Friday, October 21, 2011

“In the valley of love and delight”—the Simple Spirits of Pleasant Hill

12 Days until Halloween!

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Mercer County, Kentucky

‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free,
‘Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn, ‘twill be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right.
--“Simple Gifts,” 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett

Two restored buildings on a quiet winter afternoon.
Photo by Local Louisville. Licensed with Creative Commons.

The members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing are simply known as Shakers. It is a name that refers to their worship services that would include a form of spiritual cleansing by literally and symbolically shaking. This religious order appeared in eighteenth century England from among charismatic Christians reacting against the staid religious atmosphere at that time. The order spread across the Atlantic Ocean and communities appeared on the American landscape, a place where different religious creeds were tolerated.

A dormitory-like bedroom. Photo by Tom Allen, courtesy of
Wikipedia.

The religious beliefs of the Shakers required them to create separate communities based upon their beliefs rather than living amongst other creeds in urban areas. Their beliefs dictated a simplicity, austerity and efficiency in their ordered lives. Celibacy was a covenant maintained by all. The Shakers only added to their ranks by inducting believers, though they also purchased slaves which they freed and they adopted orphaned children. The communities were organized into “families” which lived in large dormitory-like structures. The lives of the Shakers were spent joyfully producing things which would build the wealth of the community as a whole.

Inside a dwelling. Photo by Tim Brown Architects. Licensed
under Creative Commons.

In all things, simplicity was the rule. In Shaker design an economy of line was practiced. Everything was produced with utilitarian function in mind and most adornment was considered wasteful. They saw that making something well was an act of prayer and devotion to the Creator. Even within their music, Shakers only rarely used harmony. They preferred a pure melodic line uncluttered by anything else. The music does however display a joy and ecstasy that is surprising. These songs reflect joy, happiness and could often inspire dancing.
While the numbers of Shakers diminished in the late nineteenth century, at least one community, Sabbathday Lake in Maine, remains. Other Shaker villages, like Pleasant Hill, Kentucky have been preserved as living history museums.

The spiral staircase in the Trustees' House. Photo by Tom Allen,
courtesy of Wikipedia.

The community at Pleasant Hill was founded by three missionaries and at its height supported some 500 souls. It is noted that the products of Pleasant Hill were so well made that they often sold for a third more than other products. The village became well known for its hardy livestock and its engineering accomplishments. The converts began to dwindle towards the end of the century and the village was dissolved in 1910. Renewed interest in Shaker life and the village led to preservation efforts that have preserved the village for modern visitors. Visitors may also stay overnight within these historic structures, as well.

Sweet spirits do surround us now
I feel them gathering near.
I can perceive their lowly bow
And hear their heavenly cheer.
--“Celestial Choir,” Anonymous

In Shaker belief, souls remain earthbound until the judgment. Therefore, it’s no surprise to find that the spirits of Shakertown remain. Throughout the village of some 30 restored structures, visitors and staff see plainly clothed Shakers apparently going about their daily business. They have been seen walking through the streets, sitting at looms and occasionally waking overnight guests. Often they may be mistaken for re-enactors, but witnesses soon find that re-enactors were not present in that particular building.

A re-enactor recreates a Shaker dance for visitors in the meeting
house. Photo by David Jones. Licensed under Creative Commons.

In the 1820 meeting house, the sounds of singing, stomping and clapping have been heard. Thomas Freese, a re-enactor and Shaker singer who wrote a book on the Shaker ghosts of Pleasant Hill had an odd experience in the meeting house. He had gone there with another staff member and while she was upstairs he began vocalizing. As he sang a form appeared on a nearby bench and began to take human shape. Chilled, he left the building. Later, he discovered that the particular vocalization he was doing was used to call meetings.

Throughout Pleasant Hill staff and visitors alike have experienced the quiet simple spirits of the Shakers. One of the more extraordinary experiences happened to a woman staying in one of the restored buildings. Early in the morning she was awakened by a knock at the door. She heard a key turn and a woman in Shaker dress opened the door. She was carrying towels and set them down and slipped out of the room. The woman discovered that a towel she had used to clean her makeup off had been replaced by a clean towel. When she inquired with the staff she was told that the staff does not wear Shaker clothing. She also reported that it sounded that the dryer had been running all night. In Pleasant Hill, the Shakers still bow and bend in the spirit world with quiet simplicity.

Sing on, dance on, followers of Emmanuel!
Sing on, dance on, ye followers of the Lamb!
--“Brethren Ain’t You Happy?” Anonymous

A street through Pleasant Hill. Photo by Sarah
Elizabeth Simpson. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Sources
Freese, Thomas. “Shaker Ghost Stories.” Fantasma: Kentucky’s
     Magazine of the Paranormal. Fall 2006.
Freese, Thomas. Shaker Ghost Stories from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.
     Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2005.
Morton, W. Brown, III. National Register of Historic Place nomination
     form for Shakertown at Pleasant Hill Historic District.
Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed
     20 October 2011.
Shakers. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 20 October 2011.

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