My grandfather, Clayton John Steele (1914-1993), was a minister. He was raised as an only child by a doting mother, Matilda Viola Steele (1881-1954), and an emotionally distant father, Charles Salvester Steele (1877-1958). As a man of his era, my great grandfather was a stern figure, but he was maybe more stern than average because of his own childhood.
He was given up as an orphan, when his mother died, to live with the Shakers who raised him. The Shakers were communal and, of course, highly religious. They were a hardworking people and extremely prosperous at one time, although that community didn’t last long after he left upon reaching 18 years of age. The community might’ve already been showing decline before he left.
In some ways, it would’ve been a great childhood where all needs were met, all needs except for the child’s need for his own parents, although surrounded by a closeness akin to family. There is no doubt he would’ve learned many lessons from that way of life. His career as a horticulturalist, landscaper, and groundskeeper was built on what he had been taught in his agricultural upbringing, as the Shakers were the leading agriculturalists of their day.
His had been a life hardened by hard labor. Coming to terms with such a man, his son Clayton wrote a biographical piece that explains what he was able to glean from his father’s philosophy, much of it likely originating from his Shaker education and training. It was found among papers from January of 1993, shortly before his death in November of that year.
This is not shared merely as piece of family history. It also touches upon American history. The Shakers represent something uniquely American, a part of our shared past and identity that has largely been erased from public memory. That communal way of life didn’t die of natural causes but of changes in law, specifically the banning of group adoption.
There are echoes of that earlier world in the words and memories that were recorded. Even as my grandfather spoke of individual liberty and conscience, which would’ve been important to many Shakers, one suspects that something had been lost of the once communal identity his own father carried. Even something like patriotism would’ve been seen in different light to the mind transplanted into and from communal soil where strong roots took hold.
A simple laborer he may have been, my great grandfather understood the power of environmental conditions, something many more well-educated Americans still struggle to comprehend. That would’ve been a lesson the Shakers instilled in him. In such a community, it did not matter where you came from but, as with the early Christians, there would’ve been a radical egalitarianism that defined every aspect of life and relationship.
It may be good advice to, “Grow where you are transplanted!” But that requires the wisdom of the one doing the transplanting. Many of us in the world today have been transplanted many times over. We are not stronger and healthier for it. A gardener doesn’t transplant randomly, any more than he’d cast seeds upon barren soil. In the world we’ve inherited, there are few wise gardeners left remaining.
All these many generations uprooted from an agricultural past, we’ve lost the ability to see the world that way. We no longer take care in how and where we transplant, either for ourselves or for our children. We don’t tend the soil to ensure it remains fertile for those who follow us. In their communal ways, if different than the agricultural ideal of the yeoman, the Shakers were among the last Americans to carry on Thomas Jefferson’s republican virtue, to transplant it everywhere they went.
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Clayton John Steele:
All I ever need to know, believe and experience about the good life my father emulated did not happen all at once. Much of it came too late but soon enough for me to put all the pieces together and love him for it.
As a child I somewhat feared the macho role of father. He usually had the first and last word. His famous words were, “Don’t argue!” Mother and I never did. I learned to march to his tune. To be out of step meant a trip to the bedroom and the paddle in the closet. Many times I felt rejected and abandoned with a sting in the seat of my pants. My father was not a psychologist but he knew how to let by-gones be by-gones. A trip to the village drug store and a chocolate ice cream soda meant a truce had been proclaimed and the slate was clean once again.
There was always a distance between myself and my father that reminded me of the inability of my father to show my mother the kind of affection I needed and did not receive. I knew my father loved my motehr and I tried to believe he loved me. I needed strokes and hugs. I needed a legacy of belonging more than what inheritance was to be mine.
It took years for me to put all the pieces together and realize that my father was acting out the only way he ever knew and experienced inter-personal relationships as a child. He was orphaned at age seven and was brought up by the American Shakers, a celibate, religious community in up state New York. It was a discliplined commnal life in which the males and females were lodged in separate quarters. The love and affection of parents and all the benefits of a home were not a part of my father’s experience. What he did not have he could not give.
Interestingly enough, however, my father had a strong convicion about the values of communal living — all for one and one for all. He was taught Shaker beliefs such as consecration of strength, time and talents. He was taught lawfulness, equality in property, temperance in all things, justice and kindness to all. The Shaker motto was pretty much what my father’s life was all about. “Hands to work, and hearts to God.”
Though he never had much to say about church, meaning he had enough of it from the Shakers, he did say something that made me wonder about my own denominational life. He said that, in his opinion there were only two kinds of people — the good and the bad. “The good,” he said, ” decided who were the bad people!”
In a discussion on the porch on Sunday afternoon with the neighbors, I heard a statement I still think makes the difference between the kind peole Gods wants us to be and what some let themselves become. The remark went somthing like this: “We are no nearer to God than the person or Group of people for who we care the least.”
In retrospect it is all so clear. I know now what I needed to know then — how it really was with my father. LIke father, like son has become, [it] has become a memorable and significant part of my identity, the past and all of me!
I understand what my father meat by an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Never expect from others what you do not contribute as your fair share. Stay in line, don’t push and wait your turn. Help those who can not help themselves, vote, volunteer and respect your elders. Most emphatically he said, “Never start a fight. Run and, if your adversary catches you, stand your ground to defend yourself and those you love.”
My father always said, “Don’t borrow from the future, but build on the past.” He was not a man to incur a debt. “Better to be content with what you have than to buy what can not afford or pay for,” didn’t keep us with the Jones, but we dried ourselves with better towels, ate better, and never had to hide from the bill collector.
As a horticulturalist by trade, my father had a philosophy a son could not ignore. It has lasted a life time and I wouldn’t change a word. He said, “Green things grow. When you think you are ripe, you are rotten!” When I was old enough to think a little harder and more clearly, I learned a lesson not matched by any undergraduate course of study. He counseled me to consider that heredity may determine what you become, but that your environment may very well be the deciding factor of what you do become. My father never heard the modern cliche, “Grow where you are planted.” He said, “Grow where you are transplanted!” That took a bit of explaining, but it is all in the Bible. As a clergy person I had to give ground. “From seedling to tree,” he said, “the step-by-step transplanting makes for a bigger and stronger root system, and a healthier tree eventually.”
There is one thing for which I will ever be grateful, especially now when young people elect not to be patriotic as part of their Constitutional freedom. I have no problem with allegiance to the flag. It symbolizes a nation under God as no other country in the world has ever known or experienced. On Fourth of July I stood proudly with my father as the parade passed by and he saluted Old Glory with the same honor and respect he served his country. That’s a part of me because it was the caliber of patriotism I was proud to stand with as my father.
As for religion, although a clergyman for 50 years, It was private as my prayers. My father was a religious man, but he never imposed what he believed on anyone else — not even to his son. I like it that way — between myself and God. I do not like a flamboyant and demonstrative public display of some religious groups. But I respect their right in the same way I expect to be treated in return.