Music was a critical part of the Shaker experience from their earliest days. Even Mother Ann Lee, the Englishwoman who led the first group of Shaker immigrants to America in 1774, wrote songs. And while the music that accompanied the Shakers’ dance of worship drew the most attention from curious outsiders, not all Shaker music served this purpose. Shakers wrote hymns and work songs. They also wrote songs that chronicled their history. For example, “Mother,” published in 1813, celebrated the journey of Ann Lee and her followers to America:
“This little band of union,
In apostolic life,
Remain’d awhile in England,
Among the sons of strife;
Till the Columbian Eagle,
Borne by an eastern breeze,
Convey’d this little Kingdom
Across the rolling Seas.”
Somewhat curiously, the Shakers developed their own system of musical notation. Known as the “letteral system,” this method substituted letters from the alphabet for traditional musical notes. Apparently, while they were anxious to spread their faith, they were not interested in combining their music with that produced in the non-Shaker world. They took pains to separate their hymns, work songs, and dance tunes from the religious music produced by other denominations.
Early Shaker songbooks suggest that “Simple Gifts” was intended to accompany the dance that was part of Shaker worship. Most commonly it would have been sung a cappella with celebrants clapping the tune’s straightforward 4/4 time. However, when Aaron Copland revived the song for Appalachian Spring in 1944, he provided it with more full orchestration and substituted a more complex meter.
Despite this innovation, Copland did honor the song’s original purpose in one sense: he placed the revised song within a ballet score. Yet even here he broke with the Shakers. Within the ballet’s celebration of frontier life, “Simple Gifts” provides the music for a series of dances recording the life of a married couple. The Shakers, committed to celibacy, would no doubt have choreographed these dances differently.
Joseph Brackett, Jr., wrote “Simple Gifts” while living in the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, so one setting for the song would be this Shaker community, the first and largest in Maine. Founded in 1793, the community eventually acquired more than 300 acres, on which they built a school, dairy, shops, and residences. Alfred’s Shakers engaged in farming, but they also developed woodworking, textile, and tanning operations.
However, the song might be more usefully set within the larger Shaker movement and the half century of religious enthusiasm and creativity that fed movements like the Shakers. During the first half of the 19th century, religious revivals periodically swept across all parts of the United States. The earliest began at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801 and spread throughout the region. A second, larger wave of revivals began in New York in the 1820s and spread north to New England and west to Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The Baptists and the Methodists were the primary institutional beneficiaries of these revivals; their memberships increased significantly during these years. Several new religions appeared during these years as well. Lurking on the fringes of revival, these offered alternative religious communities for revival participants not satisfied with their more mainstream options. For example, Joseph Smith began building a following in New York after announcing that he had received a new revelation in the woods near his Palmyra home. His Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church, grew dramatically over the next several decades.
Also in New York, William Miller, a Baptist preacher, developed a following during the 1830s with his Bible-based calculation that Jesus would return in the near future. This in itself was not unusual, but Miller eventually provided a more precise date. Jesus would return and the millennium would begin, he said, between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. After Miller’s calculations proved flawed (read: incorrect), many of his followers abandoned the preacher, yet a remnant re-interpreted some of Miller’s teachings and re-grouped as the Seventh-Day Adventists. The Shakers were just one small part of this major religious movement of the 19th century that continues to impact American belief systems today.