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Religious Movements: The Shakers

The Shakers

I. Group Profile

Name: Shakers (The United Society of Believers)
Founder: Ann Lee
Date of Birth: February 29, 1736
Birth Place: Manchester, England
Year Founded: 1772

The Shakers are one of the few success stories resulting from the proliferation of communitarian and millenarian groups in eighteenth and nineteeenth century Europe and America. They splintered from a Quaker community in Manchester, England (Gidley and Bowles 1990). James Wardley, its preacher, had absorbed the teachings of the millenial French Prophets and his community began to evolve around 1746 (Melton 1992). The members were known as the Shaking Quakers and were viewed as radical for their communion with the spirits of the dead and impassioned shaking that would occur at their services (Horgan, 1982; Robinson 1975). As radicals, all the members were harrassed, including a young married woman named Ann Lee. Fervent from a young age, Ann had a revelation during a long imprisonment that she was the Second Coming of Christ, the vital female component of God the Father-Mother (Bainbridge 1997; Gidley and Bowles 1990; Horgan 1982; Robinson 1975).

The vision had a great impact on the congregation and "Mother" Ann became the official leader of the group in 1772. With a distinctly new version of the Second Coming and other beliefs contradictory to mainstream Christian ideology, it was at this juncture that the Shaking Quakers became known as the Shakers (Gidley and Bowles 1990). These radical views increased the Shakers' persecution and a small group composed of her brother, niece, husband and five others followed Mother Ann's vision of a holy sanctuary in the New World to New York in May,1774 (Bainbridge 1997; Horgan 1982; Robinson 1975). They struggled for five years to survive, gaining few converts, on a communal farm in Watervliet, NY (Bainbridge 1997; Robinson 1975). During this period they faced great persecution for being both English and pacifistic in the middle of the Revolutionary War (Horgan 1982).

The turning point was a wave of religious revivalism called the New Light Stir that swept across New England between 1776 and 1783 (Gidley and Bowles 1990), bringing in new converts from other millenial groups and allowing the Shakers to safely proselytize. In 1779 Joseph Meacham and his followers joined the Shakers, becoming their first converts (Gidley and Bowles 1990). The Shaker mission in New England ended in 1784 – the same year as Mother Ann's death (Gidley and Bowles 1990; Horgan 1982; Humez 1993) – though they later missioned in Kentucky and Ohio during the Kentucky Revival of 1797-1805. Most of this expansion happened under Joseph Meacham's leadership, which began with Father John Whittaker's death in 1787. Meacham organized the communities and made New Lebanon, NY the Parent Ministry from which came both spiritual and commercial leadership (Horgan 1982; Melton 1992). These industries would become both the sustaining income for the Shakers and a form of recruiting and publicity as their simple, functional furniture designs, music and dancing, and self-published books became popular in secular culture (Andrews 1972; Morse 1987). By the mid-1800's they reached their peak membership and peak popularity, becoming a sort of tourist attraction that outsiders (known as The World's People) could observe in their communities on Saturday evenings (Morse 1987; Gifford 1989).

The Civil War ended the American fascination with the many millenarian, communitarian and utopian social experiments of the early nineteenth century and replaced it with an emphasis on class struggle in an increasingly industrial and urban society (Horgan 1982). Industrialization made Shaker crafts obsolete and depleted even further the attraction of a way of life already made less tasteful by the emphasis on celibacy and severe simplicity (Gidley and Bowles 1990; Horgan 1982; Robinson 1975). Between this decline in attraction and the society's inability to create a new generation of believers, the communities steadily declined and disbanded.

Little is known of the 20th Century Shakers besides their decline because they closed even their journals – previously released in order to further spread first person witness of Shaker beliefs – to the outside world in the first decades of this century (Stein 1992). In 1965 this deterioration was speeded by a group decision to admit no new members (Melton 1992). Today only the Canterbury, New Hampshire, and Sabbath Day Lake, Maine, communities remain and even then the members live on small plots of the properties while the rest is devoted to historic preservation and museums like those found at Pleasant Hill, KY , and South Union, KY (Gidley and Bowles 1990; Melton 1992). The Sabbath Day Lake group did recently admit three new members but they weren't recognized by the other remaining original members (Melton 1992).

Sacred or Revered Texts: Composed originally of mainly illiterate factory workers, the Shakers did not rely heavily on written doctrines and preferred first-person religious experiences. They did draw guidance from the Bible; the personal writings of Ann Lee (known as Mother's Wisdom ) and other spiritual leaders like Joseph Meacham; the series of Testimonies books; and other Shaker-produced journals and books testifying about the Shaker experience from a first-person point-of-view.

