The Shakers

Or, The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.

13 minutes

The Shakers originated in northwest England in 1747 as a millenarian restorationist sect. The group believed that they were living in the end times and that Christ had already returned to earth in the form of one of their founders. The name Shakers is a shortening of the term “Shaking Quakers”, which they earned by being confused with Quakers and because of the way they wiled out during worship services. They would come to practice a celibate and communal utopian lifestyle adhering to the central tenets were pacifism, uniform charismatic worship, and equality between the sexes. 


The seed of the Shakers was in the Wardley Society, a Quaker worship group. The founders of the society, James and Jane Wardley, had broken away from the Quakers during a time in which they were discouraging frenetic religious expression. In their Meeting Halls they marched, sang, danced, turned, twitched, jerked and shouted.

 Their beliefs were based in spiritualism with heavy emphasis on the power of prophecy. Much of their culture was based on their receipt of messages from the spirit of God, which were expressed during religious revivals and silent meditation. Another heavy component was the renunciation of sinful acts, which consigned members to celibacy, for they believed that the end of the world was nearing. 

As their numbers grew, public notice of them grew. The Shakers faced increasing persecution; they were mobbed, stoned, and sometimes imprisoned.

Repent. For the Kingdom of God is at hand. The new heaven and new earth prophecied of old is about to come. The marriage of the Lamb, the first resurrection; the new Jerusalem descended from above, these are even now at the door. And when Christ appears again, and the true church rises in full and transcendent glory, then all anti-Christian denominations — the priests, the Church, the pope — will be swept away. 

Jane Wardley, at the first Shakers meeting. 
Shaker art.

Mother Ann

The Shakers believed in the dualism of God as male and female. ’So God created him, male and female he created them.” They also believed that the second coming of Christ would be through a woman, so they chose women for their leadership. In 1770, member Ann Lee was revealed in a “manifestation of divine light” to be the second coming of Christ. After this she was called Mother Ann. It was thought that Jesus was the male manifestation of Christ and the first Christian Church, and that Mother Ann was the female manifestation of Christ and the second Christian Church. She was mythologized as the Bride made ready for the Bridegroom from the Song of Solomon. Incidentally, I live near a niche protestant group called the International House of Prayer (IHOP) which also gives particular weight to the Song of Solomon. Though in their terms, the church member is the bride. Some biblical texts have stickier use cases with the outliers than others. 

This conviction made sense in Shaker ideology. For them, the trinity had been misinterpreted as completely masculine, and this was refuted by Ann Lee’s embodiment of Christ, which completed the Trinity by fulfilling the female aspect of God. It’s not rational to interpret this as some early whiff of feminism. The goals of the Shakers were not a matter of abstract female liberation. They were concerned with salvation, their ways were egalitarian. Women and men were held to the same standards of productivity, and all were granted the same allotments and same quality of food and furnishings. Racial and gender equality were inherently enshrined in Shaker doctrine. 

I saw in vision the Lord Jesus in his kingdom and glory. He revealed to me the depths of man’s loss, what it was, and the way of redemption therefrom.Then I was able to bear an open testimony against the sin that is at the root of all evil; and I felt the power of God flow into my soul like a fountain of living water. From that day I have been able to take up a full cross against all the doleful works of the flesh.

Mother Ann Lee
Polly Ann Reed, A present from Mother Lucy to Eliza Ann Taylor, 1851

Ann Lee had joined the Shakers twelve years earlier. In her time she had made numerous revelations about the fall of Adam and Eve and its connection to sex. She called on her fellow followers to confess their sins, renounce their worldly goods, take up the burden of celibacy and forsake marriage in order to reach salvation from “lustful gratifications”. Adam’s sin was sex, an act of impurity. 

A Point of Interest; these revelations are not so different from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, though I strongly doubt that Ann Lee was ever exposed to the Eightfold Path. 

