Albany, on the Hudson, Sept. 2d.
HERE, my little heart, amid a regular deluge of rain, which prevents me from seeing any thing of the capital of the Empire State and its Senate House, I continue my conversation with you, that is to say, in writing, for the silent communion goes on all the same.
In my last letter from Brooklyn, I told you, I think, how that my friends, the S.'s, would go with me as far as the Shaker Community at New Lebanon. And on an unspeakably fine day I again ascended that beautiful Hudson, again saw its wild, romantic Highlands, its rich populated shores; saw the turrets of the Downings' house glancing forth from amid its wooded grounds, cast toward it a look of love, and--enjoyed the life with nature and Marcus, Rebecca, and Eddy, as we progressed in that magnificent, comfortable steam-boat. Toward evening we reached the little city of Hudson, where we landed, and then took the stage, which in about two hours' time brought us to the Springs of New Lebanon, a celebrated watering-place half an English mile from the Shaker village, and Marcus and I walked in the beautiful evening to look at it. We saw some pale yellow, two-storied wooden houses, built in good proportion, and with tiled roofs, standing on green slopes, surrounded at some distance by yet higher hills, all covered with wood. It was a very lovely and romantically idyllian scene. The views from the houses were extensive, and the glass panes in the windows were large. Life at New Lebanon did not look to me so gloomy or so contracted as I had imagined.[p. 557]
We saw some of the Shaker brothers out in the fields making hay, and others, again, reaping, as I supposed.
Yesterday, Sunday, we were present at divine service in the Shaker church, together with many other strangers. The church is a large hall, which would easily accommodate from two to three thousand persons; it has very large windows, but not the slightest ornament. It is very lofty and light. I was, on entering it, astonished by the sight of a number of corpse-like female figures, attired almost like shrouded corpses, sitting on benches placed along the wall, rigid and immovable as mummies; they were the Shaker women. The sight of them was really sad, and would have been much more so had not there been a certain refreshment in the very novelty of the scene. Where all ladies are dressed according to the same mop, any who may vary from it become interesting from that very cause.
The Shaker sisters were, however, all dressed alike, in white or gray striped petticoats, high-heeled shoes, white handkerchiefs so pinned over the bosom as to conceal its natural form, and, indeed, the style of the attire seemed intended to make the whole body look like a tree-stem, without any curved outlines. They wore on their heads a little cap like that of the Quaker women, the plain border of which sat close to the face. I observed that these caps were very much blued, which still more increased the death-like hue of the countenance. The costume, at least the head-gear, was not unlike that of the peasant women and girls of our Stockholm district. From the other side of the hall marched in the Shaker brothers, all in knee-breeches, stockings, and high-heeled shoes, in waistcoats and shirt-sleeves, and with uncovered heads, their hair cut straight across their foreheads, and hanging down behind; the whole costume very like that of the Swedish peasant in his every-day dress.
The congregation, consisting of about one hundred persons [p. 558] of each sex, sat upon benches which they carried forward, the men for themselves, the women for themselves, but opposite to each other. Two Shaker sisters came kindly and silently forward, carrying one bench after another to the spectators, who occupied the whole of one long side of the hall, and considerably exceeded in number the Shakers themselves.
All at once the Shakers rose up quickly, the benches were put out of the way; brother and sister stood for a moment opposite each other, after which an elderly man came forward and spoke for awhile, but I could not hear what he said. After that the congregation began to sing and dance, tripping forward and backward each one by himself, but in symmetrical lines and figures, to a measure, the principle of which seemed to me to be: Amid all variations of the air constantly recurred the figure , almost always marked by very energetic stamping of the heels, and during the whole the hands were moved in time, somewhat as a child is lulled to sleep. All at once the dancing and singing ceased. The congregation stood immovable for a moment, and then another preacher stepped forth, after which singing and dancing began afresh. Thus it went on for an hour in an uninspired and mechanical way, as it seemed to me. And these pale women, all attired alike, tripping, and see-sawing up; and down, and swinging about with downcast eyes, and without any sign of joy or natural life, appeared to me in a high degree unnatural. They had gentle but unmeaning countenances; I did not see one among them which was beautiful. The men looked better and more natural, both body and soul, and danced with more life, although the effect was often ludicrous. Again all was still in the [p. 559] assembly, and all resumed their seats on the benches. And now a Shaker brother of about forty stood up; he was a man with a narrow forehead, and deep-set, dark, glimmering eyes, whose whole exterior indicated the dominance of one idea, fanatically held. He placed himself before the spectators, and addressed them somewhat in this style:
"You behold us here assembled in a room which we have built by our own labor, in which we may worship God according to the law of our own conscience. If you are come here to see us, and you desire to feel esteem for our community and our mode of worship, and to behave in accordance with it, then you are welcome; if not, then you are not welcome here. But I hope the former. And let us now talk one with another, and let us see what it is which lies between you and us, what it is which separates us. Let us understand one another."