Size of Group: Today there are seven women living in small sections of the Canterbury, New Hampshire and Sabbath Day Lake, ME community. At their peak membership between 1830 and 1840, there were 6,000 Shakers in 19 communities (Melton 1992).

II. Beliefs of the Group

Finding one complete summary of Shaker beliefs all in one source is very difficult. This is partly due to their self-isolation in this century. The maintenance of a non-literary tradition until well into the group's institutionalization is another cause. The Shakers' own evolution as a group is the biggest reason, though. In all the books cited below, the group changes its philosophy with each new set of leaders and adjusts the theology accordingly.

The best-known Shaker beliefs are an emphasis on celibacy and simplicity in their daily lives. These beliefs were key to Shaker theology and lifestyle in the sense that they were seen as vital to the building of a truly selfless and spiritual community (Horgan 1982; Humez 1993; Robinson 1975). In fact, celibacy was introduced into the group's belief system when Mother Ann first assumed control of the Shaking Quakers in England (Melton 1992). While the rumor that she turned to celibacy and rejected even marital sex out of torment for the deaths of her four children is probably true (Bainbridge 1997; Horgan 1982; Humez 1993), Mother Ann did help develop a complex theology to support the necessity of this concept. Sexual intercourse was solely given to humans for reproduction and our inability to use it only for this purpose made us base and animal-like. Celibacy was a "cross one elected to bear to aspire to the spirituality forfeited by Adam and Eve" in favor of carnality. God was equated with spiritual growth while Adam was associated with humanity's less pure, physical nature (Horgan 1982; Robinson 1975). This freedom from their contemporary identity as subservient wives and mothers allowed women to take a more equal stance with the men in the Society (Horgan 1982; Humez 1993). Women and men were to address each other as "Sister" or "Brother" and even married couples who converted together were to act upon this perfect love and be celibate. Women were also the main source of the ecstatic experiences and divine signs that the Shakers considered a vital part of the relationship with God, thus playing a large part in the spirituality of the community (Humez 1993). During the society's later decline it would be upheld by the sole leadership of women while the number of male members dwindled (Stein 1992).

Celibacy was also part of the Shaker's efforts to build a more unified community by suppressing all individuality. At the core of this concept was the ideal of simplicity in all things – dress, food and living arrangements. Thus everyone wore old-fashioned clothes of similar plain cut, women kept their hair severely simple, and (in most communities) the two genders lived in large dormitories (Gifford 1989). Though they expressed an unspoken love of beauty in their music and the quality of their furniture, neither was created solely for beauty (Andrews 1972). The music was used to reinforce the importance of God over the individual and the furniture was designed to be functional and non-intrusive, so as not to detract from the work or worship occurring in the rooms containing those furnishings (Stein 1992).

As a millenarian, communitarian Christian sect with an unique belief in gender duality/equality, the United Society of Believers was much more complex than it seemed. At the center of all their beliefs was the idea of God not as the traditional Christian trinity but as duality, both male and female. Mother Ann Lee was the Second Coming of Christ, Appearing as Female (Horgan 1982; Humez 1993), embodying the loving spirit called the Holy Spirit by other denominations (Stein 1992). Therefore they believed that the new millenium had already begun in 1747 with the beginning of the Wardleys' ministry (Melton 1992). These two beliefs underlay their infrastructure of dual leadership begun first with Mother Ann and John Whittaker and then reinstated later with Father Jospeh Meacham and Mother Lucy Wright leading the genders together (Horgan 1982; Humez 1993; Robinson 1975). They were also the other main justification of celibacy within the sect.

While being communitarian and even millenarian was becoming quite common in late eighteenth through mid-nineteenth century England and America, it was the behavior that gave the Shakers their name that both set them apart and earned them great persecution at the hands of pre-existing Christianity (Bainbridge 1997; Horgan 1982; Robinson 1975). Their meeting houses were mostly open space with an altar in the middle so that the initially spontaneous and later highly ritualized ecstatic experiences and dancing could be performed during worship services (Gifford 1989; Horgan 1982; Morse 1987). Such excessive behavior was frowned upon by other Christian denominations and was a large part of the Shakers' radical reputation. With this persecution by other Christians, they would even come to develop anti-"Middle Ages church" views and incorporate those beliefs into the overall Shaker ideology to the point that mainstream Christianity would be referred to in terms of papacy and the Antichrist (Horgan 1982; Robinson 1975). The Antichrist doctrines began with the third Shaker leader, Joseph Meacham, who outlined four dispensations for salvation based on obedience (Stein 1992). The "first light of salvation" was God's promises to the patriarchs, procured by obedience illustrated through circumcision. The second dispensation was the law of Moses and it was gained through obedience to those laws. Christ's first appearance as man was the third dispensation, blessing those who followed the way of the cross. The fourth and final dispensation would be when God would come to earth to build the new kingdom and destroy the Antichrist (Stein 1992).

