views updated Jun 11 2018


ETHNONYM: Believers

The Shakers (the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing) are a religious sect that began as an off-shoot of Protestantism in England in the mid-1700s. Escaping persecution, the Shaker's founder, Mother Ann Lee, and eight followers immigrated to the United States in 1774 and settled in Watervliet, New York, north of Albany. Although not free from persecution in the New World either, Mother Lee was able to attract loyal followers who spread the gospel in New England, the Midwest, and the South. At its height in the mid-1800s, Shakerism numbered over five thousand "brothers and sisters" living in some eighteen communities, or "societies," in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida.

Since that time Shakerism has steadily declined, and today there are only twelve Shakers left, residing at the two communities in Canterbury, New Hampshire, and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Although the Shakers have largely disappeared, the Shaker way of life remains part of the American scene, primarily through Shaker museums, restored Shaker communities open to tourists, Shaker manufactures such as chairs and oval boxes which command prices of over $100,000 in the antiquities market, and Shaker songs such as "The Gift to Be Simple."

Shaker life is centered on a number of core beliefs and values, including a belief in the second coming of Christ, communal living, celibacy, humility, simplicity, efficiency, hard work, and equality between the sexes. Behaving in accordance with these values is seen as the route to salvation. Although outsiders often attribute the decline of Shakerism to celibacy, the Shakers themselves argued that most people who experimented with Shakerism left the communities Because of difficulty in putting aside self-interest for the Community's interest.

Although Shakers lived in their own communities in the form of large farms with multiple buildings and considerable acreage, did not vote, and were pacifists, they did not live totally outside mainstream society. In fact, Shakers were often the first in their region to use electricity and telephones, often owned cars, trucks, and tractors for community use, and today use televisions, computers, and other modern conveniences. Most important, celibacy required that all new Shakers had to be recruited from the outside world. The Shakers were open to all those interested including American Indians, Jews, and especially orphaned children, although few actually signed the covenant required for a lifelong commitment to Shakerism.

Shaker communities were large self-sufficient farms with a variety of cottage industries such as furniture making, metalworking, seed packaging, basketry, broom making, and weaving. The products of these endeavors were both used within the community and sold to outsiders. Some, such as the sale of seeds in packages, a Shaker innovation, were highly successful. In all their work, simplicity and efficiency were the guiding principles. The Shakers invented a number of objects still in use, including the circular saw, brimstone match, flat broom, and the revolving oven. Although equality between the sexes was stressed, the actual day-to-day work of the communities was divided on traditional sexual lines. Men usually did most of the outside work and heavy manufacturing, and women were responsible for domestic work, cooking, and traditional female work such as cloth making and weaving. As the number of male Shakers decreased over time, female manufactures began to be a major source of income.

At its height with some eighteen active societies, over 100,000 acres of land, and thousands of members, the Shakers constituted a multistate corporation. Central authority rested with the two elders and two elderesses at the New Lebanon society, east of Albany in New York, with the head elder or elderess the official head. Elders appointed their successors. Each Shaker society was governed by two elders and two elderesses assisted by deacons, who managed the day-to-day operation of the society, and trustees, who dealt with the outside world and were essentially the financial managers. Within the communities, the Shakers were divided into Families of about one hundred persons each, who lived and worked separately from other families and with strict sexual segregation within the families. Despite the fairly rigid social structure, authoritarian rule was the exception; social cohesion was mostly the result of a shared commitment to Shaker values and beliefs. All property was owned communally, and new members were required to turn over all personal property to the society upon signing the covenant. This was a major source of the large acreage owned by the Shakers, but also the cause of a number of lawsuits by former members and heirs of deceased members. These suits were nearly always decided in favor of the Shakers.

Shaker religious beliefs are essentially fundamental Christianity, although there are some clearly unique beliefs that deviate from the main branches of Christianity and other sects. The Shakers reject the Trinity; instead they believe in a God made up of female and male elements reflected both in the supernatural and the real worlds. The requirement of celibacy is based on the belief that sin arose from Adam and Eve's sexual behavior in the Garden of Eden, although they do not feel that non-Shakers who marry and have sexual relations are sinners. The Shakers were also strong believers in active, direct communication with the deceased, but this practice apparently declined over the years.

