Out Of This World


“And to work they went with one accord,” Mrs. Hall reported, “singing or rather screaming, tunes of a kind of jig time, at the same time walking round the room with a swinging step somewhat between a walk and a dance and flapping their hands with a penguin kind of motion.”

The music was held in no higher esteem. Used to the refinements of organ accompaniment and harmony (both scorned by Shakers as too worldly) listeners dismissed Shaker hymn singing as croaking, droning, and tuneless caterwauling. Cooper complained of “a most villainous nasal cadency.” Although Shakers composed most of their own hymns, they occasionally adapted secular tunes, to the great amusement of James Buckingham in 1838. Surprised to hear the first dance performed to the familiar air of “Scots wha’ ha’e wi’ Wallace bled,” he was further astonished when they danced next to “the much less respectable old English tune of ‘Nancy Dawson,’ ” which he hadn’t heard for thirty years. “It was a popular song in my boyhood,” he noted, “among sailors especially; and the last place on earth in which I should have expected to hear it revived, would have been among the Shakers in America.”

Between rounds of song and dance, Shakers addressed short sermons to the crowd, urging them to forsake their sinful, carnal natures, and adopt the Shaker way of life—the only path to salvation. “The Sperret, as they called it, then moved a short fat Shaker to say a few remarks,” recalled Artemus Ward. “He sed they was Shakers and all was ekal. They was the purest and seleckest peple on the yearth. Other peple was sinful as they could be, but the Shakers was all right. Shakers was all goin kerslap to the Promist Land, and nobody want goin to stand at the gate to bar ‘em out, if they did, they’d git run over.”

Many visitors found it hard not to laugh, but others were moved to pity instead. “It is scarcely possible to conceive any thing more ludicrous, and yet more lamentable,” Cooper wrote in 1828. “I felt disposed to laugh, and yet I could scarcely restrain my tears. I think, after the surprise of the ludicrous had subsided, that the sight of so much miserable infatuation left a deep and melancholy regret on the mind.”

As America changed in the years after the Civil War, the number of converts to the Shaker faith dwindled until by 1900 only about two thousand members remained, and nearly half the communities had closed. The outside world became more tolerant and less curious as Shaker strength ebbed, and by the latter part of the nineteenth century, those tourists who still visited the Shakers often not only left without sneering but even with expressions of respect. “The people are like their village,” reported British editor William Hepworth Dixon. “Soft in speech, demure in bearing, gentle in face; a people seeming to be at peace not only with themselves, but with nature and heaven.”