Mount Lebanon,

Columbia County,

          New York         

by Captain Franklin Ellis436


      In the southeastern part of the town, on the western slope of the Taghkanic mountains, is the village where live the "United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing," or Shakers.  The place is "beautiful for situation," and has been appropriately named Mount Lebanon.

     Below this point the valley presents a charming appearance, and westward the country is alternated by hill and dale, field, forest, and stream, teeming with busy-life, until a hazy horizon obscures the view.  But in the village is a little world itself, founded on principles of morality, industry, order, and neatness, in which has been practically evolved a religion combining the simplicity of the apostolic times and the progressive science of the nineteenth century.

     The Shakers form such a prominent element in the history of the town that a short sketch of their origin, social life industrial pursuits, and religious belief will be read with general interest.

     Towards the close of the last century an extensive revival prevailed in Western Europe, producing, especially in France, religious phenomena of a very extraordinary nature.  Those affected were violently agitated, and spake with divers tongues, warning those around them of the wrath of God, and prophesying the approaching end of earthly things, followed by the millennial period foretold in the Scriptures.  A new religious sect was created, and, about 1700, some of the disciples found their way to England, where they were known as "French Prophets."  They preached their doctrines among the poor of the provincial towns, and in 1747, James and Jane Wardley, members of the "Society of Friends," at Manchester, embraced this religion.  A small society of believers was soon formed, in which the methods of worship were so peculiar that they attracted much attention.  The members would jump, tumble, whirl, and shout for joy.  This was so contrary to the staid customs of the Friends that they received the name of "Shaking Quakers," or Shakers, an appellation which has adhered to the believers ever since.  Among others who joined the Wordleys (sic) in 1758 was Ann Stanley, a highly sensitively-organized and spiritually-minded woman of twenty-two.  She was the wife of a blacksmith, by whom she bore four children, all of whom died in infancy.  This probably tended to direct her mind to religious matters, although she is said to have been extremely thoughtful from her childhood, and would not deport herself like other youth.  She now became imbued with the thought that marriage was sinful, and engaged in only to gratify the lusts of the flesh.  Accordingly, she renounced her wedded relation and assumed her maiden name,--Ann Lee.  She now devoted herself to the contemplation of the new religion, and after nine years of intense thought and mental anguish, which gave her the character of a crazy woman, she professed to have received a revelation from God that Christ had become incarnate in her, and that she was the chosen instrument to announce his second appearance on earth.  This bold assumption provoked her imprisonment and other persecutions.  But she continued her teaching, and was soon recognized as the "spiritual Mother in Israel" of the new sect; and to this day she is reverently spoken of by her followers as MOTHER ANN.  An eventful life of seven years in England followed her liberation from prison, during which she was by no means exempt from persecution and torture, even unto frequent attempts to take her life.  This vested her with the dignity of a martyr for religion's sake, and as such she attracted yet more attention.  About this time it was revealed to her that the spiritual kingdom on earth should be established in America.  She came, accordingly, with few of her followers, to this land, in 1774, establishing herself at Watervliet, opposite Troy.  A checkered career, during which she was arrested as a British spy, followed; but in 1777 she was allowed to return in peace to her followers, to whom she expounded the new religion with unabated zeal.

     Anon a revival of the utmost fervor prevailed in New Lebanon in the winter of 1779-80.  Pastor and people were alike wonderfully wrought upon.  There was so much excitement that the avocations of life were neglected to attend to the means of grace.  It appeared as if the pentecostal days had returned.  There were visions, deep exhibitions of divine power, and all the attendant elements of the primitive Christian times.  Naturally enough, disappointment followed the many predictions of these new prophets, and that reign of peace which they foretold came not. In despair, they heard of the strange people (Shakers) "worshiping in the bush," and visiting them, came away convinced that "Mother Ann" was the woman mentioned in the Apocalypse, and that in her Christ was made manifest on earth.  They told her of the despairing anguish of the new converts in New Lebanon, and urged her to come among them with the new plan of salvation.  The occasion was most opportune,  She came in 1780, preaching with such effect that both Joseph Meacham and Samuel Johnson, the Baptist and Presbyterian ministers, and the greater portion of their members, embraced the new religion.  It was as if a "kingdom were born in a day;" and, in the language of another, "MOTHER ANN became at once a Pontifix Maxima,--a very Pope in authority."  A vigorous society of believers was at once established in New Lebanon, which from the character of its members became, and yet continues to be, the principal shaker society in America.

