As Shakers, we don’t look at ourselves as a guild of craftsmen, but as Believers. Being a Shaker means being a follower of Christ. Jesus instructed us to “be ye perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” and we seek to apply this to all we do. In Shakerism, personal perfection is something that unfolds over time. Although we might strive to make the best chair that we’ve ever made, in 10 years we should be able to say that we make them even better than we used to.
But this is not to say that a Shaker craftsman would have identified himself as a furniture maker. Shakers see themselves as tied to the land, and because of this, most Brethren have identified as farmers, not tradesmen. Cabinetmaking was at best a part-time job, something to be done in winter when there was little outside work to do.
Most Shaker scholarship attempts to understand our beliefs by studying our craft production. But Shaker-made objects do not explain our faith – our life and actions explain it. Mother Ann taught that we must do the best we can in any job or circumstance that we might find ourselves, and to always remember that we are not doing it for ourselves or for selfish gain, but for the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God on earth. We serve God through our service to each other. This concept informs how we tend our animals, cook our meals, clean, build, weed the garden, or even make furniture.
We often hear visitors tell us that they love the furniture of our tradition “because it is so simple.” But Shaker work is not simple, it is refined. The ability to produce these beautiful and tasteful curves and proportions requires a mature sense of design. The Shaker aesthetic is a conscious style, just like any other. Mission furniture could probably be described as simple, but not our work. The functionality of a chair does not demand finials, scribe marks, or turned posts. Even though chairs do not need to be painted or varnished, Shakers have embraced these things because we seek to produce work that is well-proportioned and enjoyable to the eye.
–Brother Arnold Hadd, excerpt from “As Part of a Life Lived: A Shaker’s Perspective on His Community’s Craft,” in Issue Seven