Monday, April 28, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 5

Sister Emma Neale came to the Shaker village at New Lebanon with her mother and sister in 1853. She spent the rest of her life on the mountainside, witnessing the sect's growth, its heyday and its decline. A teacher, a weaver and maker of cloaks, a trustee of the Society of Shakers, she and her younger sister, Sarah, operated the Darrow farm into their nineties.

In 1929, when the community's numbers had dwindled, her concern turned toward the village itself. She persuaded her friend and neighbor, attorney Charles Haight, to start a school for boys that would best use the facilities of the village and preserve something of the Shaker tradition.

Sister Emma died in 1943 at the age of 97, her sister living on a few years longer.
"Shaker" was an almost derogatory nickname for the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming. In theology, the sect was similar to the Quakers, but because they believed that God would be found within the person, they were often self-absorbed during religious services and prone to dancing, mumbling and shaking. It was this behavior, and their adherence to celibacy, that often subjected them to ridicule from the outside world.

But Shaker philosophy encompassed far more than devotional practices. The following two paragraphs sum up that philosophy well. They are taken from "The Story of Darrow School," a handbook given to me in 1964 at my enrollment:
'This New Lebanon Society was not only the oldest, but the strongest, most important, and largest, of the societies. It was the model which others followed and once had 600 people, 100 buildings, and 6,000 acres of land. Almost entirely self-sustaining, the Shakers grew their food, flax, and herbs; they built their buildings, made their clothes, drugs, equipment, furniture, stoves, and tools; they provided their own dyes, lumber, waterpower, instruction, and entertainment. Shaker chairs, cloaks, and seeds were well known, for they were sold to the general public.
"As one saintly Shaker sister expressed it, 'the Shakers were thoroughly grounded in goodness.' They were celibate, they did not vote, refused to bear arms. They were a simple people – clean, prudent, temperate and resourceful. They believed in purity of mind and body, honesty and integrity in words and dealings, humanity and kindness to friend and foe, the education of children, the common ownership of property, diligence in business, manual labor, suitable employment for all, freedom from debt. They believed, too, in suitable provision being made for their people in health, sickness, and in old age."

Sister Emma had hoped these beliefs would survive as traditions at the school. What would she have thought of the Darrow School of the 1960s? What would she think of it today?

Actually, she might not be so shocked.

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