     Ann Lee died at Watervliet in 1784, but her work was taken up by two of her converts,--Lucy Wright and Joseph Meacham,--and carried to a successful issue.  Under the direction of the latter the members were gathered into families, "having all things in common," and Shakerism, as an organic movement, began in 1792.  The lands of the members of this locality were taken as a basis for the new order, and other property was sold to procure means to erect the necessary buildings.

     The Mount Lebanon society owns at present six thousand acres of land, which extends into Massachusetts and the town of Canaan.  This is the joint property of eight families,--one in Massachusetts, five in the village, and two in Canaan,--having an aggregate membership of five hundred persons.  Each family is a distinct, self-supporting community, with its own organization, spiritual and temporal.  Two males and two females, called elders and elderesses, manage the spiritual affairs of the family, being themselves subordinated to a ministry of the society, which is at present composed of Daniel Boler, Giles B. Avery, Eliza Ann Taylor, and Polly Reed, and over these is the novitiate elder, F. W. Evans.  The temporal affairs are attended to by two deacons and two deaconesses in each family, who keep an account of the business affairs, and assign each member a portion of the labor to be done.  In addition to these are the general trustees of the society, in whom, and their successors, vest the titles of the real property of the society.

     The Shakers are generally engaged in agriculture and horticulture, and their fields and gardens are models of neatness and skillful cultivation.  Their homes and appurtenances are arranged with a view of securing the utmost comfort consistent with their simple habits, and every modern improvement which will economize labor and time is adopted.

     The duty of every family is to first secure its own comfortable support, paying into the common treasury any surplus, to be held for the good of the society or to supply individual wants, under proper regulations.  The size of a family varies from fifty to eighty persons, and the males and females live under the same roof, although in different parts of the house.  The rooms for the men are on the left-hand side, those for the women on the right, and accommodate two, four, or six persons.  The sexes eat in the same room but at different tables, going there in order, one after the other, following the lead of the elder or elderess down separate stairways to their places.  Their food is plain, but abundant and of good quality, and is eaten in silence.  Several women attend to the affairs of the kitchen, and their work is done with the most scrupulous neatness.  Indolence and carelessness, they say, is directly opposite to the gospel and order of God.  Cleanliness in every respect is strongly enforced; it is contrary to order even to spit on the floor.  A dirty, careless, slovenly, or indolent person, they say, cannot travel in the way of God or be religious.  It is contrary to order to talk loud, to shut doors hard, to rap for admittance, or to make noise in any respect; even when walking the floor they must be careful not to make noise with their feet.  They go to bed at nine or ten o'clock, and rise at four or five; all that are in health go to work about sunrise.  Indoor mechanics in the winter work by candle-light, each one following such an employment as the deacon appoints for him.  Every man and woman must be employed, and work steadily and moderately.  When any are sick they have the utmost care and attention paid to them.  When a man is sick, if there is a woman among the sisters who was his wife before he believed, she, if in health, nurses and waits upon him.  If any of them transgress the rules and orders of the church they are not held in union until they confess their transgression, and often on their knees, before their brethren and sisters.

     The industry of the Shakers is proverbial.  All are constantly adding to the common fund, and the society at Mount Lebanon has become noted for its thrift and prosperity.  Among its leading industries are the various mechanical employments, as broom-making, tub and pail-manufacturing, and other light shop-work.  The Shaker chairs have a wide and favorable reputation for their beauty and comfort.  Some of the most useful mechanical improvements and labor-saving machines have originated here.  About 1800, Benjamin Bruce and Nicholas Bennett invented wool-carding machinery, whose manufacture for the next fifteen years yielded the society much income.  It is generally believed that the buzz-saw was here invented, by a Shaker named Amos Bishop.  This saw is now preserved in the State cabinet at Albany.  Later, Bishop and Bennett invented and here used the first planing and matching-machine.  The application of this machinery in the half a dozen shops and mills of the place gives it a busy appearance.

     The seed business first assumed importance as an industry among the Shakers.  Beginning on a very small scale, it now requires more than one hundred acres to supply the demand for these popular seeds.  The preparation of native herbs and indigenous plants for medicinal purposes was begun as early as 1825.  The process was at first very crude, the extracts being prepared in an open kettle, and the herbs pressed by a small hand-machine.  But about 1830, Garrett K. Lawrence, the society physician, conceived the idea of distilling in vacuo, so as to preserve the best qualities of the herbs.  A pan was accordingly constructed on this principle, which, though rude and of small capacity, proved very satisfactory.  Machinery was also devised to press the herbs on a larger scale, using first hydraulic and afterwards steam power.  The product was increased from a few hundred pounds to seventy-five tons per year, and the capacity of the business was extended in other directions.  A very large and conveniently arranged herb-house was destroyed by fire in 1875, involving a loss of $75,000.  There is at present a large and well-conducted laboratory, where many kinds of pure extracts are prepared in the most skillful manner form herbs cultivated in the society's gardens, or gathered in the surrounding forests.

