Shakerism in America

historic photo of shakers
Historic photo of a group of Shakers taken circa 1880

Photo by James Irving

Mother Ann Lee brought several Shakers from England to America in 1774 and they settled northwest of Albany, New York. Following her death in 1784 various leaders took over, including, for a short time, her brother. Joseph Meacham (1742-1796), born in Connecticut, and Lucy Wright (1760-1821), born in Massachusetts, were the first American-born leaders of the Shakers. Meacham is known for establishing rules for architecture, communal life, behavior, and worship - thus placing individual discipline as a cornerstone for Shakerism. Wright greatly expanded the number of Shaker communities within the United States.

Under Meacham two societies in New Lebanon, New York (Mount Lebanon Shaker Society), and Albany, New York (Watervliet Shaker Historic District), were added. Wright, who led immediately following Meacham, established several societies in Ohio and Kentucky and grew the Eastern societies. Their communities were eventually found from Maine to Kentucky. One of the largest was Pleasant Hill, in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. It had over 500 inhabitants and included over 260 buildings in the 19th century.

Shaker communities were known for their manufactured goods. They invented metal pen nibs, the flat broom, a prototype washing machine called a wash mill, the circular saw, waterproof and wrinkle-free cloth, a metal chimney cap that blocked rain, and improved on the plow.

As pacifists, the Civil War brought with it difficult times for the Shaker communities in America. Both Union and Confederate soldiers found their way to the Shaker communities. They tended to sympathize with the Union, but felt compelled to care for both Union and Confederate soldiers. President Lincoln exempted Shaker males from military service, and they became some of the first conscientious objectors in American history. With the end of the War came great change for Shakers. The new industrialized economy made it difficult for them to compete. Waning prosperity meant it was difficult to find and recruit converts.

By the early 20th century the once numerous Shaker communities were failing and closing. Today, the one existing Shaker community - the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community - denies that Shakerism was a failed utopian experiment. Their message, surviving over two centuries in America, reads in part: " Shakerism is not, as many would claim, an anachronism; nor can it be dismissed as the final sad flowering of nineteenth century liberal utopian fervor. Shakerism has a message for this present age--a message as valid today as when it was first expressed. It teaches above all else that God is Love and that our most solemn duty is to show forth that God who is love in the World."


Last updated: February 14, 2018