He then proceeded to describe the Shaker Community in opposition to the worldly community; the former as renouncing the world and living only for heaven, the latter as living merely for selfish enjoyment and earthly advantage. We had, every one of us, a very severely condemnatory sermon from brother Evans (for such was the name of the Shaker brother), on account of our sins and our frailties, interrupted merely by such admonitions as, "Come, let us consider the matter together! Answer me!" and so on. It would have been extremely easy to have answered the good brother, and to have retorted a great many of his accusations, and, in particular, his Shaker self-commendation, and I wondered that no voice was raised to do so from the so-much censured audience. But they took it all in good part, and were silent. After this chiding sermon the dancing recommenced with new vigor; a circle was formed, which constituted the choir, and around it moved in a dancing ring, which seemed continually to extend itself (and evidently did so with method and art), [p. 560] the Whole Shaker congregation, two and two, and finally three and three in a line, amid an incessant measured stamping and striking with the feet, and waving with the hands, and singing to a livelier tune than hitherto:
Oh, how I love this living way,
Where peace doth spread its cheering ray,
And like the brilliant orb of day
The truth of heaven is shining;
Where souls in union daily meet,
Their vows and offerings to repeat,
Pure love makes their communion sweet,
'Tis like the dew of Hermon.
The dancing and the movements became more and more animated the longer they continued, although it never exceeded a jog-trot measure, and I saw sweat-drops stand on many a countenance. The eyes of the women, however, still continued cast down, and their expression inanimate. The men appeared more lively and their dancing, especially the action of the hands, which in their increasing zeal resembled that of a harp-player, seemed easy and becoming, or, at all events, not unbecoming their costume, and not at all unnatural. It was not difficult to understand that this circular dance might be intended as a symbolic representation of the path of life, and I have since been told that it represented the progress of the soul on its journey through life. The choir in the middle of the hall sang during the whole time, making a fanning movement with their hands.
I, for my part, do not see why dancing might not constitute divine worship as well as singing and other modes of action, and why it might not be a natural expression for certain phases of the religious life. When King David danced for joy before the ark, and played upon his harp as he sang songs of praise unto the Lord, he followed a true inspiration; nor have I any thing against this dancing of the Shaker congregation, excepting that this is precisely the inspiration which it lacks. It is now merely a [p. 561] work of tradition, of custom, and calculation. A few years since it was different, and then, as I have heard from Miss Sedgwick, extraordinary phenomena were exhibited, as, for instance, people spinning round like the Fakirs of the East, till they fell down from sheer fatigue, or in convulsive ecstasies. Such exhibitions are of rare occurrence now, or care is taken that they do not occur in public. The element of practical economy, which, as well as religious enthusiasm, distinguishes the Shaker sect, seems latterly to have taken the lead.
This religious service concluded as silently as it had begun. The brothers and sisters carried away their benches in the same way that they had brought them forward, and then left the hall, each by their own entrance. I was determined, however, to know more this sect and of its intention. I sought out, therefore, two leaders of the congregation, told them my wishes, and requested to see them again and to converse with them. They kindly consented, and invited me at once to dine with them and to remain over the next day. I could not do that, as I expected my young friends, the Lowells; but in the afternoon, after I and the S.'s had dined at Lebanon Wells, we returned alone to the Shaker village. A deep silence now prevailed there. All the congregation were away, and those cheerful yellow houses lay solitary upon their green, sunlit hills.