     The women, also, are much engaged in manufacturing various fancy articles, which are exposed for sale at the two stores of the place.  At one of these is the Mount Lebanon post-office, established in 1863, with Richard Bushnell postmaster.  The office is at present held by Benjamin Gates, and there is a daily mail from Lebanon Springs, distant two miles.

     Notwithstanding the Shakers are all so actively engaged, they by no means neglect the improvement of their minds.  A good library is maintained, composed of standard works, and upon the tables of their waiting-rooms are found some of the best magazines and newspapers of the day.  Meetings for mental culture are also held, where the various phases of science, art, religion, and government are discussed.  Occasionally the sexes meet together for social culture, but everything which tends to excite the animal nature or baser passions is studiously avoided, and only the finer, purer, and more God-like attributes are cultivated.

     The society has a school where the children and youth are educated in a thorough manner.  Most of the Shakers have a good education,--and some of them are liberally endowed in this direction.

     Regarding the religious doctrines of the Shakers, the novitiate elder of the Mount Lebanon society, Fred. W. Evans, says, "They are, first, that Christ has made his second appearance on earth to a chosen female, named Ann Lee, as he made his first to a man, Jesus of Nazareth; Christ being neither the man Jesus nor the woman Ann, but a spirit from the seventh or resurrection heaven, who became incarnated in them, in much the same manner that a child is the incarnation of its parents, or a scholar of its teachers; the character of the one being transferred to and formed in the other.  Revelation from the Christ heaven is, therefore, the rock upon which the church of Christ, both in the first and second appearing, is founded.  This Christ heaven, being the nearest to Deity, stands in the same relation to the inhabitants of all other globes that it does to those on earth.

     "An emanation from thence always commences the work of harvest,--i.e., it begins to cut the inhabitants off from the ground and field of natural production or generation; this being the true resurrection, because it raises them from the natural to the spiritual order, by leading them to forsake earthly relatives--farther, mother, brother, sister, etc.--and forming themselves into households of faith, where they have a hundred-fold of relatives of a spiritual character, all living on the basis of a celibate life.  Holding that the work of God with humanity is progressive, from the beginning of creation to the end of the work of redemption, they claim that there have been seven successive churches.

     "The first, the Apostolic, was based on seven principles:  revelation, including spiritualism; community of goods; peace, or non-resistance; repudiation of oaths; oral confession of sin; health of body; and celibacy.  Only Jews, whom Moses had disciplined as a schoolmaster, could become members of this Apostolical church.

     "The Second, the Gentile church, founded by Peter and Cornelius.  All its members had been heathens or gentiles, and these were allowed to retain marriage and private property as a condescension of the spirit to their low estate.

     "The Third, or Niocene church, was founded by the Emperor Constantine.  In addition to marriage and private property, he added the element of war as a means to Christian conversion.

     "The Fourth, or Roman Catholic, founded by Leo the Great, not only retained marriage, private property, and war, but added the practice of legal oaths, forbade marriage to the clergy and monastic orders, commanded to abstain from flesh-meat on certain days and occasions, and established the Inquisition, practicing persecution by torturing and putting to death heretics.

     "The Fifth, or Protestant, founded by Luther and Calvin, denied the spiritualism of the Catholic church; substituted the Bible for the true word of God; denied modern miracles; abjured celibacy and oral confession of sin; retaining marriage, war, swearing, and private property; and claiming that all special disease is from the Lord, and must be borne with Christian resignation.

     "The Sixth, the Infidel church of America, whose civil government, founded by skeptics, such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Thomas Paine, declares that all human beings are born equal, and possess an inherent right to land.  In theology, there being no inquisition and civil government, all may believe what they please.

     "These prepared the way for the Seventh, or Shaker church of Christ's second appearing, in which were re-established all the elements of the first Pentecostal church, viz., revelation, spiritualism, oral confession, community of goods non-resistance, gifts of healing, miracles, physical health, and separation from the world.  These they believe are the foundations of the new heavens, in which religion and science are inseparable friends forevermore; and the simple word of a believer is of equal force as the oath of a wordly gentile Christian, Catholic, or Protestant.