1. Life is suffering.

2. The cause of suffering is desire. 

3. One can be free of suffering by liberating oneself from desire. 

4. The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to end suffering. 

After receiving a revelation on May 19, 1774, Ann Lee sailed with eight of her followers to America. Among these were her husband, her brother, and her niece. They arrived in New York City. Soon after, Ann’s husband abandoned her and would quickly remarry. The rest of them were arrested after refusing the swear an Oath of Allegiance. Their faith would not allow it. They were imprisoned for six months, but their story had raised sympathy amongst citizens, and raised the profile of the group. Once released they relocated to Watervliet, New York. In 1776 Ann began to go on gospel tours throughout the eastern colonies. 

The first settlement and the one that followed built their communities out of timber and stone, in a plain but elegant New England colonial style. Their Meeting Houses were kept unadorned and painted white. 

I saw a large tree, every leaf of which shone with such brightness as made it appear like a burning torch, representing the Church of Christ, which will yet be established in this land. 

Mother Ann’s revelation on America.

Mount Lebanon Shakers Society

Ann lead the Shakers until her death in 1787. Leadership came, oddly enough, to a man, who was named Joseph Meacham. An enthusiastic convert, he established the Mount Lebanon Shaker Society in New Lebanon, New York. He was said to be second only to Mother Ann in the gift of revelation. With another co-convert, Lucy Wright, he formally developed the Shaker form of communal living. Though there’s no trace of a relationship between them, their working together is strange for the Shakers, who normally segregated men and women. Men and women could not shake hands or pass one another on the stairs or in a hallway. 

William Paul Childers, Shaker Costume, c. 1937. Image from the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Their framework for the community required those who wished to join to sign covenants pledging to confess their sins, grant their property and their labor to the Society, and live as celibates. Those who were married when they joined were to end their marriages. Marriage was abolished after the pattern of the Kingdom of God, in which there would be no marriages. Procreation was forbidden after joining. Children would end up coming to the communities by indenture, adoption, or conversion. For the children, the Shaker life was structured, safe, and sober. There was no shortage of caregivers. Upon reaching the age of twenty-one they were free to leave or to remain. 

 Those who couldn’t stomach this, referred to as Believers, lived in “noncommunal orders” nearby. The Shakers never forbade marriage for such people, but they considered it less perfect than the celibate state, and less committed. 

Within five years of Mother Ann’s death the Shakers had grown eight more communities in addition to Watervliet and New Lebanon.

Lucy Goes West

Lucy Wright took over in 1796 after the death of Joseph Meacham. She was quick to restore the missionary tradition of Mother Ann, proselytizing at revivals throughout New England. She began sending missionaries west into Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana in 1805. Shaker societies soon began sprouting in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Administrative order was given its finishing flourishes. The shape of the Ministry was drawn with two Elders and two Elderesses at the top of the hierarchy. Two lower ranking Elders and two Elderesses led each family. 

Onion Field; Enfield Shaker Village; 1897

The Era of Manifestations

The Shaker movement peaked between 1820 and 1860.  During this period they had their highest member counts, the most expansion in their communities, and had earned some fame for their furniture design and craftsmanship. At peak, there were just over twenty communities built in the United States. This was known as the Era of Manifestations, aka the Golden Age, aka the Period of Mother’s Work. 

Round Stone Barn, Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts

Among those who knew them the Shakers earned a reputation for their cleanliness, honesty, and frugality. This made them easy business partners. All Shaker villages ran farms that used the most up-to-date scientific methods of agriculture. They grew and raised most of their own food, and unlike the Icarians I wrote about last month, their communities never suffered the threats of insolvency or poor resources. Their livestocks were healthy. Their barns were praised in contemporary newspapers for their cleanliness and efficiency. 

When they weren’t doing farm work, bretheren pursued a variety trade work and hand crafts. When not doing house work, Sisters did likewise with textile work and sale goods. These were baskets, brushes, bonnets, brooms, whatever “fancy goods” ever means, medicinal herbs which they were the first in the U.S. to make and market, garden seeds which they were the first to put in paper packets for home gardening portions, apple sauce, and knitted garments. Many Shaker villages had their own tanneries. 