We were received by two of the sisters, who conducted as into a room where two elderly men and two elderly women, as well as a few young girls, were present. The cheeks of the latter bloomed like roses beneath blue-white linen caps, and I now saw that the Shaker community did not send its handsomest members into the dance. These elderly men and women were elders, as they are here called, and superintendents of the family in which we found ourselves. The community of New Lebanon is divided into two families, the "North Family" and the [p. 562] "South Family." Each family has its separate house, overseers, and household management. I propounded my questions to the elders, but it was soon clear to me that they could hardly answer them. One of the men was a wealthy man, who had left his wife and his family to unite himself to the Shakers, to whom he had given a part of his property. Afterward one of his daughters followed his example, and she was one of the pretty young girls now present. He was an elderly, strong-built man, with a good exterior, and a countenance which indicated feeling to be stronger than intellect. The other elder had a noble, ascetic, and patriarchal appearance. Neither of them had much to say. The women seemed gentle, but of circumscribed minds. They had sought for, and had found a haven amid the storms of life. More they did not desire.
But now brother Evans entered, with the narrow, high forehead, the dark, fanatically-gleaming eyes, and with him the conversation became animated. I was astonished to find in that fanatical preacher a very intelligent, and, upon the whole, a man of a liberal, although not of a profound mind, who understood the foundation and the vital intention of the sect, and could render a reason for all. The conversation with him became really interesting to me, and we both grew very earnest.
Of the questions and replies that passed between us I shall merely give the following:
Question. What is the meaning of your dancing? Is it symbolical, or is it for discipline?
Answer. Both one and the other. We dance because we can not help it, because we can not otherwise give expression to the feelings of our hearts. Our dance is so arranged that it may represent to us our duty and our faith, and thus become to us a vitalizing sermon both to soul and body.
Question. You say you represent something quite new [p. 563] in the world; nevertheless, I must observe, that sects which separated themselves from the world, forsaking all its pleasures, in order to lead a holy life, may be found in all ages. How do you distinguish your community from those orders of monks and nuns which were formed immediately after the introduction of Christianity, and which are yet to be met with in many countries?
Answer. There is the greatest difference in the world. These orders will that the human being shall attain perfection by the separation of man and woman, whom God created for a spiritual oneness. We, on the contrary, maintain that it is only through this spiritual union between man and woman that the perfected human being can be produced.
Question. The fundamental idea of your community is, then, that of spiritual marriage?
Answer. We do not call it marriage. We merely say that men and women can not become good and perfected human beings excepting by means of reciprocal spiritual union and daily intercourse, conformably with the intention of God, whereby they aid each other in the attainment of a perfect life.
Question. But if all the world were to be of your way of thinking, and all the world, that is to say, our world, were to become a community such as yours, without marriage and without children, there would soon be an end of the world--it would then die out.
Elder Evans bethought himself for a little while, and then said, that if the world came to an end in a good way, if it made a good and a holy end, then it might just as well happen soon as late, for that we, every one of us, looked toward our transformation, and hoped that it might be for the better.
On this I too bethought me for a while, and then found nothing to reply, excepting that it seemed to me that the brother was not so far wrong. I had indeed, and still [p. 564] have, my suspicion that we human beings have a greater work to perform on this earth than we should have time for if we all of us devoted ourselves to the life and death of the Shaker community; but I would not now agitate the ocean, in which neither brother Evans nor I could very well swim, but would content myself with endeavoring to acquire a better knowledge of the organization of the life and institution of the Shaker sect.
Its object is the spiritual development of the human being by means of a spiritual, holy, social life; the main springs of this are Christian and kindly intercourse in spirit and action, of men and women, in prayer and in labor, for and with each other; the subjection of worldly pleasures and a physically ascetic life being the means which are to remove all impediments from the former.
"Are you really very fond of one another here?" I inquired from one of the young girls.
"Oh yes, indeed, that we are!" replied she, and her beautiful, large, dark blue eyes beamed with a confirmation of her words.
The feeling which seemed to exist between these young girls and those elderly men, as I observed on two occasions, seemed to me to be especially beautiful and affectionate, such as that between good daughters and their fathers.
