Several months ago I read a Christian fiction book named Shakers in an attempt to win back the young man she had envisioned marrying.
The day to day Shaker life presented in the book intrigued me, and I wanted to learn more about the Shakers, so when I had the opportunity to catch the 1984 Ken Burns’ documentary The Shakers on Netflix, I did.
Like all of Burns’ PBS productions, The Shakers is an exceedingly well-done program, especially considering the lack of real Shakers available for interview.
If you are not familiar, The Shakers are a Christian group that reach its apex of popularity during the mid-1800s and has since dwindled to a veritable handful of extremely devoted members. This documentary was filmed in 1984, so many of the Shaker women who appeared in it are likely dead. Point being, Ken Burns interviewed as many Shakers as he could, but there is still a tangible lack of first-hand information.
However, the documentary presented the research Burns’ productions are noted for in great detail and supplemented these details with footage of famous details of Shaker life.
What are the Shakers famous for?
Their highly detailed craftsmanship is the one detail most members of contemporary society could associate with The Shakers without great thought. Much like the Amish, The Shakers belief in quality over quantity and speed has made their work stand the test of time. Ann Lee, the Mother of the Shakers said “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.”
Examples of this work are found in Shaker chairs (which open the documentary), the buildings of a Shaker community, the staircases and cabinetry within these buildings and in hand-crafted brooms.
I was so pleased that the documentary showed multiple examples of the stunning design in these buildings and didn’t use rapid-fire slideshow editing when presenting them. You are able to appreciate each element independently before being shown the next.
The Shakers also more than adequately reached back into the history of The Shaker movement and the development of both the religion and the communal Shaker villages and lifestyle. As you watch the program you will be surprised by the sheer number of innovations created by a group of men and women so often remembered only by their association with chairs or spiritual dancing. It is a shame that a group responsible for so much economic and progressive good receive so little credit for the scope of their work outside of programs like The Shakers.