     "Jesus said, few are saved, which the Shakers interpret to mean that only a certain percentage of the race are or ever will be called to live a pure celibate life while in the body.  These will be ministers or saviors to the remainder of the inhabitants of the earth in the spiritual world; they also act as a check to the principle of population, as a substitute for war, famine, and disease, or anything which tends to prevent the increase of the race.  The Shakers do not condemn marriage per se, but they do hold that under the law of use it should be restrained to the simple procreation and rearing of offspring, in accordance with the practice of animals.

     "They hold that the Deity is a dual being, the primary fountain of male and female.  From this proceeds their dual order of government, which recognizes and secures equal rights to both sexes; and it is their belief that the civil government is rapidly progressing toward the same order, and that females will be recognized as human beings and possessed of all the inalienable rights so dear to the opposite sex; that, as they are equally subject to the action of laws with men, they will have an equal voice in framing and executing those laws; in other words, the civil government of the United States is providentially destined to become a dual government, a pattern for all the civil governments on the earth, a genuine republic.  Then will wars begin to cease from the ends of the earth; for the social evil will be rooted out of the social system.  They ask, with the Apostles, 'Whence come wars and fightings?' and believe that they proceed from physical and mental lust, from abnormal passions.

     "The leading characteristic in the worship of the Shakers is their dancing, which they attribute to the exhilarating and overpowering delight attending the outpouring of divine grace upon their hearts.  Their evolutions are regular and methodical, and are accompanied by the singing of stirring hymns and lively spiritual songs.  Constant practice makes them as proficient in the movements as well-trained soldiery, every step being as exact as if gauged by rule; and the movement is often impressive in manner.  The services usually consist of short addresses or 'testimonies,' interspersed with songs and dances or marches varying from a light springy step to a movement in harmony with a plaintive strain; and a discourse by the elder.  After this there are marches and countermarches, which are intended to be typical of some event in their religious belief.  One of the most beautiful of these is their formation into four circles around a body of singers, which are intended to symbolize the four great dispensations,--the first from Adam to Abraham; the second from Abraham to Jesus; the third from Jesus to Mother Ann; and the fourth the present or millennial period.  In this service their hands are united, the brethren and sisters separate to express the union in the perfect church; and at its close they lift up their hands and give a subdued shout, as if to express the final triumph of the Shaker church.  However strange these ceremonies, they are always deeply solemn and strikingly impressive, and leave but little doubt of the sincerity of those engaged in them."

     The house of worship at Mount Lebanon is a wooden building of plain but singular construction.  It is eighty-five feet long, sixty-five feet wide, very high, and has a dome-shaped roof, covered with tin.  The audience-room is clear of post and pillars, and has permanent seats for spectators only.  On the walls are rows of pegs, on which the members hang their outer garments,-they perform their exercises without coats or shawls,--and ranged along the walls are loose seats for the accommodation of the members while listening to the minister's discourse.  On the east side of the house, towards the street, are two doors, which are approached by marble steps, through which the members enter, the men at the left hand and the women at the right, walking by twos from their homes, and occupying opposite sides of the room.  Those appointed to preach come from the "porch," a three-story wing on the south end of the meeting-house, containing rooms for the ministry, male and female.  The house stands on a fine grass-plot, neatly inclosed, near the centre of the village, and was erected in 1823.  Until that period a smaller building, put up in 1787, was used, and was subsequently converted into a seed-house.

     Besides this public worship, each family assembles every evening in a room set aside for this purpose in their houses, where they sing, dance, and exhort each other.  These meetings are often attended by "spiritual manifestations," in which the recipient of the "gift" prophesies, or exhibits the presence of the power by some physical action, as spinning around, etc., often of long duration.  They kneel in prayer by their bedside in the morning and the evening, and also before and after meals.  In short, their devotions are rigidly and scrupulously attended to, producing a serenity of life and a placidness of countenance which is truly remarkable.  The very atmosphere seems hallowed and consecrated to love and purity, and, though the religious tenets of the Shakers will never be generally accepted, nor their social life approved, yet it must be accorded to them that they have practically demonstrated that there is an inherent force in their religion which has elevated them above many of the grosser things of earth, and made it possible for them to maintain for nearly a hundred years an apostolic community, in which godliness, by industry, cleanliness, rational living, and exalted purposes, are constantly exemplified.