Shakers and alcohol

With a group, particularly a religious group, that has had such a long history, I think there is a tendency to see them as they are and extrapolate backwards. Attitudes toward drinking alcohol have changed so dramatically in the intervening few centuries that that approach is impossible.

Rees’s period, the Federalist period in American History, was a hard drinking age. Ale was used almost like water and was consumed by women and children as well as by men. Cider, which was usually hard cider (it could hardly be anything else without refrigeration) was a common breakfast drink. Many of our founding fathers took a glass of cider first thing in the morning in the same manner we drink our orange juice. Rum was used as part of sailors’ wages. (Rum is made from molasses, a byproduct in the refining of sugar. The more molasses in the sugar, the browner. Sugar has a dark history. Planting and harvesting the cane required more slaves. Cane exhausts the soil so more land was needed. And of course we are all familiar with the health risks of sugar. But I digress.) In any event, rum was the drink of the Colonies. After the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793, whiskey became more popular, more American if you will, just like coffee did in comparison to tea.

The Shakers brewed cider and like the society around them drank ‘spirits’. It was the custom for every Brother and Sister who wished to take a glass in the morning before breakfast and then through out the day. For dinner the Brothers were permitted two gills and the Sisters two thirds of a gill. (Does anyone but me wonder about the livers of all those drinkers?)

But with the Millennial Laws, especially from 1845 (and the rise of the temperance movement) the drinking of spirits (along with coffee and tea – that would have killed me) was forbidden. No cider was made and no liquor was brewed. One of the primary sources I read discussed the struggle among the Family about brewing beer for the hired men.  (More about hired men in another post.)

Eventually spirits had to be offered medicinally from the Doctor and then were banned all together. Like other cultural changes, however, this prohibition changed again and later on the Shakers both made and consumed wine with meals.

So the Shakers, like the World around them, changed as prevailing attitudes changed.


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