This is the first published collection of Shaker hymns, written and collated to convey the Shaker religious philosophy to new converts. The book was first printed in 1812 and this edition was printed at Hancock, Massachusetts, in 1813.
How did the book come about and what’s in it?
By the 1780s ‘The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing’ had begun to emerge in America. Characterised by a worship that included vigorous movement, music and song, they became known as the ‘Shakers’. Hymns were central to Shaker worship, so in 1811 two elders, Jethro Turner and Seth Wells, wrote a letter to the Shaker Ministry at New Lebanon proposing the need for the printing of hymn texts in a bound volume. Their proposal was accepted and hymns were collected from contributors in New England to form Millennial Praises.
Containing 140 hymns, the book was distributed among Shaker communities as a means of coordinating worship and spreading the Shaker word. The hymns included emphasised the role of celibacy and the duality of God as Mother and Father (rather than the Holy Trinity) in Shaker belief. They were also fairly long, with many being around eight verses and with certain elements repeated. Their length perhaps explains why they gradually fell out of use in regular worship.
Why is the book important?
Committing their radical and comparatively new belief to print for wider circulation was a significant step for the Shakers; as a group they were only around 30 years old when Millennial Hymns was produced. The fact that the text went through several reprints in the 1840s – 1850s signifies the growth of the Shaker movement. While the active reprising of hymns slowly floundered in later years, in the 21st century some hymns are said to still be known and sung at Sabbathday Lake, Maine – the world’s only remaining active Shaker village.