Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hands to Work

On a recent trip to Michigan we stopped and visited the Shaker village at Pleasant Hill.

I've been fascinated by the Shaker community for a number of years now, being most familiar with the Pleasant Hill Community in Kentucky.

People came to this country for many different reasons, but one thing united them all, a desire to try something new, live by a different set of rules. Naturally, with such independent spirits and liberal beginnings there were many Utopian experiments in Early America, religious and otherwise. To me the Shakers were the most endearing, beautiful and efficient experiment.

The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing were given the name Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, by the outside world because of their unusual dancing. The Shakers did not believe in a house of worship, instead believing that work was worship. Their mantra was "Hands to work, Hearts to God."

The Shakers were industrious, inventive people, inventing or improving many objects that we still use today. They believed in technology, science and hygiene. On average shakers lived 15 to 20 years longer than the people of the "outside world."

Shakers believed in equality. They believed that men and women were equals, and races were equal. They were vehemently opposed to slavery, on some occasions purchasing slaves from their masters to free them from slavery.

The architect of the Pleasant Hill Community was Micajah Burnett, a brilliant man referred to as the "Thomas Jefferson of the West" by one of the Shaker historians that I talked to. A self-taught mathematician, architect and engineer, he was brought to Pleasant Hill in 1809 by his parents. He was 17 years old. At the age of 26 Micajah began mapping out the Pleasant Hill Community.

For me, the Shakers represent the height of American design and philosophy. Craftsmanship that attempted to go beyond human, design that worked simply and efficiently, with satisfying and pleasing proportions. With all of the tools available, perhaps the most valuable was Ockham's Razor. We could learn a lot from their aesthetic today.

It is easy to feel the presence of craftsmen at Pleasant Hill, whose goal was to transcend what is human, and whose mark of craftsmanship was to attempt to go beyond what is possible.


Doug Berch said...

Hi Randy,

Hey, next time you are up this way give a shout, maybe we could meet!

All the best,


Ian Bittner said...

Hey Randy! The Quaker photographs are beautiful! The large drawer assembly (pic 1) is interesting (what function was that intended for?)
Congratulations on your ebony folders being included in the Colophon Book Arts Supply -I know you must be excited! Give me a call some time soon!

Randy said...


I'm kicking myself that I didn't e-mail you before we left. Next time I'm up that way, you can bet that I'll let you know. I would really like to meet.

Of course, any time you're in Alabama you have a free meal and a place to stay.


Randy said...


Thanks for the comment. The large set of drawers were in the Main Family Dwelling. That was the housing for the most established (or maybe enlightened would be a better word) Shakers. The Main Family Dwelling is located in the center of the village. When one decided to become a Shaker, he or she first lived in a family dwelling on the outskirts of the village. As they became more enlightened, they moved closer to the center of the village. The chest of drawers that you see in the photo is located on the top floor of the Family Dwelling, for the most established/enlightened Shakers. Notice how there are two sets of stairs in the photo. The Shakers were a celibate group. The men and women were equal, and they lived together in the same building, but they had their own stairs, men would use one set of stairs women the other. If you look down a hallway, the men would live on one side, the women on the other. The set of drawers in the hallway were communal.

Barbara Whiteside said...

Lovely photos of my favorite place on earth to stay. My 4th gt grandfather was John Banta, one of the first to join the society in 1805 and purchase the land where the village now sits. His two brothers and half sister also joined with him...the half sister is also my 4th great grandfather. Her son, Francis Montfort Jr, is known by the current craftsmen at Shakertown as the Master Craftsman of the village and I have held a journal in my hands that was kept almost certainly by him in the mid 1800's for the carpenter shop at the East House. In it are more than 100,000 items made just by well as items made by other carpenters working with him. How did I get to be here if they were celibate??? When my
3rd great grandfather joined the society in March 1806, with his two children and a pregnant wife....that baby she was carrying became my 2nd great grandfather who left the society in 1827, shortly before turned 21 and would have been expected to sign the Covenant and remain as a Shaker. He married six years after leaving me...and the descendants went forth and

A wonderful set of photos...and a most restful place to stay...very tranquil.

For comments or info on the Shakers I can be reached more easily at

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