaker organizational structure.” The society was one of the first to make gender equality a reality. Though labor was still divided along gender lines, men’s and women’s work, as well as their voices, were given equal weight, and the sexes were equally represented in leadership roles.

After a few moments in the pews, we leave the meetinghouse and cross the lawn to the communal laundry. As we walk, Michael repeats for us the Shaker adage, “Hands to work, hearts to God.” The Shakers believed that the sacred could be experienced through mindful labor, whether that was highly skilled craftwork or domestic chores. There in the two-story laundry, the assortment of equipment reads like a timeline of the evolution of washing machines and dryers, from the late eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth. Some of these are Shaker inventions, like the steam-powered washing mill—considered cutting-edge technology in its time—and others were commercially produced. Even as the Shakers valued simplicity, they did not reject technology, but were known for their innovative inventions and their efforts to perfect techniques of craft as well as household and farm labor.

In relinquishing single-family households, Shakers took on the work of an entire community, but this labor was shared, mechanized, efficient, and communal. Particularly for farm wives of the nineteenth century, an era when women couldn’t vote or hold office and were considered the property of their husbands, this could be a dramatic shift, and many women felt life with the Shakers to be a welcome respite from lives of arduous, solitary manual labor. My friend and colleague Becky stops at one of the handsome soapstone sinks on the bottom floor. She motions as if scrubbing a garment, then points toward the window—its glass panes now sagging with age—and the green field outside, dotted with wildflowers. She says, “If I could look out at that every day while I washed clothes, surrounded by friends, I might feel I was enacting the sacred too.”

After the tour, Michael sets us loose to explore the grounds on our own. Having made note of the bakery as we walked by earlier, I retrace my steps there through the grass and gravel paths. Stoneware, tins of flour, and replicas of pies and bread rest on the tables and in the rotating brick oven, a Shaker invention that allowed multiple pies to bake at once. Stacks of pie pans nest in a rack, and rolling pins sit as if they were put down by a Shaker sister just moments ago. Leaving the bakery, I pass the carriage shop, where men built, repaired, and painted carriages; the woodshop; the print shop; and finally the syrup shop, where women made preserves, candies, and medicine. The syrup shop and the bakery were not only spaces for domestic labor, but also important infrastructure for the village’s economy: the women sold pies, jams, and other homemade goods to the world’s people to bring in money for the community.

When I first visited Canterbury, I was twenty years old and a student in the University of Michigan’s semester-long New England Literature Program. I was doing an independent study on intentional communities, inspired by the program’s own communal-living arrangements, and became captivated by the seeming sexiness and drama of such countercultural lifestyles. My journal entry from that first encounter is mostly occupied with the bodily aspects of the society—the incorporation of physical movement in worship, how a faith community that’s so based in the physical could still abstain from sex.

I’ve come to Canterbury this time as a teacher in the same program where I was once a student. I’m still fascinated with that sense of embodiment—but with ten years of working life under my belt, I’m less compelled by the chastity and more by the daily realities, the mundane tasks, the work of it all. Because of the separation between the sexes in Shaker villages, many of the spaces at Canterbury feel inherently gendered, and I’m drawn to the places of women’s work. I think about what it must have been like to become a Shaker woman, to have your voice suddenly valued, to undertake all domestic chores—laundry and medicine making and pie baking—not in solitude, but in sisterhood. To be in a place where your labor is communal, social, both public and private, domestic and economic. To have the power to innovate, to experiment and act on your ideas to fill a need. And in a world where women’s work is often ephemeral and repetitive, to be given the opportunity to create something lasting, to invent a more efficient way of doing something—a rotating pie oven or a more efficient broom. To know a higher purpose is attributed to that work, and to see in everyone the ability to manifest something divine.

That communalization and valuing of domestic chores, both creative and mundane, is to me perhaps the most radical idea the Shakers put into practice. Many of their principles and techniques are widely accepted now—although women are still fighting for equality on a number of fronts, the past two centuries have seen vast improvements. And the Shaker furniture style is now lauded as a design icon and collected by the likes of Oprah. But the idea of communal labor, like celibacy, didn’t quite stick. We’re still in our single-family homes and apartments with our separate washers and dryers, our lone dinners and chores, hidden from the rest of the world.

My last stop is the village gift shop, a place that maintains the long tradition of sustaining Shaker villages through commerce. I contemplate replicas of Shaker tools and boxes—“work of neat hands and considerate art,” as Hawthorne referred to them. In a cookbook, between recipes for spiced apple pudding and quince syrup, I come across another of the society’s adages, one that brings it all together for me: “Do all your work as if you would live a thousand years and as if you might die tomorrow.”

Considering women’s domestic labor to be just as valuable as the more-enduring work traditionally done by men implies a belief in the daily. For the Shakers, heaven on earth was not merely a physical place, but a spiritual and emotional landscape—one that contained both permanent structures and the more shifting ones the sisters and brothers created and re-created every day. Their earthly paradise was not concerned solely with immortality—seeking the paint or joinery technique or laundry system that could endure for two hundred fifty New England winters—but included the fleeting and the quotidian. The experience of the divine could be sustained because it allowed space for the momentary wonders that pepper daily life—the tart pucker of a Shaker lemon pie on a brisk winter morning, the scent of a freshly ironed sheet, the cowbells sounding as the cattle make their way into the orchard, the apple blossoms that collect on the meetinghouse fence for just a few passing days in May.