‘Tis the gift to be simple – or is it?

by Jim on 17 September 2007

I’ve been curious about a couple of historic tidbits lately.  One of these is the song "Simple Gifts" (lyrics found here).  The story behind it is more interesting than I expected, so I thought I’d share it with you.

The history of the song goes back to Manchester, England in 1772.  A religious group was started by Ann Lee, who claimed to receive revelations from God.  She taught celibacy, simple, communal living and confession of sin.  Ann Lee believed one of these revelations told her to move to the soon-to-be USA (in 1774).  Formerly known as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the group became commonly known as Shakers, because of the trembling, shouting, singing, shaking and dancing (disclaimer: this is not an anti-dancing post) that went on in their worship services.

The Shakers had some major disagreements with the Bible (note: there are a handful of Shakers still around today).  They believed that Adam and Eve’s sin was to use sex for pleasure and not procreation (the Bible traces sin to Adam’s disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit).  Our physical bodies, they believed, were less pure than our spiritual, and the things that went on in their services were intended to purify them.  Salvation came not by grace through faith, but through confession, simple communal living and celibacy.

Finally, they did not believe in the Triune God of the Bible, but in a dual God.  They believed God was male and female, and Ann Lee herself was the female god.  She called herself "Ann the Word" (a title in Scripture for Jesus).

It was in 1848 that Elder Joseph Brackett Jr., a Shaker, wrote the song Simple Gifts.  Not simply writing about the simple life, he wrote about the gifts of his faith (hence the correct line – the gift, not a gift), and the way of salvation that he believed in.  It was written as a dancing song, a part of the purifying worship the Shakers were involved in that was intended to shed the impure physical.

But there’s more.  I first became familiar with the newer song written to the same tune – Lord of the Dance (disclaimer: this is not an anti-dancing post).  So what’s the deal with that song?

The new version (and there are many other versions) was written by musician Sydney Carter, from London, England.  He wrote it while contemplating Jesus and the Hindu god Shiva – most specifically, Shiva as Nataraja, the king of the dance.

Carter believed that there may be many "Lords of the Dance" – Shiva, Jesus, and many others.  When he wrote:  They buried my body and they thought I’d gone, but I am the Dance, and I still go on, he was thinking of Jesus as only one manifestation of "the Dance".  He used the word "Christ" not as the Bible does (the One chosen Messiah), but many gods who are a manifestation of the Dance (whoever or whatever that may be).

Carter himself wrote:  I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us.  He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality.  By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance.  But Jesus is the one I know of first and best.  I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.

The Bible has something different to say.  God is not Shiva, nor Ann Lee, but the great Triune God – Father, Son and Spirit.  Jesus did not only have the "pattern" of divinity – He was the One True God.  Jesus was the chosen Messiah – the Christ.  He did not leave room for other gods to follow.  Instead, He claimed to be the Way.  He accepted worship.  And when the disciples (Philip, actually) asked to see the Father God, Jesus asked how it was that they had been with Him so long and didn’t know Him.  Throughout Scripture the True God demanded that idols be torn down, and that He alone be worshiped.  Jesus even warned of others who would claim to be Him.

There are many gifts from God – but only one that leads to life.  He is the Gift – and it’s by grace through faith in Him that that Gift is ours.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joel September 21, 2007 at 9:08 am

Interesting. I never knew that about the Lord of the Dance song. Thanks for keeping it real.

Jim September 21, 2007 at 3:48 pm

Yes, I didn’t know either. I had some vague inkling about Simple Gifts, but I have to admit I learnt a lot!

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