As these views became known to the mainstream culture towards the end of the 19th century, they were often misinterpreted and lead to even greater persecution by the press and mainstream religion (Stein 1992). Increasingly isolationist, the Shakers retreated from the world completely in 1965 (Stein 1992). This very exclusivity would be the final key to their demise as a religious movement (Gidley and Bowles 1990; Horgan 1982; Morse 1987).

III. Links to Shaker Web Sites

The Shakers: Inventiveness, Hard Work and Religion
A brief, pictorial view of many aspects of Shaker life.
Shaker Manuscripts On-Line
Contains several sacred texts, primary documents and historical records of Shaker life.

The New York Public Library Center for HumanitiesShakers and Shakerism: A Research Guide
A comprehensive guide to resources on all aspects of Shakerism and Shaker life, both within the New York Public Library system and with links to other documentation sources.

Shaker Apocalypticism
Scholarly description of the millenial aspects of Shaker theology.

The Shakers
Continually updating web record of archaeological dig at Enfield, CT Shaker community site.

A page with instructions on how to subscribe to a Shakers discussion list containing some informed and interesting members.

The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers
A brief abstract of Stephen Stein's definitive history on the Shakers and information on how to order it. 098306

Some Disturbing Facts About the Signs and Wonders Movement
A counter-cult movement's comparison of the Shakers to present-day "cults" involving divine signs.

IV. Links to Audio/Visual Shaker Web Sites

The American Traditional Culture Series: The Shakers
An informational site about a video history of the Shakers and their song tradition, with links to words and music as well as other documents and films in the series.
I Hear America Singing, Profiles: Artists, Movements, Ideas
Segment within an ongoing series on movements and their music focusing specifically on the Shakers.

V. Links to Shaker Historic Preservation and Museum Web Sites

The Shakers/Oneida Community
A brief essay on the history of the Oneida Shaker community, with links to other Shaker and historical sites.

Hancock Shaker Village: About the Shakers
A brief history of the shakers within a larger website maintained by the historical preservation society maintaining the Hancock community site.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill: History
Very detailed description of Shaker's beginnings within the larger website for the preserved Shaker community in Pleasant Hill, KY.

Shaker Museum at South Union, Kentucky
A quick introduction to the Shaker community at South Union that leads into the larger site maintained by the museum.

The Shaker Garden
A glimpse of Shaker gardening and trade within a larger gardening interest site.

VI. Bibliography

Andrews, Edward D. 1972.
The Community Industries of the Shakers. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, Inc.

Bainbridge, William S. 1997.
The Sociology of Religious Movements. New York: Routledge.Ch. 5: American Religious Communes. pp. 119-45.

Clark, Thomas D. and F. Gerald Ham. 1983.
Pleasant Hill and Its Shakers. Harroldsburg, KT: Pleasant Hill Press.

Gidley, Mick and Kate Bowles (ed.). 1990.
Locating the Shakers: Cultural Origins and Legacies of an American Religious Movement. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Gifford, Don. 1989.
An Early View of the Shakers: Benson Lossing and the Harper's Article of July 1857.
Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Horgan, Edward R. 1982.
The Shaker Holy Land: A Community Portrait. Cambridge, MA: The Harvard Common Press.

Melton, J. Gordon. 1992.
Religious Bodies in the United States: A Directory. New York: Garland Pub.

Morse, Flo. 1987.
The Shakers and the World's People. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Robinson, Charles Edson. 1975.
A Concise History of the United Society of Believers, Called Shakers. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, Inc.

Sasson, Diane, 1991.
"The Shakers: The Adaption of Prophecy," in Timothy Miller, ed. When Prophets Die . Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. pp. 13-28.

Stein, Stephen J. 1992.
The Shaker Experience in America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Created by Dominica Harlan
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Spring Term, 1998
University of Virginia
Last modified: 07/24/01

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