Perhaps the feature of Shaker life that has drawn the most attention was their religious services. The services tended to be long, drawn-out events performed by the Shakers, but often with many non-Shaker observers. During the height of Shakerism in the mid-1800s, these services were ecstatic experiences for the participants, involving hand clapping, dancing, singing, stomping, shaking, jumping, shouting, having visions, and speaking in tongues. Some social scientists suggest that these services provided an emotional outlet for the Shakers who otherwise lived an austere life. As Shakerism declined, so too did the fervor of the services.


Hopple, Lee C. (1989-90). "A Religious and Geographical History of The Shakers, 1747-1988." Pennsylvania Folklife 39:57-72.

Kephart, William M. (1987). Extraordinary Groups. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Purcell, L. Edward (1988). The Shakers. New York: Crescent Books.

Richmond, Mary L. (1977). Shaker Literature: A Bibliography. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England.


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SHAKERS . Members of the American religious group the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing were popularly called Shakers. One of the longest-lived and most influential religious communitarian groups in America, the Shakers originated in 1747 near Manchester, England, in a breakaway from the Quakers led by Jane and James Wardley. The group may also have been influenced by Camisard millenarians who had fled from France to England to escape the persecutions that followed revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The nickname Shaking Quaker, or Shaker, was applied to the movement because of its unstructured and highly emotional services, during which members sang, shouted, danced, spoke in tongues, and literally shook with emotion. Under the leadership of Ann Lee, a Manchester factory worker who became convinced that celibacy was essential for salvation, the core of the Shakers emigrated to America in 1774 and settled two years later near Albany, New York. Until Lee's death in 1784 the Shakers remained a loosely knit group that adhered to Lee's personal leadership and to what they viewed as a millenarian restoration and fulfillment of the early Christian faith.

During the 1780s and 1790s under the leadership of two of Ann Lee's American converts, Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright, Shakerism developed from a charismatic movement into a more routinized organization. Meacham and Wright oversaw the establishment of parallel and equal men's and women's orders. Adherents lived together in celibate communities and practiced communal ownership of property inspired by the Christian communism of Acts 2:4445. Supreme authority was vested in the ministry at New Lebanon, New York, usually two men and two women, one of whom headed the entire society. Each settlement was divided into "families"smaller, relatively self-sufficient communities of thirty to one hundred men and women living together under the same roof but strictly separated in all their activities. By 1800, eleven settlements with sixteen hundred members were functioning in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. A second wave of expansion, inspired by the Kentucky Revival and drawing heavily on the indefatigable Richard McNemar, a new light Presbyterian minister who converted to Shakerism, led to the establishment of seven additional settlements, in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, by 1826.

The high point of Shaker membership and the last major effort to revitalize the society came during the decade of spiritual manifestations that began in 1837. Frequently called "Mother Ann's work" because many of the revelations purportedly came from the spirit of Ann Lee and showed her continuing concern for her followers, the period saw a rich outpouring of creativity in new forms of worship, song, and dance, including extreme trance and visionary phenomena. Following the great Millerite disappointments of 1843 and 1844 when the world failed to come to a literal end, hundreds of Millerites joined the Shakers, bringing membership to a peak of some six thousand by the late 1840s. Thereafter the group entered into a long, slow decline. The loss of internal momentum and the changing conditions of external society led the Shakers to be viewed increasingly not as a dynamic religious movement but as a pleasant anachronism in which individuals who could not function in the larger society could find refuge. As late as 1900 there were more than one thousand Shakers, but by the beginning of the twenty-first century, only Sabbathday Lake, Maine, remained as an active community, with very few people living as Shakers there.

As the largest and most successful religious communitarian group in nineteenth-century America, the Shakers attracted the attention of numerous visitors, writers, and creators of more ephemeral communal experiments. The Shakers were known for their neat, well-planned, and successful villages; their functional architecture, simple furniture, and fine crafts; their distinctive songs, dances, and rituals; and their ingenuity in agriculture and mechanical invention. They also were sometimes criticized because of their sophisticated and highly unorthodox theology, which stressed a dual godhead combining male and female elements equally; perfectionism and continuing revelation; and the necessity of celibacy for the highest religious life. They were unique among American religious groups in giving women formal equality with men at every level of religious leadership, and they created a fully integrated subculture that has increasingly come to be viewed with interest and respect.

