'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
To be “simple” and “free” meant something very specific and cosmically important to the Shakers.
Living simply and being free meant a lot more to a Shaker than getting off the grid and being independent. These concepts were loaded with religious and historical significance to a Shaker. They believed that they were living in the earth’s final days, and they resolved to eliminate all worldly distractions as they awaited the Second Coming of Christ. To live simply was to live for a single purpose, to strip one’s life of all unnecessary tasks and responsibilities in order to prepare for Christianity’s culminating event. Once this sort of simplicity was attained, a person was free of the burdens and distractions that usually complicate our lives.
Shakers also believed that they could attain a more profound sort of freedom: freedom from sin. They were “perfectionists,” a recurring strain in 19th-century American Christianity that suggested that believers could discipline and pray their way to spiritual perfection.
While Shakers tended to define freedom in these very ethereal ways, they also had a practical side; they were among the first to develop and use several labor-saving devices, including the flat broom, the circular saw, and rain-blocking chimney caps, all of which freed up their time for more important matters.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
While songwriter Joseph Brackett, Jr., probably intended this line to be read spiritually, the Shakers tried repeatedly to find the right place to plant their communities.
Shakers were taught that, through prayer, introspection, and discipline, they could cultivate those virtues necessary to spiritual perfection (faith, hope, honesty, continence, innocence, simplicity, meekness, humility, prudence, patience, thankfulness, charity). But the Shakers also spent decades trying to locate the “place just right” for their religious message to spread and their communities to grow.
Upon their arrival in America in 1774, they settled first in the Hudson River region of New York, near a small town named Niskeyuna. In 1779, a Baptist revival in New Lebanon led Mother Ann to believe that more converts could be gained a bit further north, so she traveled through upstate New York and New England winning new members. As a result, new Shaker communities were established in Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.
After this flurry of expansion, the Shakers grew little until another wave of revivals, this time to the west, provided an opportunity for growth. Shaker evangelists traveled across the Appalachians winning up new members and establishing new communities, four in Ohio alone. One of the new communities in Kentucky, Peasant Hill, would prove among the most enduring, surviving into 20th century.
Twill be in the valley of love and delight
This may sound like something out of the 1960s, but songwriter Joseph Brackett, Jr., actually had a deeply religions valley in mind, one prophesied for the end of history.
The “valley of love and delight” that Brackett referenced in this line was part of the end-of-the-world prophecies that the Shakers believed. Shakers were millennialists; they believed that the end of time was fast approaching and that it would be highlighted by the realization of God’s kingdom on earth.
For 1,000 years, a period of time labeled the millennium, believers would enjoy perfect peace and prosperity—“love and delight” on earth—before God initiated a purely spiritual kingdom.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and bend we shan't be asham'd
The advice offered here was a tough pill for many Shakers; they were reminded that there was no shame in submitting to authority.
Shakers led very simple lives. Their 12 virtues—faith, hope, honesty, continence, innocence, simplicity, meekness, humility, prudence, patience, thankfulness, and charity (phew)—encouraged the cultivation of a humble spirit, and the structure of their communities fostered the development of submissive lives dedicated to introspection and service.
“Elders” governed Shaker communities—at Mt. Lebanon, for example, two men and two women exercised complete control over the community’s affairs. Membership was voluntary, and members were free to leave at any time, but within the communities, they held no political power. Submission to authority was also encouraged through confession. Members were required to make full public confessions before entering a community and periodically after joining.
Shakers believed that the rewards for this life of simplicity and humility were huge. To “bow and bend” was not a source of shame. On the contrary, it was proof of one’s spiritual progress. And unlike other religions, Shakers believed that this progress could lead to a type of resurrection and perfection here on earth; believers did not need to look to death and heaven to find union with God.
To turn, turn will be our delight
Though not exactly allemande left or do-si-do (you do square dance don’t you?), these lines were dance instructions; they encouraged worshippers to spin in the tight circles that were common to Shaker dance.
Shakers wrote all types of songs—hymns, anthems, work songs—but this line reveals that “Simple Gifts” is a dancing song, created to accompany Shakers in their dance of worship.
The Shakers’ interest in liturgical dance stemmed from their belief that intense prayer could lead to a mystical experience—the direct inspiration of the Spirit of God that would lead them to preach, sing, or dance. In addition, they believed that dance was a form of worship in itself, not just a gift from the Spirit, but also a means of praising God.
Opportunities for dance were built into religious services. One 1843 visitor described an Elder rising in the middle of the service to issue a call for dance: “go forth, old men, young men and maidens, and worship God with all their might in the dance.” In response, the members formed a procession and marched briskly around the room. Once warmed up, they broke into two groups—the men on one side of the room, the women on the other—and started to dance. This visitor observed that Shaker dance was marked by its spontaneity and lack of structure. For example, the visitor continued, two women began “whirling round like a top, with their eyes shut; and continued this motion for about fifteen minutes."
This spontaneous, free form dance was not always approved among the Shakers, though. It seems to have been more common during the early days of America’s Shaker communities (during the late 18th century) and experienced a brief revival during the 1840s. More typically, Shaker dance was structured and less exuberant.