In the midst of our conversation young Lowell came bounding up the stairs and into the room where I sat with the Shaker company, and his handsome, fresh, and animated countenance, beaming with life and cordiality, shone like a May sun in upon that pale, although kind assembly. He and Maria were just arrived, and we had a cordial meeting in the midst of the Shaker sisters, who smiled gently and watched us, not without sympathy. They now invited us all to come and take supper with them, but the Lowells were going to the Lebanon Wells, because Maria required rest. The S.'s and I, therefore, went down with our Shaker friends into a hall, where a [p. 565] table was spread for us, with tea, milk, bread and butter, cakes, and preserves, and of all a great abundance. We were waited upon by the sisters; two of the brothers sat down to table with us, but without partaking of any thing. Rebecca S. said to one of the sisters who waited upon us, as she bent down to offer her something, "You look so good that I must kiss you!" Many sisters came in to see us. I observed some middle-aged women with remarkably good and noble countenances. A calm and mild gravity distinguished them all. They made me feel as during a mild but dull September day in Sweden. The air is then pure, the fields still green; it is agreeable and it is calm, but a certain air of melancholy rests upon the landscape; it is wanting in sun, flowers, and the song of the birds; nothing grows, all stands still, and if by chance a bird utters a little twittering song, it is soon at an end. That mild, calm September atmosphere suits me very well nevertheless, and the Shaker sisters seemed to see with satisfaction the evident interest which we felt for them and their society. They were heartily kind and agreeable, much more so than I could have believed as I saw them during the occurrences of the forenoon.
When we took leave of them, I said, "I salute you all with a spiritual kiss, because, I presume, that you will not allow any other."
"Oh, we are not so particular as that," said a young girl, who, smiling and bending forward her pretty head, kissed me, and with that came forward the rest, and we had a hearty kissing all round, Rebecca, and I, and the Shaker sisters, and as they laughed at this, I said to them, "I fancied that you could not laugh." And that made them all laugh again; and one of the elder women said, "Oh, I would not, for a great deal, be without my good laugh!"
They were regularly charming and delightful, a thousand times more so than some worldly and thoughtless [p. 566] ladies at the hotel at Lebanon Wells, who set themselves very high above "the poor Shakers."
Their society left a very good impression upon me, and I have heard from persons who have had intercourse with the Shakers for many years a great deal of good respecting them, in particular of their mutual life of Christian love, as well as of their kindness to the poor-- their tender care of such children as are intrusted to them, sometimes those of poor people who do not belong to their society, sometimes of the families of members, but who live without acknowledging more than the spiritual connection with the society. The care which is taken, also, of the old and the sick of the community is said to be excellent. I heard the same from my little lady-doctor in Boston, Miss H., who is the physician of two or three Shaker establishments. She also told me of many an unhappy human life in the world which has found a peaceful asylum among the Shakers, of miserably married people, of lonely women, of men who have been severely tried by affliction, who have here found a haven from the tempests of the day, who have found friends, protection, the comforts of life, and the peace of life which they never could have found in the world. These societies are conventual associations in a milder form, and, upon the whole, as it appears to me, the most rational institutions, and the best adapted for their purpose of any of this class, in every thing excepting the dancing, which might be made considerably more rational, and much more accordant with its object.
