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[photo] Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, displays the natural beauty of the countryside where the Shakers settled their communities, far from the corrupting elements of the major cities
Courtesy of Canterbury Shaker Village

In his book, The American Soul, Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, Jacob Needleman states, "we need to appreciate the important role that innovative religious communities played in the formation of our country--remembering that, for many of the Founding Fathers, America itself was envisioned as a new land, a new community defined not only politically but also spiritually." While the definition of "spirituality" took many forms, from enlightenment principles to freedom of worship, many European groups envisioned America as a place to plant the seeds for utopian communities, both religious and secular. One such group was the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, commonly known as the Shakers, who arrived in America from England in 1774. Founded in 1747, in Manchester, England, from a group of dissenting Quakers, only a handful of Shakers came to North America in 1774. Once in America, the Shakers won many converts, and their faith spread to include roughly 6,000 members just before the Civil War. The Shakers were but one of many sects that found fertile soil in the North American continent to practice their beliefs and expand. Today, except for one active community in Sabbathday, Maine, the great Shaker villages are diminished, but the Shakers left an enduring impact on the religion and culture of the United States.

Historical Background: The origins of the Shakers, like many other religious sects that splintered off mainstream Protestantism, are found in the 17th century. The Protestant Revolution, which began in Europe in 1517, along with the discoveries of new technologies and trade routes, altered the political, spiritual, and economic life of Europe and the world. The discoveries of the Americas, the uses of the vernacular tongues in writing, and the ancient earth-centered universe disproved by Tycho Brahe and other astronomers, along with the opening of new trade routes and newer technologies for warfare altered the earlier medieval conception of the universe. With new scientific and religious interpretations opening up (the publishing of the Bible in various vernacular languages helped speed the process), the creation of new Christian Churches outside the Catholic Church and the mainstream Protestant denominations (the Lutheran Church, the Calvinists and Church of England) continued in the 17th and 18th centuries. Already in Elizabethan England the Puritans were becoming separate from the Church of England. Following came the Baptist Church, the Quakers, the French Camisards, the Community of True Inspiration, the first Unitarian tract, various Anabaptist and millenarian groups, the Methodists and others. Often the congregations that created these new churches believed that the mainstream Protestant Churches were becoming too legalistic in interpretation of the Bible. Two of these newer sects, the French Camisards and the Quakers, lead the way to the Shakers. The beliefs and early histories of these two religious groups will be briefly explored, as both groups contributed to the formation of Shaker beliefs.

Apple picking in 1918; unlike some other rural religious groups, the Shakers embraced technology and labor saving devices
Courtesy of Canterbury Shaker Village Archives

French Camisards and Quakers: The French Camisards, whose religious beliefs inspired both the Quakers and Shakers, originated in southern France during the 17th century. Influenced by the French Calvinists, the Camisards, whose name originated from the Provence word camiso, or chemise (shirt), rebelled against the royal persecution of their faith by the French authorities. The Camisards held some of their leaders to be Prophets, whom they claimed heard the word of God. They battled the armies of the French King Louis XIV from 1702 to 1706. Losing the battle, some Camisard survivors fled to England, where they continued to practice their beliefs. It was when these exiles preached in England that some Quakers fell under their influence. The Shakers Compendium of the Origin, History, Principles, Rules and Regulations, Government, and Doctrines of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, written by F.W. Evans, and originally published in 1859, mentions the Camisards favorably, stating "In the beginning of the eighteenth century, Spiritualism broke out on the continent of Europe, and was followed by most remarkable religious revivals; out of which arose the 'French prophets'."

It was a merging of both Quaker and French Camisard beliefs that created the Shakers. The Quakers were founded in England in 1652 by George Fox. Stressing the "Inner Light of Christ," the early Quakers taught that direct knowledge of Christ was possible to the individual without a Church, priest or book as the final word of revelation. While no official creed holds the Quakers, or Society of Friends, together, the belief that God exists in all people caused many Quakers to be sensitive to injustice and degradation. They have a long history of pacifism, and this belief was found also among their spiritual descendants, the Shakers. During the 1740s, the Quakers changed their process of worship where their violent tremblings and quakings, from which they derived their name, predominated. One group in Manchester, England, retained this form of worship, and it was during the 1740s that the "Shaking Quakers," or Shakers, came under the influence of some exiled French Camisards. This group split off from mainstream Quakerism in 1747, and developed along their own lines, forming into a society with Jane and James Wardley as their leaders. Ann Lee, the founder and later leader of the American Shakers, and her parents were members of this society.