See Also

Lee, Ann.


Among the numerous scholarly treatments of the Shakers, the most important are the studies by Edward Deming Andrews, particularly his The People Called Shakers, new enl. ed. (New York, 1963). Andrews is excellent on Shaker material culture, especially furniture and crafts, but weaker on religious motivation. Another popular historical overview is Marguerite Fellows Melcher's The Shaker Adventure (Princeton, N.J., 1941). For the most incisive analysis of the group, see Constance Rourke's "The Shakers," in her The Roots of American Culture and Other Essays, edited by Van Wyck Brooks (New York, 1942). A provocative but sometimes misleading analysis that attempts to place Shakerism within a larger social and conceptual framework is Henri Desroche's The American Shakers: From Neo-Christianity to Presocialism (Amherst, Mass., 1971). Mary L. Richmond has compiled and annotated Shaker Literature: A Bibliography, 2 vols. (Hanover, N.H., 1977), a comprehensive bibliography of printed sources by and about the Shakers that supersedes all previous reference works of its kind. Richmond lists the major repositories at which each printed item may be found. She also includes information on collections of manuscripts. The most important of these are at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and are available on microfilm from their respective libraries.

Benjamin Seth Youngs's The Testimony of Christ's Second Appearing (Lebanon, Ohio, 1808) was the first and most comprehensive Shaker theological and historical overview. A shorter and more accessible treatment is Calvin Green and Seth Y. Wells's A Summary View of the Millennial Church or United Society of Believers (Commonly Called Shakers) (Albany, N.Y., 1823). The most valuable primary account of Ann Lee and the earliest Shakers is the rare Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations, and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee and the Elders with Her, edited by Rufus Bishop and Seth Y. Wells (Hancock, Mass., 1816). Among the many accounts by Shaker seceders and apostates, the most comprehensive and historically oriented is Thomas Brown's An Account of the People Called Shakers: Their Faith, Doctrine, and Practice (Troy, N.Y., 1812). Anna White and Leila S. Taylor's Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message (Columbus, Ohio, 1904) presents a thorough and insightful history of the Shakers from the perspective of the late nineteenth century.

New Sources

Morgan, John H. The United Inheritance: The Shaker Adventure in Communal Life. Bristol, Ind., 2002.

Lawrence Foster (1987)

Revised Bibliography


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Early Years. The Shakers, formally called the United Society of Believers in Christs Second Appearing, were a small but prominent religious order whose communitarian lifestyle and practice of celibacy drew both harsh criticism and extensive praise from nineteenth-century Americans. The group was founded in England in the early 1770s by a Quaker named Ann Lee, who concluded after several unsuccessful pregnancies that sexual intercourse was at the root of all sin. Lee and her small group of followers held meetings characterized by trembling, shaking, shouting, and singing, earning them the name Shaking Quakers, or Shakers. Faced with persecution in England, the Shakers immigrated to New York in 1774. They acquired some land near Albany, where they lived communally and practiced celibacy. They believed that Christ had returned to earth in spirit to begin the thousand years of peace and harmony known as the millennium. Christs spirit would come to reside in all who lived in harmony and abstained from sin. Beginning in the 1790s, after Ann Lees death, the Shakers began to make substantial progress in their efforts to convert others to their beliefs and way of life. Under the leadership of Lucy Wright and Joseph Meacham, the Shakers spread to the North and to the West, establishing nineteen communities between Maine and Indiana. By 1825 there were about six thousand people living in Shaker villages.

Communal Lifestyle. The Shakers were like many other Americans of the antebellum period in their desire

to unite religious ideals with their vision of a perfect society. The society they developed, however, was quite distinctive and unusually successful. Shaker communities were made up of extended families of men, women, and children who lived together in large houses that were divided into male and female living quarters. Men and women worked and ate separately, and all goods and chores were shared equally. The children, who joined the communities either with their parents or as orphans, were raised communally. Each village was presided over by groups of elders, both male and female, who dealt with the outside world and carefully regulated both work and leisure within the community in an effort to keep people from tiring at any one task. These efforts must have succeeded, for Shaker fields and shops produced far more than was needed to sustain the community, and the surplus was sold to the outside world. Shaker villages became widely known for their industry and inventiveness, and simple, elegant furniture based on Shaker designs is still highly valued today. The group also made advances in herbal medicine, invented many common items such as the clothespin and the flat broom, and was the first to develop an extensive business selling packaged seeds.