Their craftsmen were known for a style of furniture that was plain in style, durable, and functional. Their industries produced numerous inventions beyond [drop down images] chairs, things like Babbitt metal, the rotary harrow, the circular saw, the clothespin, the flatbroom, the wheel-driven washing machine, a threshing machine, metal pens, planing machinery, a hernia truss, silk reeling machinery, ball-and-socket tillers for chair legs. Unfortunately, Shaker inventors never patented their creations, so there was little profit for these inventions beyond the immediate. 

Good spirits will not live where there is dirt. Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow. Put your hands to work and your heart to God.

Mother Ann Lee on labor.

Visitors to Shaker communities consistently noted interiors that reflected pristine austerity and simplicity. One example of this was the use of the “peg rail”. It was a continuous wooden device dotted with hooks and mounted horizontally along the walls a foot or so down from the ceiling. It was used to hang up clothes, hats, and light furniture like chairs, when not in use. 

During this time they amassed a large archive of Shaker revelations and philosophy. There were the Gift Drawings which expressed the spirit gifts (messages) received by Shaker sisters. This wasn’t the only art. Coreographed dances to perform at worship services. They composed thousands of songs. Spiritual Gifts also came in the form of musical revelation. Their Scribes, most of whom had no formal music training, used a form of music notation they called the latteral system. It used letters of the alphabet and didn’t position notes on a staff. Songs were noted simply with conventional rhythmic values. Many of the song lyrics are written in Tongues. These hymns were shared in letters between Shaker communities and hymnbooks started getting published after the Civil War.

The communities started developing schools in 1815 which were certified by 1817. The classroom structures operated on the Monitorial System, which was considered advanced for its time. This method relied on the more capable pupils to act as helpers to the teacher, passing on information they had learned to other students. Boys attending classes in winter and girls in the summer. The first schools taught reading, spelling, oration, arithmetic, and manners. Later on the schools incorporated music, algebra, astronomy, and agricultural chemistry. Non-Shaker parents respected their schools so much that they often sent their children to live in the communities while attending classes. 

Shaker historians kept detailed records and issued texts like Sketches of Visions and A Concise View of the Church of God. Thousands of spirit communications were recorded and are still preserved in various museums today. The largest collection of Shaker artifacts today (2023) is found at the Harmon Museum in Lebanon, Ohio.

The Shakers were pacifists, it was not acceptable for them to kill or harm others for any reason. When soldiers of either army found their way to the Shaker communities they were fed and cared for, but they refused to provide volunteers. They became some of the first conscientious objectors in American history when Abraham Lincoln exempted Shaker males from military service. 

The communities suffered from the war anyway, struggling to compete in a post-war landscape that has rapidly industrialized. Some communities managed to hold out by increasing their production as well as their marketing of Shaker chairs. They became popular enough that several companies started copying them. 

Forgotten, but not Gone

The decline of the Shaker movement began, like many other utopian and religious communes, in the mid-19th century, as industrialization and urbanization drew people away from rural areas and traditional religious practices. Only two would make it to the end of the century and one of these, in Canterbury, New Hampshire, closed in 1992. The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine is the only one that’s still active, for now. Their last reported member count, in 2021, was three. To this day they remain celibate, which probably hasn’t helped things, but such a degree of conviction seems worthy of some respect. They own their land and have formalized protections for the surrounding woodlands and orchards. The community employs six full time workers, and six part-timers, to help with operations and groundskeeping. They are open to visitors at their store, museum, and the Sunday services. They also offer competitive rates on cabin rentals by Sabbathday Lake. 

The dwelling house at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, the only active Shaker community, located in New Gloucester, Maine

Today’s Shakers reject the take that Shakers was a failed Utopian experiment. They published the following message in a local newspaper as a correction:

Shakerism is not as many would claim, an anachronism; nor can it be dismissed at the final sad flowering of 19th 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.

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