Last posting, I presented a reasonably close inspection of the somewhat aloof, but by no means separatist, Amish people and their culture. I pointed out that although the sect clings to 19th-century ways, it is growing and thriving.
As I noted, however, the long-term success of other onetime “people apart” in the mainstream American culture could be described as mixed at best.
Three examples are the Shakers, the Amana colonists, and a disjointed collection of religious snake-handlers. That’s right. Snake handlers!
Let’s tackle the last first, gingerly, using one of those long crooks from a safe distance.
There is no single snake-handling sect or cult. Serpent handling is a part of spirited religious ceremonies in a few southern, rural — if not backwoods — Pentecostal churches. These are fundamentalist congregations that take the Bible literally, including this pronouncement in the New Testament book of Mark:
And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Thus, “faith healing” and “speaking in tongues” — what to observers sound like incoherent wails and babbling but to believers is the Holy Spirit speaking through the human voice — are also frequent aspects of these services. This frenzied “holiness” or “charismatic” movement was once prevalent in the hills, hollows, and, especially, coal camps of Appalachia, but it doesn’t appear to have many practitioners any more. Holding aloft vipers, in particular, is frowned upon, even banned, by most Protestant denominations — and I’ve never seen or heard of a Catholic priest or Jewish rabbi or Muslim imam passing around anything alive with fangs and rattles during services.
Three states have forbidden the handling of venomous snakes in public places, and Georgia passed a law in 1941 that makes snake handling that leads to a fatality a death-penalty offense, after a seven-year-old girl died when a rattlesnake bit her during a service. In 2008, a preacher at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus [sic] Name was arrested, and not 1, not 2, not 20, but 125 snakes were confiscated in an undercover sting operation. Snakes alive!
So like a rattler hiding under a rock from the midday sun, the snakes-at-the-altar business has retreated to what is believed to be a handful of country churches and revival tents.
The Amanas — Not Just Refrigerators
In the Midwest state of Iowa not far from the Mississippi River, there’s a cluster of seven villages where buses from several states unload tourists six days a week.
The settlements are what remain of the Amana Colonies, one of America’s most notable communal religious societies. Visitors come expecting to eat like . . . well, like the hogs for which Iowa is famous, for the Amanas’ reputation for serving plates piled high with food is legendary. The tourists come to see and purchase quality crafts as well.
And quite a few arrive expecting to catch a glimpse of people in plain black clothes like the Amish, who, as you learned in detail last time, live without electricity and ride in buggies behind slowly trotting horses.
That’s the one area in which they’ll be disappointed, for though pious, somewhat separatist, and self-sufficient, Amana society never rejected modern conveniences. In fact, their seven little Iowa colonies even turned out Amana-brand electric refrigerators and freezers before the company was purchased by a big corporation in 1965.
A search for a kind of Utopia — a place where people could share their labor and its bounty — led to the founding of the closely-knit villages 156 years ago. The Amana people were members of a German sect called the “Inspirationalists” who, like the Amish, had fled religious persecution in Europe.
In Iowa, they founded a village called “Amana,” which was the biblical name for a river that flows through Syria. Other nearby settlements would follow: East Amana, West Amana, Middle Amana, High Amana, South Amana, and Homestead. The Inspirationalists believed that God spoke through common men and women, not professional clergy.
To this day in their churches, lay elders run the services.
The Amana people did not own their homes; the community provided everyone with food, jobs, even credit at the general store. Money was never exchanged. It’s a co-op system akin to the Mormons’ “Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institutions,” or ZCMI, where farmers and townspeople exchanged goods and labor but not money, and any profits from sales of goods to the non-Mormon public were plowed back into support for Mormon crafts and factories.
Amana’s co-op system lasted a remarkable 77 years, until 1932, when the communal system was abandoned, in part because young people rebelled against the sect’s strict ways.
You still find some communal touches, like the huge helpings of cottage cheese, cabbage salad called “sauerkraut,” meats, and gooey desserts, served family-style to visitors who get to eat like famished Amana farmers. That’s what brings the tour buses from a dozen or more surrounding states and Canadian provinces. So “independent” certainly would no longer describe these little villages in the middle of the Farm Belt.
Shaking No Longer
Now there are three. Or maybe it’s two. Only a few people know for sure. There are only two or three members of the curious religious band called “Shakers” still alive in the world. They are elderly women, sheltered and cared for in a small community in Maine. Almost two centuries ago, Ann Lee — the charismatic founder of an English sect called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing — along with her followers, moved en masse to the United States and founded communal settlements from Maine in the Northeast to Kentucky in the mid-South.
One colony, in Ohio, gave its name to what is now the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights.
Onlookers gave the sect its name as they watched its true believers twitch and clap loudly — shaking off the sins of the world as they sang and danced. President James Monroe, who stopped at a Shaker settlement in the 1820s, noted in his journal that, in his words, “The singers began increasing the violence of their actions as they were warmed by the Spirit.”
Shakers emphasized honesty, hard work, and simplicity. Shaker missionaries walked the countryside, seeking converts. And new members were essential, because the Shakers lived as celibate brothers and sisters. There would be no new children to build the ranks — which helps explain why you can count the Shakers left in the world on one hand.
The Shakers lived simply but not spartanly. Though celibate, they embraced other pleasures, such as music on the Victrola, extremely lively dancing, automobile travel, and a glass or two of beer. Kentucky sourmash bourbon, too, at the Shakertown settlement in South Union, Kentucky.
A few appointed Shaker traveling salesmen brought the sect money by selling high-quality Shaker garden seeds, fruit preserves, straw hats and brooms, oval boxes, and furniture. That distinctively simple yet solid furniture is highly prized and valuable to this day.
After the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, tens of thousands of Americans headed westward in search of fortunes and a new life, and lots of Shakers left the fold to do likewise. It was the beginning of the steady demise of their sect. Some Shaker settlements became museums and still draw visitors, curious to find out what all that moving and shaking were about.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Celibate. Abstaining from sexual relations, and sometimes marriage as well, often in keeping with deep religious beliefs.
Pentecostal. The name given to churches or believers in a highly personal, often emotional, form of worship that includes a literal belief in the Bible’s teachings. There is no specific Protestant denomination with this name, but there is a loose association among some congregations where Pentecostals’ fervent forms of worship are practiced.