Suspicion from Outside. While they had a prosperous and relatively harmonious relationship with the outside world in terms of business, the Shakers were also an object of intense suspicion because of their unusual beliefs and social arrangements. They had their own printing presses, from which they issued numerous books and tracts explaining their beliefs. These publications gained them some converts but also fed the fire of anti-Shaker sentiment that occasionally erupted into mob violence. Some people objected to the Shakers communal economic arrangements or felt threatened by their economic success, but many more had strong objections to the practice of celibacy. On a practical level celibacy seemed a highly unusual practice for a religious group that clearly desired to increase its numbersleading to accusations that the Shakers abducted children for this purpose. More important, celibacy was seen as inherently contrary to nature, God, and the sanctity of marriage. Traditional notions of the family were further threatened by the unusually prominent role of women in the church. In an age where most men and many women believed that women should remain in positions of deference, the Shakers (whose first leader and visionary was a woman) defied social norms by giving women equal authority in both spiritual and temporal affairs. Even more radical was their belief that God was both male and female, and that Ann Lee had been the feminine incarnation of Jesus.

Worship. To those who could accept the choices made by Shakers, the group became something of a marvel. Numerous foreign visitors, as well as such notable American tourists as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, visited Shaker villages and wrote accounts of their remarkable industry and prosperity, the apparent contentment of their members, and the well-tended appearance of their houses and gardens. Many were also fascinated by the distinctive character of Shaker worship. Indeed, this was probably the most important aspect of life for the Shakers themselves. Men and women participated together in highly emotional services that placed great importance on music and dancing. Hundreds of Shaker songs composed during the nineteenth century still survive. Speaking in tongues and falling into trances were also common in Shaker meetings. Between 1837 and 1847, in an early manifestation of the Spiritualist craze that overtook the nation after 1848, public seances became an important part of Shaker religious life. The mediums, who were usually adolescents or older women, conveyed messages from deceased members of the Shaker community, Native American spirit guides, and historical figures ranging from Jesus to George Washington. Eventually, however, most of the mediums left the Shakers, and after 1850 Shaker membership in general began to decline rapidly. Nonetheless, on the whole the group was remarkable in its longevity and stands as one of the nations most successful communitarian experiments. A small group of Shakers still exists today in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.


Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality, The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981);

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


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The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing (commonly called the Shakers) was organized in the United States in 1774 under the prophetic leadership of Mother Ann Lee (1736–1784), who had fled religious persecution in England. Lee, the daughter of a Manchester blacksmith, had little education and worked in a textile mill and an infirmary. In 1758 she joined a religious society formed by two dissenting Quakers, James and Jane Wardley. The Wardleys formed a group that was derisively known as the "Shaking Quakers" because they sang, dance, and spoke in tongues in imitation of the practices of the French enthusiastic group, the Cevenoles, who had come to England in the early eighteenth century. In 1762 Lee married; she bore four children, all of whom died in infancy. Deeply troubled by their deaths, Lee believed they were punishment for her sins, particularly sins of the flesh. Sin had entered the world, according to Lee, when Adam and Eve had sexual knowledge of each other.

In 1770 Lee was acknowledged as the leader of the Shakers. The Shaking Quakers took to the streets of Manchester preaching a gospel of repentance, regeneration, and the celibate life, attacked the worldliness of the churches, and refused to take oaths or observe the Sabbath. They were persecuted for their beliefs, and Ann Lee was imprisoned in 1772–1773. She later stated that Christ had appeared to her in prison, telling her that she was Jesus Christ in the female form. In 1774 eight members left for America. Lee believed that it would be in the New World that her vision would take hold and that a chosen people awaited her arrival.

After a brief stay in New York City, Lee and her small band went north to Albany. In 1776 they established their first congregation at nearby Watervliet, New York, and began to attract other converts by their preaching and celibate lifestyle. In the Shakers' early days, they gathered for enthusiastic meetings, with Lee preaching the Shaker gospel throughout New England from 1781 to 1783. They had occasional conflicts with local authorities, who suspected the Shakers' pacifist tendencies and thought they were British spies. The Shaker societies that developed over the next century held several core beliefs: that Mother Ann Lee had ushered in a period of spiritual rebirth; that she was the manifestation of Jesus Christ in spiritual form; that salvation would come through the Shaker family; and that sexual intercourse was at the root of evil and a covenant with the devil.

