Shaker Village, Sabbathday Lake, Maine, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"
United States (Artist's nationality)
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The last four Shakers live at Sabbathday Lake, in Maine. Over two centuries of history may be coming to a conclusion with them. However, to stand in their village as they energetically go about the daily routines of community and worship, little seems different from the way it must have been in the 1840s, when there were eighteen prospering Shaker Villages across the United States and they were “the people who turned the world upside-down.”
Legend has it that the Shakers’ first leader, Mother Ann Lee, prophesied that when the group was down to five members it would experience a revival. She was an illiterate English factory worker who had joined a small splinter group of Quakers. And she was the recipient of a brilliant visitation from Christ in 1770 which marked the real beginning of the movement. Having suffered the death of each of her four infant children and believing marriage to be a tyranny, she considered lust to be the fundamental evil and prescribed celibacy. It is easy to see how she might reasonably believe that the final five Shakers might lead a revival when one remembers that the original group that came to America with her numbered eight and grew in only sixty years to six thousand strong. They emigrated in 1774, unwelcome in their English homeland because the violent shaking that accompanied their ecstatic dancing and worship made them seem strange. Despite further persecution in their new homeland, which may have contributed to Ann Lee’s death in 1784 at the age of forty-six, the Shakers flourished. The early 1800s were a period of astounding religiosity in America. Western New York was referred to as the “burned over” district because everyone had been converted, but the Shakers’ success stood out.
Their most famous song has it that “Tis a gift to be simple,” but nothing about the Shakers was. Pacifists and feminists, they held all property in common and believed in the social, economic and spiritual equality of all members, regardless of gender and race. In fact, they believed that the godhead itself was male and female. They produced some of the purest architecture known, aesthetically exceeded only by their craftsmanship. In fact, everything they did, whether it was inventing washing machines and clothespins or making chairs and pies, was an occasion for perfectionism and a linkage to God.
Almost as rapidly as the Shakers grew, their numbers began to dwindle. Their decline is not just a tale of the unwillingness of a devout laity to be celibate, but also one of a larger society that went from agrarian to industrial, and in so doing pulled at young people who had previously been content to live out their intense spirituality in beautiful villages.
And when it came time to close their peaceful communities, the Shakers did so with the same sense of order with which they built them. They tore down the houses and buildings lest they be vandalized, and took the legal steps necessary to create museums. They even had the foresight to remove all the headstones in the cemetery and replace them with a single massive stone. On it simply written: Shakers.
From the portfolio, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, 1982–2005
Image: 26.5 × 33.2 cm (10 7/16 × 13 1/8 in.); Paper: 27.9 × 35.5 cm (11 × 14 in.)
Gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall
Extended information about this artwork
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