Shaker worship ‘lives on’ through NKU group

A culture that once thrived in the Ohio Valley on a vibrant blend of singing, dancing, simplicity and celibacy lives on through the efforts of a local group dedicated to preserving the traditions of Shaker worship.

Northern Kentucky University history and geography professor Carol Medlicott Ph.D. and her fellow Shaker history buffs comprise the Western Shaker Singers who will debut their interpretations of the historic music Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Otterbein-Lebanon Retirement Community.

Shakers, sometimes referred to as “singing Quakers,” are a religious group founded in 1774. They live communal, celibate lives dedicated to simplicity. Known for their artistic furniture design and agricultural innovations, the pacifist Shakers were often the subject of religious persecution for their lively worship services that featured unique vocal music, the most famous of which is “Simple Gifts,” and stomp dancing. With only a handful of people still practicing the religion, the Shaker traditions are being carried on through groups like Medlicott’s.

Medlicott’s interest in the religion started when she taught at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Near two former Shaker sites, local historians were active in promoting awareness of Shaker music and culture. When she moved to the Ohio Valley area, she found a similar interest in the culture and joined the newly formed Western Shaker Singers. Medlicott sees a message in the Shaker traditions that is still relevant today.

“Some of the things that we have difficulty accepting these days, like the lack of equality, we can really learn from the Shaker model,” she said. “Their attitudes about non-violent approaches to solving problems and looking for more spiritual solutions: These people believed in gender equality, and they didn’t make a distinction between the races.”

Medlicott said that Shakers were among the first to espouse 20th century ideas of freedom and equality. She thinks students can learn from their courage to practice their beliefs even in the face of hostility.

“These were radical people,” she said. “It’s important for students to see that radicals have existed all through history and have been an engine for cultural change.”

This zeal is reflected in the distinctive Shaker music. The Western Shaker Singers hope to bring the culture and traditions of a community that helped shape the American landscape by celebrating their music.

“As people learn more about the music, they’ll realize that the music belongs to everyone and has a life of its own,” Medlicott said. “Some of the messages are so gripping and profound and really relevant today. It’s not a relic of the past. It can be celebrated and embraced in people’s spiritual lives today.”

Photo by Katie Walker. Medlicott will be wearing this costume in her performance.