Program Director
Jenn Dorsey 518-782-6947
shakerworkshop@siena.edu      

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Intellectual Rationale

 

This NEH Landmark Workshop explores specific elements of Shaker culture: faith, economy, health, and family. 

American Shakers sought to live as angels, aspired to perfection in all aspects of their lives, and yearned to experience direct communication with God and inhabitants of the spirit world in personal and community worship. The Christian communal societies that they built across America were meant to be “heaven on earth,” free from conflict, possessiveness, exclusive relationships, vanity, personal possessions, individual ambition, distinctions based on race, glass or gender, and unhealthy personal habits. 

NEH Summer Scholars will examine the economic system of early American Shakers. The Shakers viewed work as a sacred privilege, a form of worship to be carried out to one's utmost ability yet also with joy. The emphasis that was placed on work led the Shakers to become justly famous for the quality of the workmanship and materials that went into the products made for sale, as well as the items made for their own use. Shakers were entrepreneurial and industrious at a time when Americans venerated enterprise. But Shakers were also committed to living and working by the principle of cooperation in a cohesive communal society modeled after the primitive Christian Church. 

We will investigate Shaker views on celibacy, health, sanitation, and medicine in the context of public health reform in early nineteenth century America. Shakers were early proponents of the social and diet reforms of Sylvester Graham as well as vegetarianism and temperance. They stressed the value of pure foods that would produce a pure body and in turn a general purity of life.  

NEH Summer Scholars will also examine the unique experiences of Shaker women in the context of changing gender roles in nineteenth century America. Shaker theology regards God as fully male and female and Shaker women assumed leadership roles within the movement. As religious leaders Shaker women challenged the prevailing standards of femininity in antebellum America as well as the notion of separate spheres for men and women. Similarly, the Shaker model of family questioned the conflation of womanhood with motherhood. Shaker children were raised collectively. Children who entered the community with their biological parents were treated no differently than children who were “adopted” by the community from orphanages and charitable organizations. 

Finally, NEH Summer Scholars will reflect on the legacy of the Shaker movement on American history and culture. The Shaker movement declined after the Civil War. The Shaker population dwindled further at the turn of the twentieth century and communities began to consolidate. We will discuss the twentieth century origins of the most popular assumptions -or myths- about American Shakerism and how this mythology has contributed to a lucrative trade in Shaker artifacts and reproductions. We will also discuss the special challenges of preserving, protecting, and teaching the history of a community with integrity.