[photo] Gravestone of the founder of the American Shakers, Mother Ann Lee
Courtesy of Shaker Heritage Society, Albany, New York
Mother Ann Lee and the Early Shakers: Ann Lee, who became the charismatic leader of the Shakers, was born the daughter of a blacksmith in the English city of Manchester in 1736. Growing up illiterate, Shaker tradition has it that Ann worked in a cotton factory, marrying a blacksmith named Abraham Standerin (also referred to as Stanley and Standley) in 1762. The couple had four children, all of whom died in childhood. At age 22, Ann joined the Shakers and after being a member for about 12 years, she experienced what Evans named "a special manifestation of Divine light." After this experience the small society of believers acknowledged her as "Mother in Christ" and Mother Ann became the leader of the Shakers. In 1774, according to Evans, "Mother Ann received a revelation, directing her to repair to America; also that the second Christian Church would be established in America." With her husband and seven members of the society Ann Lee set sail for America on May 10, 1774. By late 1776 she and some followers were located in an area northwest of Albany, New York, by which point her husband had left her to marry another woman.

In 1780, the first two American converts joined the small community, but Ann Lee and the Shakers came under suspicion of not aiding the American Revolution against the British. Ann Lee was placed in jail until George Clinton, governor of New York, released her, provided she did not work against the patriot cause. While her English followers opposed the war between the Colonies and Great Britain, they did not aid the British. Ann returned to Niskeyuna, north of Albany, New York, in 1783. This location was already becoming the headquarters of the American Shakers. Ann gathered more followers with her teachings until her death in 1784. Historians interested in the history of women's rights have recently reevaluated the life of Ann Lee.

[photo] The Mount Lebanon Shaker Society, in New Lebanon, became the spiritual Shaker center after the death of Mother Ann Lee
Courtesy of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village

Shaker Beliefs: The Shakers in America lived a communal life based on common ownership of property and goods, celibate purity, and confession of sins. The Shakers did not believe in procreation and therefore had to adopt children or allow converts into their community. The adopted children were given a choice at age 21 whether to remain with the Shaker community or go their way into the world. The Shakers eventually created 19 official communities in the Northeast, Ohio, and Kentucky. From these communities came agricultural advances and quality manufactured goods. In addition, the Shakers had advanced notions of equality between the sexes and the races. The Shakers had prosperous communities and grew to be respected by people who had scorned them for their unorthodox religious practices. The Shakers, like the Quakers, were pacifists in outlook, citing the example of Jesus Christ. The Shakers believed in opportunities for intellectual and artistic development within the Society. Good sanitation, simplicity in dress, speech, and manner were encouraged, as was living in rural colonies away from the corrupting influences of the cities. Like other Utopian societies founded in the18th and19th centuries, the Shakers believed it was possible to form a more perfect society upon earth. The Shaker belief in the equality of the sexes is symbolized by the special place their founder, Ann Lee, holds in the community. Spiritually, Shaker theology, which held that God created all things in a "dual" order, stated that the female element of Christ, manifested in Ann Lee, heralded the second Christian Church, as Christ heralded the first Christian Church. Evans states that Ann Lee became a spiritual woman, who could reveal and manifest "the Mother Spirit in Christ and in Deity," as Jesus, "being a male, could only reveal and manifest the Father in Christ and God." According to Christian Becksvroort, in The Shaker Legacy Perspectives on an Enduring Furniture Style, "The belief that God is both mother and father is the theological basis for the Shaker belief in the basic equality of the sexes and has important implications for Shaker organizational structure, which required male and female representatives in key roles."

The Shaker communities referred to those who lived outside as people from "the World." They allowed contact with outsiders, and many outsiders, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, observed their religious practices. Shaker communities were agriculturally based, and consisted of several Shaker "families." The celibate Shaker "family" was not a family of blood relations; rather all referred to themselves as brothers and sisters of the Shaker community. The sexes lived, and mostly worked, apart, living in communal homes that could house up to 100 people. The community meeting-house became the center of Shaker worship services on Sunday where the sexes sat in separate rows. The spontaneous dancing that was part of Shaker worship until the early 1800s became replaced by choreographed dancing. Around the 1840s spontaneous dancing returned, but by the end of the 19th century dancing ceased, and worship services were taken up with the singing of hymns, testimonials, a short homily, and silence.