There were five separate periods in Shaker history. The first (1774–1783) was characterized by Lee's messianic style and premillennial beliefs. In the second period (1784–1803), two elders, Joseph Meachem and Lucy Wright, became leaders of the sect, organizing new colonies, requiring the membership to sign formal covenants, and regularizing the sect's practices. During the third phase (1803–1837), the Shakers moved westward, establishing colonies in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky under the guidance and direction of the central ministry at Watervliet. By 1826 nineteen permanent communities had been established. At Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, for example, the Center Family Dwelling House contained forty rooms and took ten years to complete. In this period the communities were organized into "families" of thirty to one hundred members. Within each "family" there were deacons and deaconesses who oversaw the temporal work while elders and eldresses supervised the spiritual life. An additional layer of elders (two men, two women) led the community and reported to the elders at the lead ministry in New Lebanon, New York.

As the Shaker societies grew and the older generation of Shakers passed away, a fourth phase (1837–1848) of intense spiritual and religious revivals, known as "Mother Ann's Work," occurred in all the societies. This revitalization movement was part of the evangelical upsurge following the Second Great Awakening, a period of renewed religious revivals in the early nineteenth century. During this phase members conducted seances, made spirit drawings and paintings, and created songs and poems to exalt Mother Ann Lee's mission. However, revitalization proved to be disruptive for the Shakers. In the final phase (1848 to 1875), the Shaker societies began to lose members and found it increasingly difficult to recruit new ones, particularly males. Earlier they had been able to attract adult converts and accept orphans abandoned by their families. At their height in the 1850s, the Shakers had about four thousand members in over twenty separate colonies. By 1880 the membership stood at 1,850, by 1900 at 850, and by the mid-1930s less than a hundred, as many of the communities closed their doors.

See alsoQuakers; Religion: Overview; Revivals and Revivalism .


Brewer, Priscilla J. Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986.

Fogarty, Robert S. Dictionary of American Communal and Utopian History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Kern, Louis J. An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias—The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Stein, Stephen J. The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Robert S. Fogarty


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A spiritual community established in New Lebanon, New York, near the Massachusetts line, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. It had its origin in England in 1747, when Jane and James Wardley became the first leaders of a Lancashire revivalist sect. They were Quaker tailors influenced by the French prophets, an enthusiastic movement that had spread through southern France earlier in the century. Ann Lee, 22-year-old daughter of a Manchester blacksmith, joined this group of "shaking Quakers" in 1758 and through her strange visionary gifts became their leader. She was imprisoned in 1772 for disturbing the Sabbath and preaching a doctrine of celibacy, an idea stemming from her own experience of losing four children at or soon after their birth.

In 1774, after visions and inspired revelations, she moved to America with a handful of followers. By 1780 the Shaker colony had grown, attracting many settlers. Men and women lived together in celibacy with common ownership of property.

Between 1781 and 1783 Lee and her elders visited 36 towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut on a missionary campaign, but the Shakers were ridiculed. They had become especially unpopular for their pacifist ideas during the Revolution.

Lee died in 1784. The community eventually prospered, especially under Lee's successor, Joseph Meacham, and established an enviable reputation for hard work, excellent furniture making, and community spirit. The most characteristic behavior of the Shakers, from which their popular name derived, was an ecstatic dance. It seems clear that much of the very genuine joy and creativeness of the Shaker community arose from the intense energy of sexual sublimation.

Starting in 1837, the Watervliet community near Albany, New York, was visited by Spiritualist-type manifestations of shaking and jerking, and some Shakers were possessed by Indian spirits and spoke in tongues (see Xenoglossis ). Some of them became Spiritualists.

The Shaker community grew throughout the nineteenth century. The Shakers were able to gather many converts on the frontier and found other members among the many orphans to whom they provided a home. They originally had functioned informally as an orphanage in many areas, but the creation of a system of government and church-sponsored orphanages had a significant impact on the movement's development. The eventual decline of Shakerism owed partly to materialistic influences from outside and partly to the inevitable dwindling of a community that outlawed sexual activity.


