The Shaker Religion

The Shaking religion; Quakers, or Shakers, led by Mother Ann Lee, established one of the most successful insular religious communities of the nineteenth century.

The Shakers have several "official" names: the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing; the Millennial Church; the Children of Truth; the Alethians (derived from the Greek word for truth).

The sect first appeared as an offshoot of the Society of Friends (Quakers), around 1750 in Manchester, England. The leaders of the group--which was called the Shaking Quakers, or Shakers--were husband and wife ministers James and Jane Wardley. The Shakers broke off from the mainstream Quaker church and came under the influence of a group of charismatic preachers and miracle-workers called the "French Prophets."

The Shakers were best known for the fervor of their worship services. Like the Quakers, Shakers would sit in silent meditation, waiting to be "moved by the Spirit," but the Shakers' response to this spiritual power was to tremble violently (hence "Shakers") and to spin and dance. Under the influence of the holy Spirit they engaged in group ring dances, marches, singing and shouting, speaking in tongues (glossolalia), prophecy, faith-healing, miracle-working, and spiritual trances, often accompanied by visons.

The English mystic Ann Lee (1736-1784), who was baptized and married in the Church of England, was drawn to the Shakers in 1758, spending fifteen years with the sect before leading a small group of followers to America. Mother Ann (as her followers came to call her) frequently disrupted Anglican Church services, and was finally imprisoned following one such outburst. During her imprisonment she experienced a series of visions, which revealed that sex was the main cause of sin and should be avoided; that she herself was the fulfillment of Christ's Second Coming; and that it was her duty to carry the Word, which she embodied, to the New World.

The Shakers already believed that Christ's Second Coming would be as a woman, so the idea that Mother Ann might represent that Second Coming was not dismissed out of hand, particularly as her charismatic personality, enthusiasm, and mystical visions clearly marked her as a prophet.

In 1774 Mother Ann and eight of her followers emigrated to America, where they established the first Shaker settlement at Watervliet, near Albany, New York. During their first two years in America, they directed their efforts toward clearing the wooded land for planting, building their village, and seeking new converts to their faith.

Some biographers believe that Mother Ann's original religious conversion, her revelatory visions, and her missionary zeal all grew out of early tragedy. She had been married to a blacksmith named Abraham Stanley, and they had had four children, all of whom had died in infancy. Mother Ann's rejection of the idea that God had sanctioned sex for reproduction and her insistence on the spiritual necessity of celibacy might well have been influenced by such experiences. Little is known of her life before her conversion because she avoided all discussion of it. As for as she was concerned, her life began when she became a Shaker.

Mother Ann died in 1784, but her religious movement grew, reaching its peak between 1830 and 1850, with approximately 6,000 members. The sect was centered in New England, and at least twenty major Shaker communities were established in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maine. A number of communities were also established outside of New England, in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Florida.

Shaker beliefs appealed to many people in the United States at that time, and the Shakers themselves were tireless, enthusiastic missionaries. Many were particularly drawn to the Shaker doctrine of radical equality: all human beings were the children of God, and all should be treated equally, regardless of sex, age, race, education, or wealth.

The Shakers believed themselves to be a manifestation of the original pentecostal church of the Apostles, and their religious trances and glossolalia were echoes of what the Apostles themselves had experienced when the holy Spirit descended on them in the form of "tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each of them and they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim" (Acts 2:3-4. Revised ed. of the "New Testament of the New American Bible." Iowa Falls: World, 1986. All references are to this edition.)

From St. Peter's speech in Acts, in which he quotes the prophet Joel, the Shakers derived their belief in prophecies, visions, and miracles performed through the power of the holy Spirit:

"'It will come to pass in the last days,' God says

"ňúthat I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh.

Your sons and your daughters shall prophecy,

Your young men shall see visions,

Your old men shall dream dreams.

Indeed upon my servants and my handmaids

I will pour out a portion of my Spirit in those days,

And they shall prophesy.'" (Acts 2:17-18)

The Shaker belief that all property and profit should be commonly held for the benefit of all grew from the description in Acts of the communal life of the new Christian communities: "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need" (Acts 2:42-45).

Shaker communities usually consisted of two "families," of about thirty individuals each. Each family lived in a large house, but the sexes were rigidly segregated, using separate entrances, stairways, and sleeping quarters to avoid intermingling. Each family had two elders and two eldresses, who were responsible for the spiritual management of the family, and the elders answered to the "ministry"--which consisted of two elders and eldresses chosen from among the elders of the families.

Detailed oral confession of sin before witnesses was considered to be necessary for salvation, and was required for admission to the sect. Confession was to be repeated frequently, each time a member felt that he had sinned.

Because they repudiated the outside world, the Shaker communities made a strong effort to achieve self-sufficiency. The Shaker villages were models of nearly complete economic self-containment, and were highly successful. The Shakers were famous not only for their industriousness, but also for their ingenuity, for in their quest for self-sufficiency they invented a number of useful tools, including the circular saw (the buzz saw), the metal pen point, the clothespin, the washing machine, and the flat broom.

Mother Ann's injunction, "Put your hands to work and hearts to God," was at the center of Shaker life and worship, and their high ideals were reflected in the quality of their products. They approached work as an act of worship, and aspired to a combination of simple yet beautiful design and fine craftsmanship. To this day the elegant simplicity and exquisite workmanship of Shaker furnishings and tools are highly prized.

After 1860 membership in the sect began to decline. By 1874, their numbers had fallen from the high of 6,000 twenty years earlier to a mere 2,400. By the mid-1890's, only about 1,000 Shakers were left in the Shaker villages. After 1964, no new members were accepted into the sect, and by the 1980's, only a few aged sisters remained at the Sabbath Day Lake community in Maine.

One obvious reason for the sect's decline is that unlike other Utopian communities, it was not marriage-based, and thus did not renew its numbers with children born into families. Because Shakers were celibate, their communities could grow only by constantly bringing in new converts, but as the nineteenth century progressed, new converts were harder to come by.

The insular, communal Shaker way of life, and its rigorous spiritual discipline--including unquestioning submission to authority, celibacy, and strenuous manual labor--did not appeal as much to an American people so strongly influenced by the individualistic values of the late nineteenth century and by the promise of material comfort and reduced labor not only for the upper class, but for the common man as well.

Although Shakerism was one of the nineteenth century's most successful experiments in religious communal living, it has subsided into a memory of idealistic devotion. Once thriving Shaker villages are now only museums, and the well-built, practical furnishings they were famous for are collectors items and museum pieces.

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