Watervliet Shaker village, in Albany, New York c1870
Courtesy of Shaker Heritage Society
19th Century to the Present: Following the death of Mother Ann Lee, new leaders took over as head of the Shaker religion. William Lee, the brother of Ann Lee, was one such leader. William Lee, who was born in England in 1740 and died in 1784, was remembered for, according to Evans, his undaunted stance during the Shakers time of persecution in the United States as well as his love for music and gift of song. During this same time period, John Hocknell converted from the Methodist Church in England and became an inspirational member of the growing Shaker community. He was remembered, according to Evans, for his gift of healing as well as his "temporal assistance" in aiding the society--especially in the crossing of the Atlantic. English-born James Whittacker (1751-1787), was the leader following William Lee, and was remembered for his strong faith in God. Joseph Mecham (1742-1796), born in Connecticut, and Lucy Wright (1760-1821), born in Massachusetts, were the first American-born leaders of the Shakers. Meacham transformed Shakerism by setting down rules for architecture, communal sharing of goods, behavior and worship, thus placing individual discipline as a cornerstone for spiritual salvation both individually and within the wider Shaker community. Under Mecham's leadership two societies in New Lebanon, New York (Mount Lebanon Shaker Society), and Albany, New York (Watervliet Shaker Historic District), were added. Under Wright's leadership, immediately following Mecham, several societies in Ohio and Kentucky were established along with great accessions to the Eastern societies. Shaker communities were eventually founded in States from Maine to Kentucky. One of the most thriving of the Shaker communities was Pleasant Hill, in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, which had over 500 inhabitants and included over 260 buildings in the 19th century. From their inception, Shaker communities were known for their manufactured goods. The Shakers embraced new labor-saving technologies, and invented metal pen nibs, the flat broom, a prototype washing machine called a wash mill, the circular saw (invented by a woman, Tabitha Babbit), waterproof and wrinkle-free cloth, a metal chimney cap that blocked rain, and improved on the plow.

[photo] The Shakers have survived into current times, photo of Eldress Bertha Lindsay
Courtesy of Canterbury Shaker Village

The Shakers came under a spiritual revival called the Era of Manifestations, which lasted from the late 1830s to about 1850. According to Shaker tradition, heavenly spirits came to earth, bringing visions, often giving them to young Shaker women, who danced, whirled, spoke in tongues, and interpreted these visions through their drawings and dancing. While the Era of Manifestations strengthened the spiritual roots and bonds of the Shakers, several of the leaders of this movement later left the Shakers. As pacifiists,the Shakers did not believe that it was acceptable to kill or harm others, even in time of war. As a result the Civil War brought with it a strange time for the Shaker communities in America. Both Union and Confederate soldiers found their way to the Shaker communities. Shakers tended to sympathize with the Union but they did feed and 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. The end of the Civil War brought large changes to the Shaker communities. One of the most important changes was the post- war economy. The Shakers had a hard time competing in the industrialized economy that followed the Civil War. With prosperity falling, converts were hard to come by. By the early 20th century the once numerous Shaker communities were failing and closing. Today, in the 21st century, the Shaker community that still exists--the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community--denies that Shakerism was a failed utopian experiment. Their message, surviving over two centuries in America, reads in part as follows: " 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."

Information for this essay was found in several sources, among them the biographical account of Ann Lee written by Stephen J. Stein, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (general editors) and found in American National Biography Volume 13 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).In passing, one book which explores the larger theme of spirituality in America, Jacob Needleman's The American Soul Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, (New York: Putnam, 2002) deserves mention. F. W. Evans original 1859 work, Shakers Compendium of the origin, History, principles, Rules and Regulations, Government, and Doctrines of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing with Biographies of Ann Lee, William Lee, Jas. Whittaker, J. Hocknell, J. meacham, and Lucy Wright was found online at Much of the information found here was taken from the National Park Service's pamphlet The Shaker Historic Trail. Information on the current beliefs of the Shakers was found at their Sabbethday Lake Shaker Community website at Christian's Becksvoort's The Shaker Legacy Perspectives on an Enduring Furniture Style (Newtown, Ct: The Taunton Press, 2000) gave a good account of Shaker innovations, while the reforms of Joseph Meachum, a successor of Ann lee, were found in Julie Nicoletta's The Architecture of the Shakers (Woodstock, Vermont: Norfleet Press, 1995).


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