Scott Erbes: Inspired by Shaker Hymns

So I’m not very sentimental or nostalgic…I’ve been referred to as Mr. Spock, which I take as a compliment. Perhaps the effect of watching too many Star Trek reruns on Sunday afternoons as a kid. With that preamble out of the way, I am a nostalgic sucker for certain things: Bugs Bunny, SCTV (look it up, youngsters), and the traditional hymns of the United Methodist Church. I grew up with the latter as part of a family of musicians and still get teary eyed when I hear certain hymns that, for me, perfectly join words and notes. That same sentiment informs my current enthusiasm for the Kentucky Shakers and their hymns. Most were hymns in the common sense: songs to be sung as part of worship services. But they also wrote similar songs to welcome or say farewell to travelling Brethren and Sisters, to celebrate the dedication of new buildings in their communities, and for other occasions.

Hymn writing was not restricted to select Shakers. The spirit moved many to write them, both female and male, both black and white. At the South Union community, Sister Eunice Freehart, a free woman of color, was among their talented hymnists. Anthem, attributed to her, is among my favorites and is shared here. I am also sharing two others that I find equally evocative: an untitled hymn by South Union Eldress Nancy E. Moore, and the beautiful Oh Little Children.

Learn more about creative practices of and inspired by the Shakers with Shaker Commonwealth, a presentation of two exhibitions, Careful, Neat & Decent: Arts of the Kentucky Shakers and Mariam Ghani + Erin Ellen Kelly: When the Spirits Moved Them, They Moved, both celebrations of Kentucky Shakers.

Many thanks to our friends at the South Union Shaker Village for permitting us to share these hymns, which were recorded by the South Union Shaker Quartet.

Hymn 1: Oh Little Children

Hymn 2: Untitled by Nancy Moore

Hymn 3: Anthem by Eunice Freehart


IMAGE: Based on a color lithograph of ca. 1826 by Anthony Imbert, entitled Shakers near Lebanon via NYPL