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MacDonald's Letters

A. J. MacDonald, transcript of “Visit to Watervliet near Albany, NY”
Sunday September 1st 1847. In company with some Friends I paid a visit to the Shaker Settlement at Watervliet. I may here mention that the Geographical position of that place has in several instances been erroneously stated; it is situate in a N W direction about six miles from Albany the Capital of the State of New York in the Township of Watervliet, on a little stream called the Niskguna.

As this was the first place where the "Unified Society of Believers" commenced their experiment it is
the most historically interesting and it is here where my Friend S. resided.

[At their worship, he Brothers and Sisters formed two ovals in the center of the room and the elders began a hymn.] [T]hey moved their hands to and fro with a wavy motion keeping time to the tune. At a certain signal the Members in the Ovals commenced marching, the Sisters in one direction and the Brothers in the other...It was pretty to see them go round and reverse ways, it had a good effect and as they passed I had an opportunity of examining their countenances, the Women looked pale, thin and sickly thought their dress had a tendency to make them look worse than they otherwise would–they looked very plain, the elder ones especially appeared as if they recently had given up the World and the flesh forever while the younger ones looked simple and submissive.

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The Shakers are the quintessential American utopian commune to which all others are compared. With one small Shaker community still in existence in Maine, the Shakers are by far the longest-lived American utopian experiment. The Shaker version of utopia – often encapsulated in the word “simplicity” is part of the American popular imagination: Shaker influence can be found in fashion, furniture design, textiles, and music.

In 1774, a Scottish woman named Ann Lee, who had received visions from God declaring the supremacy of a celibate life, brought her followers to America. “I knew by revelation that God had a chosen people in America. I saw some of them in a vision and I met them in America. I knew that I had a vision of America, I saw a large tree, every leaf of which shown with such brightness as made it appear like a burning torch representing the Church of Christ which will yet be established in this land.”

While the Shakers are known for their simplicity, their devotion is by no means simple-minded. The Shaker credo demands duty to god, duty to man, separation from the world, simplicity of language, right use of property, and a celibate life.

At their height in 1830, there were over 18 Shaker communities from Kentucky to Maine, including one in Enfield, Connecticut.