Andrews, Edward Deming. The People Called Shakers: A Search for the Perfect Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Desroche, Henri. The American Shakers. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.

[Evans, Frederick W.]. Autobiography of a Shaker. Mount Lebanon, N.Y., 1869.

Evans, Frederick W. Shakers and Shakerism. New York, 1859.

Flinn, H. C. Spiritualism Among the Shakers. East Canterbury, N.H., 1899.

Garrett, Clarke. Spirit Possession and Popular Religion: From the Camisards to the Shakers. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Holloway, Emory. "Walt Whitman's Visit to the Shakers; With Whitman's Notebook Containing his Description and Observations of the Shaker Group at Mt. Lebanon." The Colophon 1 (spring 1930).

MacLean, John P. Bibliography of Shaker Literature. 1905. Reprint, Burt Franklin, 1971.

Taylor, Michael Brooks. "&43'Try the Spirits': Shaker Responses to Supernaturalism." Journal of Religious Studies 7 (fall 1979): 30-38.


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SHAKERS. The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing was a small sect founded by working-class men and women in Manchester, England, in the late 1740s. These "Believers," as they called themselves, were derided as "Shakers" because their bodies shook and trembled in religious devotion. Convinced that the Day of Judgment was nigh, they expressed contempt for earthly authority and respectable churches. Ann Lee, the illiterate woman who would become the sect's revered American leader, was jailed twice for disturbing Anglican services.

In 1774 a small cohort immigrated to New York and eventually clustered in the Hudson Valley, north of Albany, but they had not escaped repression. Shakers were arrested as troublemakers whose pacifism undermined the revolutionary cause. They were whipped, beaten, and accused of witchcraft. As they began to draw American converts, "Mother Ann" Lee's prophecies and teachings set the rules and defined the goals of life within the United Society. After her death in 1784, some believers regarded her as the second incarnation of God.

The two American converts who followed Mother Ann as Lead Elder—Joseph Meacham (1787–1796) and

Lucy Wright (1796–1821)—developed an institutional structure for less antagonistic relations with society. A village erected in the 1780s on a mountainside overlooking New Lebanon, New York, became the movement's headquarters. Emissaries supervised the "gathering" of new communities in hill country regions of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. In the early nineteenth century the movement expanded into Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. By the mid-1820s about 4,000 believers lived in sixteen communal villages, usually with residential "Great Houses" surrounded by meetinghouses, barns, mills, workshops, and smaller residences for children and probationary members. A hierarchy of elders and eldresses who had completely abandoned the sinful world were in charge.

The practical arrangement of life in these communities was more important than any wrangling over theology. The goals were separation from unbelievers, a simple and harmonious life, and equality of men and women. In practice, believers gave up private property and worked for the common benefit in a rotation of tasks. Sexual relations were prohibited and men and women lived in strictly enforced separation.

In the early decades believers faced hardship together. But they proved to be skilled at marketing a wide variety of products, such as seeds and herbs, diapers and cloaks, and tools and furniture. Life among the believers reached levels of comfort and security that drew admiration from utopian socialist communities. The most prominent mid-nineteenth century Shaker leader, Elder Frederick Evans, had been a radical New York labor leader before he was converted by a series of nightly visitations by angels. He spoke for "progressive" Shakers who wished to see their movement more active in reform of society. An opposing faction feared that material success would lure "lukewarm" converts and undermine the pursuit of holy simplicity.

In fact, there were too few converts and too many defectors. After peaking at about 6,000 in the 1840s, membership declined steadily to about 855 in 1900, 40 in

1950, and 8 in 2000. Some Shaker villages became tourist sites. Shaker songs, furniture, and recipes became American favorites. Popular nostalgia converted the once-persecuted Shakers into a charming sect.


Brewer, Priscilla J. Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986.

Stein, Stephen J. The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.



