In this post, we visit a Shaker community in Pleasant Hill, and I will muse on 19th century utopian cults and communities, some of which were pretty darn interesting and even a little strange! To learn where Pleasant Hill is located, why not click on the map?
"From a window on the third floor, where grim watchers had assured Shaker celibacy, I saw far to the east a yellow smear from a power generating plant smokestack. Some historians attribute the decline of the United Believers to their unnatural views on procreation and cite the Shaker song:
Come life Shaker life,
Come life eternal;
Shake, shake out of me
All that is carnal.
But, since the Kentucky Shakers disappeared at the time of widespread electrification, maybe the lure of a 110/220 way of life kept new blood away from Pleasant Hill. After all, even the inventive people themselves (circular saw and washing machine) had to check a love of ingeniously useful mechanical gadgets and to guard against (as Howells said) 'the impulse of the age toward a scientific, a sensuous, an aesthetic life.' The yellowed sky gave me the sense the Shakers were right and that I was standing in the future in that hundred-thirty-nine-year-old building. Because they cared more about adapting to the cosmos than to a society bereft of restraint, the Shakers - like the red man - could love craft and yet never become materialists."
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 12
Pleasant Hill, Kentucky
In the last couple of years, I have read a few things about utopian communities. Some might call them cults, others religious nuts, and some might find them to be refreshing alternatives to society. One thing is certain: America has seen the establishment and decline of many of these communities centered around utopian dreams.
The Shakers were one group that fit into this type of classification. Structured heirarchically, they nevertheless practiced equality of the genders based on the belief that God manifested in both sexes. Given that, they also practiced celibacy, believing it to be the purest form of spiritual expression. They didn't forbid marriage, but they saw the root of evil in the fall of Man brought about by carnal desire, and believed that marriage was less pure than celibacy. Men and women were separated into gender-based living quarters. They also believed in the purity of hard work, and out of their industriousness they fashioned simple and functional furniture that was prized for its usefulness in the 1800s, and prized as collectors' items today. They pioneered agricultural techniques, and were not adverse to creating and implementing mechanical solutions to problems such as water distribution. Shakers also practiced communalism, sharing the resources of the community and limiting personal possessions. It was a kind of religious communism of its day.
It all sounds nice and pastoral, and perhaps even pleasant if you can get past the part of no sex for the rest of your life. But that was the tricky part. The only way that the Shakers could replenish their population was through new converts and through adoptions. After the Civil War, more people began moving to cities and less people were interested in such a lifestyle. Even adoptions began to be regulated through private groups and the government and restricting the ability of the Shakers to bring in new children. Evidently, by 2009, only three Shakers were left in the entire world.
There were utopian societies that were even more strange. I'm talking really "out there." Sarah Vowell, in her book Assassination Vacation, describes the Oneida community, another of the American utopian communities, as a community of "sex fiends" who believed in sex without male ejaculation, or what they called "Male Continence." This practice was born out of the desire of the group's founder, John Humphrey Noyes, to never again subject his wife to the suffering of childbirth, especially that of involuntary impregnation. This belief bred a whole set of practices that included older, post-menopausal women having sex with young men who hadn't learned how to control their ejaculations. Girls, according to Vowell, were "annoyingly prone to falling in love," and "were ushered into womanhood by an older male, usually by an experienced boater like Noyes himself." Thus everyone, under the group's adherence to a concept called Group Marriage, could have sex with whomever they wanted, as long as it was consensual and the practice of Male Continence was observed. Paradoxically, any type of extreme passion for anything, including the arts was discouraged. Mediocrity was the norm. The community even developed its own eugenics program.
While visiting my wife's parents in Florida, we made a special trip down to visit the site of the Koreshan Unity. The Koreshan Unity, founded in the 1870s in New York, was another utopian community that believed that the earth is hollow, and that we actually lived on the inside. They made a number of scientific experiments that they said proved that we inhabited the inside of a hollow sphere. The community also practiced a religious communism, and women occupied the all decision-making positions that formed the Planetary Court, the only exception being the founder, Cyrus Teed (or Koresh). There were three levels of membership in the group: non-believers willing to work for the Koreshan Unity who were allowed to marry and to participate in the secular activities of the group; believers who were allowed to marry but could have sexual relations only for reproduction purposes; and believers who made up the core group that did not believe in marriage and practiced celibacy. The Unity moved from New York to swampland near Estero, Florida and laid out their New Jerusalem. Unfortunately, after the death of their founder, who predicted that he would live forever, the group dwindled, and the last member died in 1981. She was able to see the pictures of the earth beamed back from the space missions, and had to conclude after a life of being a devout member of the Koreshan Unity that the founder was wrong. You have to think that might suck a little.
Such cults and communities are around us and may even touch us all. My wife grew up in Iowa, home of the Amana Colonies, religious communities known for their dairy products (my wife loves their cottage cheese) and the Amana appliances. A friend of ours was raised in the Bruderhof, a Hutterite religious group somewhat related to the Mennonites and the Amish, that was founded in Germany and then moved to South America to escape the Nazis. They now run successful businesses in the United States, and manufacture play equipment and classroom furniture for children, and equipment for disabled children and adults. Our friend has a complicated relationship with his past in the group, but still maintains his connections with both current and former members of the community.
When I was in junior high school, the Jonestown cult's mass suicide was in the news for months. The cult started out as the People's Temple less than an hour from where I grew up. Even I, as a young man just out of college, joined a communal organization, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, where I lived in a Catholic community, shared possessions with my community members and worked out in the wider community doing social service work. The program shared certain characteristics, particularly communal lifestyle, with some of these more controversial and strange groups. Lest one think that such communal living is easy, it isn't, and after two years of it I had my fill.
It all goes to show that humans seek out various degrees of communal living. We consider those who want to be alone misanthropes and slightly off. We cluster in towns and cities, while maintaining more or less independence. We all share together somewhere on the spectrum, from lighting and power to, like Oneida, sexual relations in a group marriage. But the extreme forms of communal living are hard to maintain. All that's left of the Shaker community at Pleasant Hill now are silent buildings that stand as a testament to a belief system that once was vital and is now gone. In the 1800s, with Shaker communities at their strongest, nobody living in them would have believed that their communities would disappear without the divine reappearance of the Lord or His Messengers. Yet now they stand empty, tourist curiosities. Their art of woodworking, elegantly simple, is prized by materialists the world over. Their songs are sung by others. Is it a sad ending? Or is it just the way of things?
If you want to know more about Pleasant Hill or the Shakers
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Kentucky Atlas and Gazetteer: Pleasant Hill History
Ott's World: Shakin' it Up in Kentucky (blog)
PBS: Ken Burns' The Shakers
Prose and Photos: Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Simple Gifts: An excerpt from Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring (Simple Gifts is a Shaker hymn)
Wikipedia: Pleasant Hill
Next up: Danville, Kentucky