By Bishop Peggy Johnson
In 1848, Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. (1797-1882) a member of a sect known as the Shakers, located in Alfred, Maine, wrote the words and the tune to “Simple Gifts.”
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right, t’will be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend, we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.” 1
This was originally one of the dance songs of the Shaker sect, whose full name was the “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.” Their founder was a prophetic figure known as Mother Ann Lee.
The group began in Europe (first France and then England) and eventually moved to the New York in the 1700’s. The Shakers were basically Christian in their beliefs, following the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. They lived together in communities with a strict rule about celibacy, and they held all property in common. The movement swelled to 19 communities across northeastern parts of the United States in the 1800’s; and at its heyday they had more than 6,000 community members.
An important part of their communal worship was dancing; so the lyrics of “Simple Gifts” were as much poetry as instruction, since the song was actually being danced. I can imagine them turning and turning in some fashion that eventually circled them back to their original place in the line. The concept of turning as “delight” seems to be a call for a willingness to be open to change. That involves bowing and bending that chaffs against our human pride many times.
Change, and the humbling turning and turning that comes with it is often a threat to us “feet-stuck-in-the-ground” humans. Yet only as we are open to change, take risks and are flexible enough to embrace it without “shame” can we grow and mature as Christians. The basic fundamental core of beliefs and ways of being in God’s eyes stays the same but in the turning we experience personal and spiritual growth that cannot come in any other way.
In her fascinating book Simple Gifts: Lessons in Living from a Shaker Village (Vintage Books, 1999), June Sprigg writes about her experiences working as a summer-intern tour guide in one of the last remaining Shaker settlements in Canterbury, New Hampshire, in the early 1970’s. The remnant of women there, all in their elder years, taught the writer their basic rules of simple living (without the “scrambling and yearning for wealth”), hard work, making and doing things with excellence, and staying the course despite criticism and scorn. Mother Ann Lee, the foundress declared their motto to be “hands to work, hearts to God,” and it was lived out there even after two centuries.
The Shakers achieved these goals of simplicity and personal piety by strong bonds of accountability to one another, much like the early Wesley Movement with its class meetings and bands. Shakers had a leadership design that built into the community much mentorship and spiritual guidance. Each member was assigned the task of confessing their sins on a regular basis to their superior, including those in the highest ranks. In this way they continued to “turn and turn” and polish the diamond of their souls into a more clear image of Jesus.
I met my future husband, Michael at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky in 1977. We were aspiring to become United Methodist ministers. We were married at the Free Methodist Church in Wilmore in August of 1978 and spent our honeymoon at the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky (just 20 miles from Wilmore).
The Shaker community there was founded in 1805 and thrived for about 100 years. After it disbanded because of dwindling numbers, it eventually became a historical center with tours and various exhibits of the Shakers’ handiwork and farms. They also had exceptionally good food, and people could sleep in the restored Shaker quarters, which had handmade Shaker furniture and the simplest of amenities. We were charmed by the stories of their way of life (except for the celibacy rule), and we felt that our beginnings as a couple could take a page out of their commitment to Christ above all else.
The world continued to turn, and off we went into ministry after graduation from Asbury Seminary in 1980. We accepted appointments in the Baltimore Washington Conference and served there for 25 years, all the while turning and turning as we grew as a family and in the love of God.
In 2003, the year of our 25th wedding anniversary, we took a pilgrimage to Pleasant Hill, Ky., to once again renew our vows to each other and recommit ourselves to simplicity. On that visit, we were surprised to see that the Free Methodist Church where we were married in Wilmore had become a Cokesbury bookstore. We went into the store and renewed our vows in the reference section with a curious store manager looking on.
Things had turned in those 25 years. The Free Methodists had built a larger church outside of Wilmore, and the seminary had expanded. The town had two traffic lights! Our family had also increased by two sons; and our ministries turned from each serving two multiple-church charges to serving single churches in Baltimore. And I welcomed the joy of my life: a full-time pastoral ministry at the historic Christ UMC of the Deaf. Through it all, we learned about patience, endurance, God’s faithful providing in lean times and “laughter’s healing art.” (UM Book of Hymns, 560)
The world continued to turn, and this year we celebrated 40 years of marriage. Off we went to Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, once again to stay in the Shaker living quarters, to eat their humble but delicious food and to renew our commitments. The Free Methodist Church that had become a bookstore by our last visit was now a church again. This time it was the “GCF: Vineyard Church.”
The town of Wilmore had “turned” a great deal as well: Asbury College was now Asbury University; and our beloved seminary had numerous new buildings and centers for evangelism, mission and technology. There were many new expanded apartments for student housing. The seminary chapel had been renovated; and because the GCF Church was not open the morning of our visit, we renewed our vows at Estes Chapel.
Once again, we thanked God for the years of marriage and ministry, and we pledged ourselves to continuing the journey of “turning.” Since our 25th anniversary visit there had been much turning in our lives. I became a bishop; there has been great expansion of our global church; there is a new way of being the church in the world with advancements in technology and communication; and the out-in-the-world approach to missions has made our heads turn!
Turning and growing and pruning and continuing on the journey of ministry is our goal for the next however many years we have left. The song promises when we turn and turn enough we will “come ‘round right.” May it be so! The Shakers will always bring me back to what is really important in life and ministry: the simple gifts are the best!
Enjoy photos of Bishop Peggy and the Rev. Michael Johnson, then and now.
Learn more about the Shakers from History of the Shakers and Ken Burns’ PBS American Stories and other sources. View the short video (2:24) Utopian Communities included Brook Farm, Mormons, Shakers by S. Anthony Hill. Also, watch and listen to children sing and dance to the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” [with lyrics].
1John M. Anderson (1950) “Force and Form: The Shaker Intuition of Simplicity,” The Journal of Religion, University of Chicago)