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Popular name of the members of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, also called the Alethians, or the Millennial Church. This most successful of the communistic societies of 19thcentury America originated from the conversion of Ann Lee at a Quaker revival under Jane and James Wardley in Manchester, England. Ann Lee was born in Manchester, England, in 1736, converted in 1758, and married in 1762; her unhappy marital experience, coupled with severe illness, brought about a conviction that concupiscence was the basic cause of human depravity and the world's wrongs. Public confession was the key to regenerate life; celibacy, its rule and cross. Under her leadership the meetings of the group in England were characterized by shaking, whirling, shouting, prophesying, dancing, and singing in strange tongues. In 1773 Ann Lee and some of her followers so disturbed the morning services in Christ Church that they were imprisoned; during this time she claimed visions regarding the manifestation of Christ, "the male principle." She called herself "Ann of the Word," or the "female principle in Christ"; her followers gave her the title of "Mother Ann." In 1774, after release from prison, she immigrated to America with seven of her followers and settled in the woods near Albany, N.Y. After her death (Sept. 8, 1784), she was succeeded by Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright, under whom a number of Shaker communal societies were founded, of which the one at Mount Lebanon, N. Y. (1787), is considered the mother community. During his 12 years, Meacham gave the Shakers their effective organization. For the next 25 years the leadership again devolved on a woman, a fact of importance in the peculiar development of the group.

In their religious tenets the Shakers deny every specific Christian doctrine; the underlying principle is rather a strange form of dualism. Mother Lee taught that since Adam and Eve as male and female are essentially made in the image of God, God must exist as the Father and Mother. This dualism is extended even to the plant and mineral kingdoms. The Shakers believe the history of the world is divided into four cycles, that of Noah, Moses, Jesus, and the fourth reaching its culmination in Ann Lee who, as the female counterpart of Jesus, the bride of Jesus, and the mother of all spiritual things, is worthy of the same honor as Jesus. The Shakers spread from New

York to New England and with the Second Awakening into Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana (see great awaken ing). The sect reached its zenith in the middle of the 19th-century with a membership made up of about 6,000 adults, enjoying great prosperity based principally on agriculture. By 1905, however, the membership had dwindled to less than 1,000; in the 1950s there were fewer than 29 members, and by the 1960s the sect was practically extinct.

Bibliography: m. f. melcher, The Shaker Adventure (Princeton 1941). e. d. andrews, The People Called Shakers: A Search for the Perfect Society (Dover; New York 1953; rev. Gloucester, Mass. 1963). r. b. taylor, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 190827) 3.781783. h. c. desroches, Les Shakers américains (Paris 1955).

[e. r. vollmar/eds.]


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Shakers. Popular name for the United Society for Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. The sect was founded by Ann Lee (1736–84). She was converted to the Shaking Quakers (so-called because of their trembling and ritualistic dancing) in 1758. She then, as Mother Ann, received revelations that she was the female counterpart of Christ, and that she was to take the small group that had begun to form around her to the New World to await the millennium (see MILLENNIALISM). The community was to be strictly celibate and was to hold all things in common. By about 1840, they had reached around 6,000 in number, in twenty communities, but have now virtually disappeared: the ‘Mother Church’ at Mount Lebanon in New York was sold in 1947, and membership was declared closed in 1965. Nevertheless, there is a small continuing community in Maine.


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Shakers (Shaking Quakers). Name for members of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, a religious celibate community founded in the USA after 1774 by Ann Lee (1736–84), formerly of Manchester in Eng. They developed their own hymnology, incl. spirituals and dance, and in the 1840s two tunebooks were pubd. giving details of Shaker mus. theory, notation, and tunes. When a Shaker had a religious seizure which resulted in a hymn or dance-tune, a scribe wrote down the tune in a primitive littoral notation. The words of the songs were sometimes in Eng., at others were nonsense, or derived from Indian or Negro speech. Copland quotes the Shaker tune Simple Gifts in his Appalachian Spring. Shakers are now almost extinct, but their mus. has been collected and is studied.


views updated May 21 2018

Shakers (officially United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing) US religious sect. Originally an offshoot of the English Quakers, the nickname derived from the fervour of their religious ceremonies. In 1774, Ann Lee and eight of her followers emigrated to New York. ‘Mother Ann’ believed she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ. After her death (1784), the movement spread, and by c.1850 they numbered c.6000 in more than 18 communes. One of the central beliefs of Shakers is the dual (male and female) nature of the Deity. Other tenets include celibacy, sexual equality, pacifism, and the sanctity of labour. They are noted for their crafts.