Archival Film of the Day: The Shakers

The Shakers (1974), Tom Davenport Films

Source: A National Preserve of Documentary Films about American Roots Cultures

Duration: 29′ 59″

The Christian sect, The Shakers, adopted a singular approach to propagating their faith and their creed – it included a vow of celibacy that ensured the group would likely cease to exist. It was only due to conversions and adoptions that their numbers remained healthy as long as they did.

Formed in mid-18th-century England, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing followed the teachings of Ann Lee, a charismatic preacher who migrated from England to New York state in 1774 with a small group of her followers and eventually settled at Niskayuna, in Albany County, New York.

In addition to childlessness, other key characteristics of the Shaker culture and worship included communal living; bare-basics lifestyle and furniture making; ecstatic dancing, singing, and speaking in tongues during worship (this earned them the name “Shaking Quakers” and thence “Shakers”); and gender equality. From their founding, Shaker communities took women as leaders.

During their first century in the United States, the Shakers numbers grew to 20,000 or more. Their maximum number at any time is estimated at 6,000 people living in 20 communal settlements from Maine to Kentucky. Today, few if any remain alive.

Tom Davenport’s film traces the history and dwindling persistence of the sect through the memories and song traditions of Eldress Marguerite Frost of Canterbury, New Hampshire, and Sister R. Mildred Barker of Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The Shakers is stored on A National Preserve of Documentary Films about American Roots Cultures. The project streams independently made films, most from the 1960s and 1970s, and posts associated essays and other material developed with folklorists, anthropologists, and musicians, in an effort to build a national preserve of hard-to-find documentary footage about American folk or roots cultures.

Some of the films found outlets through public television, but few had wide distribution, in part because they ran at unusual lengths and featured subjects speaking in dialects unfamiliar to most Americans.

The producer of The Shakers, Tom Davenport, made many such films, and then went on to produce, with his wife Mimi Davenport, a successful fairy-tale films, including their 1998, feature-length Willa: An American Snow White. (See, MIAN’s article about fairy-tale-related films by Davenport, and others.)

Building a website for Willa alerted the Davenports to the potential of a site for independent folklore films like The Shakers. The result is Folkstreams, which is supported financially by the National Endowments for humanities and arts, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and state Arts and Humanities organizations. Films are stored in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Categories: Shorts

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