Simple Gifts

Shaker hymn, c. 1848

How does the rhythm and tempo of this hymn compare to others you've heard from this era ("Amazing Grace," for example)? Compared to most hymns, what does this tune remind you of? A dance tune. (Explain the Shakers' use of dance in worship and the utopian communities they founded on the principle of simplicity.)

How is simplicity a gift? How might it make you free? When people today long to "return to the simple things," what do they mean? Why do they yearn for simplicity?

What does "turn, turn" refer to? Dancing. What do you think the phrase "to bow and bend we shan't be ashamed" means? To whom were they bowing? God.

Learn more about the Shakers. What practices grew out of their ideal of simplicity? What other beliefs did they hold?


"Simple Gifts" performed by Boston Camerata on Simple Gifts, Erato [4509-98491-2], © 1997. Available on YouTube.

This recording available here is by the Boston Camerata in association with the Shaker Family of Sabbathday Lake in Maine. It is sung without accompaniment. The addition of the Shaker family, who are not professional singers, adds to the authentic sound. It is from a CD collection of several Shaker chants and spirituals performed as it would have been originally, in a simple manner.

Another suggested performance is by Cantus on That Eternal Day, Cantus, © 2011. This recording, available on iTunes and on Spotify, is an arranged production, with professional voices singing in harmony.

View the music and lyrics for "Simple Gifts."

The Shakers were one of several societies in the early to mid-1800s that tried to create "utopian" communities that let them live as consistently as possible according to their ideals. (Among others were the Harmonists, Zoarists, and communities at Oneida and Ephrata.)

The Shakers, also called "Shaking Quakers," participated in religious rituals that featured singing and dancing, a practice which was meant to cast out the devil and take them to a new level of redemption and communion with God.

These rituals included dances and marches, but more often a whirling dance, otherwise known as a "quick dance," of which "Simple Gifts" is an example. It was taken from "Gift Songs from Mother Ann's Work," received by her American followers in visions and trances. Quick dances appeared mostly between 1837 and 1847; together with "laboring" songs, they formed the largest and most characteristic body of Shaker song. In autumn of 1837 Shakers experienced a great revival that lasted for more than ten years and produced a large number of songs. Many of these were "gift" or "vision" songs revealed to the faithful in dreams or visions, sometimes by the spirit of Mother Ann, sometimes by angels, and other times by spirits of famous persons.

The message "'tis a gift to be simple" is a statement of the ideal of simplicity that the Shakers believed was a divine attribute. Simplicity was carried through in their architecture and furniture designs, which were much sought after for their clean lines, lack of ornamentation and excellent craftsmanship. (Another Shaker ideal was "Work is worship"; they believed their work should reflect the glory of God.)

Engraving depicting a group of Shakers dancing (1840).

Research Shaker furniture and architecture. In what ways do the designs reflect the ideal of simplicity? Why do you think these designs are making a comeback today?

Another Shaker belief was that "work is worship." What practices or designs are a combination of the philosophies of simplicity and the sanctity of work? Many designs made tasks simpler or items easier to clean; careful workmanship was used even on simple tools and furniture.

Research other utopian groups of this era: Harmonists, Zoarites, Ephrata, Oneida. Make a grid chart comparing their beliefs and practices. Which lasted the longest? Why? Why did this era breed so many utopian experiments?