The elder Richard Bushrell gave me, at parting, a book containing the history of the origin and organization of the Millennium Church, or United Society of Believers called Shakers. I see by it that the sect originated in France, where, during a religions revival in Dauphiné, about the close of the fifteenth century, a number of men and women were attacked by religious ecstasies, both of soul and [p. 567] body, which they regarded as the operations of the Holy Spirit, they being accompanied by visions and powerful inward admonitions to a holy, God-dedicated, ascetic life. Disquieted and persecuted in France, some of them fled to England. Anne Lee, the daughter of a smith, who seems from her earliest years to have had visions and inspirations like those which are related in the history of the Swedish saint, St. Brigitta, became known to these pious French exiles; though she could neither read nor write, yet she soon distinguished herself by her biblical and other sacred knowledge. After long spiritual sufferings which had emaciated her body, she fell into a state of religious ecstasy, by which both soul and body regained new life, and during which she became the centre, the teacher and leader, of that little flock of scattered believers who had faith in the higher inspiration of this ecstatic condition. Strong faith and natural genius enabled this woman, devoid of all ordinary education, to reduce to a system that which had hitherto been merely isolated phenomena and mere conjecture. Through her, and under her influence, the doctrines took a definite form, as thus. That as the world fell by the first Eve, so would it reinstate itself by the second Eve. Christ's second appearance should be, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, in this second Eve, in the woman, who would lead to life in God that race which she had formerly led to its fall from him. Perfect chastity is the principal condition of this state, together with the devotion of the whole life to God during labor for the brethren. The Shakers saw in Anne Lee this second Eve, this new revelation of God upon earth. They called her Mother Anne Lee, and guided themselves by her inspirations. They danced to the service of God as she ordained, and when their ecstatic excitement became vehement--as is always the case in the youthful life of religious excitement--they were attacked by the mob, and Mother Lee and many of her adherents were [p. 568] thrown into prison; but in vain. Again they met together to sing and to utter praise, and the song became the dance, and the songs of praise lifted them in jumps and bounds from the earth. Disquieted and threatened in England, the Shakers, like all the other persecuted enthusiasts of Europe, cast their eyes across the sea to the New World. Mother Anne Lee became inspired to found there the association of New Lebanon. Accordingly, in the year 1774, Anne Lee, with a small company of her adherents, commenced their voyage; and as they were swayed by the motion of the sea, they sang and danced in their ecstatic worship of God. The captain of the vessel, who could not understand such an extraordinary mode of worship, threatened them that, if they would not desist, he would have them thrown overboard. A storm arose plank was torn loose from the ship's side, and the water poured in. The captain, now desperate against the Shaker company, and regarding their ungodly proceedings as the cause of this misfortune, was just about to execute his threat, when Mother Anne Lee exclaimed, "Be of good courage, captain, for not a hair of your head shall suffer: I see two angels by the mast of your vessel!"
"And at that very moment," continues the narrative, "came a wave and struck the plank again into the ship's side, so that the water flowed in no longer, and the people at the pumps could make head against it."
The storm also soon abated, and the captain from this time left the Shakers at peace. They continued to sing and dance. Singing praises and dancing upon the wild waves of the sea, they arrived at the New World.
Mother Anne Lee and her disciples purchased land not far from the banks of the Hudson, cultivated the wilderness, built a house, aud founded there, in September of the year 1776, their first evangelical community, under the name of New Lebanon. Mother Anne Lee's wedded husband, poor man, whom she had married before the time of [p. 569] her religious awakening and who in the beginning also belonged to her believers, became unfaithful, separated himself from her, and fell into drunkenness and other vices. The Shaker establishment at New Lebanon, however, flourished and prospered under the guidance of Mother Anne Lee, and gave birth to new Shaker communities in other states, which Anne Lee visited, in order to diffuse there her doctrines. She died in extreme old age, universally esteemed and beloved.
Such of her expressions and teachings as are preserved in the book show a God-fearing and gentle disposition--not without some little arrogance in the belief that she was another Christ, as well as of a very prudent, managing, and practical turn of mind. In the mean time, she referred all rules of labor and frugality to God, as the giver of all good. "It is," said she, "through the blessing of God that every article of food is given, and therefore we must not be careless even of the smallest things."
Of her exterior it is said, "Mother Anne Lee was somewhat below the middle height of woman; she was tolerably stout, but upright and well formed, both in person and in features. Her complexion was fair and clear; her eyes blue and penetrating; the expression of her countenance mild and full of soul, but at the same time solemn and grave. Many persons in the world called her beautiful, and in the eyes of her faithful children she seemed to be possessed of a high degree of beauty and celestial amiability, such as they had never before seen in any mortal being. And when she was under the influence of the Holy Spirit, her countenance beamed with the glory of God, and her form and her actions seemed divinely beautiful and angelic. The power and influence of her spirit at such times surpassed all description; no one then could contradict her, or oppose the power through which she spoke."
