The movement grew and blossomed during the "Great Awakening" of religious fervor in the early 19th century when many utopian communities were being formed. The United Society was and is theologically distinct from most of the Christian sects of that time and indeed from fundamentalists of today. For instance, they believe that Jesus was anointed by God at his baptism, rather than before his birth. They also hold that his ministry guided believers to love and truth, and that the second coming was, according to founder Mother Ann Lee, a "quiet, almost unheralded one within individuals open to His spirit." This is a long way from Biblical literalism and eschatological predictions of the "rapture" or the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The result of this thinking was a community whose beliefs had none of the feudal, hierarchical structure of Catholicism and great swaths of American Protestant fundamentalism, then and now. Their views implied a pacifist community with pooled goods, working in service to each other and to the outside world. The vow of poverty led to an ethic of simplicity, with joy and beauty. In effect, the metaphysical foundations of their decisions, large and small, were that all work was in service to a higher faith. The results of this attitude are evident in the details of every object in the show, even the most humble and utilitarian.
There are echoes of their approach in the later history of art. Piet Mondrian's geometric intensity was founded in his ideas about Theosophy, and Sol Lewitt's brilliant analytical minimalist ideas were grounded in the metaphysics of awareness. Their work, of course, was made to be in a museum, to be special and apart from daily existence.
The Shakers, by contrast, made art out of their whole lives, often anonymously. Their ideas about respect for one another and respect for matter as an integral part of life on earth made it imperative that things be made and used with joy. They would work to make things easier — a round barn at the Hancock Shaker village was built into a side hill so that hay went into the top and manure came out the bottom, and all work in between was downhill. There's much to be done but no need for useless drudgery. You find gadgets throughout this show meant to make work easier, like the little loom to weave tape for chair seats, or more companionable, like the small work table with a common drawer that opens on either side of it, for two people to share.
Two items stand out for me. One is the adult cradle, meant for the infirm or the dying. It speaks to the care that the community members were expected to bring to each other. I can think of fewer ways to better to comfort someone facing their last journey than to be safe in this box with a friend gently rocking it. The other is the burial shroud, a garment made just for this purpose from white linen with ties at the waist and wrist, and coated in zinc chloride to resist water and wrinkles. One could take comfort knowing that a garment was ready that would be both tidy and prevent leaks.
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