At the present time there are in the United States eighteen [p. 570] Shaker communities, scattered over several states, from New Hampshire to Ohio and Indiana. The sect is said, however, not to exceed four thousand members in number. The society of New Lebanon consists of from seven to eight hundred persons. Each community has its separate two or three families, and among these its Church family or "Ministry," of elected, spiritually-gifted men and women, who conduct the spiritual affairs of the society; the temporal affairs are under the government of deacons and elders elected for that purpose. All the various communities stand in a certain subordinate relationship to that of New Lebanon, which is called the mother community. All property is in common; no one in the community possesses any thing for himself. All division of property is objected to. Any person who, on entering the community, brings in with him property, may, after a time, draw it out again if he wishes to leave the community. But if it is given to the community after calm reflection and with full consciousness of the act, it can not again be resumed. Most of the Shaker associations are in good circumstances, and that at New Lebanon is said to be wealthy, and to be still more extending its possessions. It is maintained by agriculture and the rearing of cattle. Every thing which is made by the Shakers is substantial, but has something odd and devoid of taste in form and color. The Shakers live well and work leisurely, because they have neither pleasures nor superfluity, and they work equally, and they work all. The sect increases slowly; you hear no scandalous stories told of these communities. Yet will it now and then happen that a young couple there, a brother and sister, will elope in order to unite themselves as man and wife, beyond the pale of the society. Nobody pursues them; they are merely considered as lost.
On one occasion, I have heard that a new-born child was laid at the door of a Shaker house. It caused a great [p. 571] excitement when it was found there the next morning, and all the Shakers, men and women, young and old, went forth to see that wonderful little thing, a baby! "The baby" became the object of curiosity and interest to the whole Shaker community; and "the baby's" well-being, its growth and progress, the subject of general conversation and general attention. "The baby" was for a long time the chief personage in the Shaker community.
And now you must, indeed, have had enough of the Shakers. I wish, however, to see more of them and of their commonwealth, and hope yet to have an opportunity of doing so. Mother Anne Lee, how many of Eve's daughters, and sons too, are there who might very well go to school --if not exactly into the dancing-school--with thee!
I passed the evening at Lebanon Wells with my friends, the S.'s and L.'s, and bathed also in its crystalline, sulphur-impregnated bath. Finally, I contended with the S.'s, because--we had the old story over again--I wished to pay my share of the expenses both of the journey and our stay at the hotel, to which they would not consent. They have a thousand amiable ways and expressions by which to silence me, and to compel me to let them defray traveling expenses. They are of a thoroughly kind and liberal nature, and the sense of their pleasure in giving caused me, in the end, to be silent, but with tears in my eyes; and they carried their point without my being able to thank them. But I know that they understand my feelings. I can not describe to you how amiable they are, how careful they are of me, and how kindly anxious! And all is done in such a simple and natural manner as though they were my brother and sister. I am sincerely attached to them, and am happy in having become acquainted with such people.
They returned to New York, and I continued my journey with the Lowells, part of the way by the Hudson, [p. 572] and the rest by rail-way; but it rained terrifically, and in "our transit from one mode of conveyance to the other, we, as well as our carpet-bags, got wet through. Drenched, and amid pouring rain which rushed in torrents through the streets of Albany, we arrived at our hotel, where they refused to receive us. The agricultural fair was to be held in two days in the city, and every room was engaged by people coming to the fair. On our promising, however, merely to remain there for one night, they gave us accommodation; and how charming it was to be able to dry ourselves before good fires, and to have warm and refreshing tea!
I am now in the centre of the most powerful state of North America, with its population equal to that of the whole of Sweden, and much richer; but Sweden has a wealth which the Empire State can never obtain, let it be as rich as it may; and yet it is not nearly so powerful as it might and certainly will become.
New York State has no old memories, no origin of an interest equal to that of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. It was trade which first populated this country. Its earliest founders proceeded thence from Holland; and the country was called by them New Netherlands, and the peninsula upon which New York stands was then called Manhatten, a grand Indian name, by which I could wish that New York might be rebaptized. It was at the expense of the Dutch Company that Hudson went to America and discovered the glorious river which bears his name, and the country around it he described as "Het shoonste land det men met voeten betreden kon." Even to this day the state is full of the Dutch, who live in a clan-like manner, and will not avail themselves of schools or other great institutions which have been established by the present lawgiving and dominant people. The State of New York does not appear to have contributed to the spiritual treasury of great ideas in the New World. Nevertheless, [p. 573] the idea of a Federal republic seems to have been carried over to New York from the general states of Holland.
And now good-by, my sweet sister! I am tired and sleepy.
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