Lotus and Rose

The Shakers

The Shakers

The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing

Suppose Christ re-appeared -- as a woman?

In 1774, a small band of people arrived in New York City -- eight souls, led by a woman. Her name was Ann Lees, although she changed her last name to Lee following arrival in America. These eight were dreamers, hoping to begin a new social order in America. They came from England and were known as the United Society of Believer's in Christ's Second Appearing -- or simply by the pejorative term, Shakers.

This little band didn't arrive in America as a fully organized communal group, but soon after their arrival survival forced them to adopt a communal pattern of life. They became the most successful communal society in the United States. This is the story of their growth and decline.

The stage was set for Shaker success by various revival movements that swept the American scene. The Great Awakening of the 1740s plowed the field and fertilized it. The Shakers sowed the seed and cultivated the early growth.

Ann Lee, or Mother Ann as she was known among the Shakers, began her intense spiritual journey among a very small group of English folk led by two charismatic individuals, Jane and James Wardley. They were known as Shaking Quakers. A small group of French "enthusiasts," or charismatics, known as the Camisards and led by Jean Cavalier were exiled to England in 1706. By the time the Wardleys contacted them, much of their enthusiasm had waned. But the Wardleys renewed the Camisard zeal as a result of Jane's visionary announcement that the second coming of Christ was imminent. Furthermore, the Wardleys were convinced that this incarnation of Christ would be as a woman, expressing the feminine aspect of the divine.

Ann Lee was a simple, illiterate woman, born in 1736 in Manchester, the child of a blacksmith. She lived in poverty, working in a factory from an early age. At 22, she married a blacksmith, Abraham Standerin, and gave birth, in rapid succession, to four children all of whom died in infancy. Her marriage was unhappy from start to end. At this critical juncture in her life, she met the Wardleys.

Ann showed signs of prophetic leadership very quickly. She drew others to herself like a magnet. Gradually, the Wardleys let it be known that the prophesied female incarnation of Christ had occurred, and the Christ was in their midst -- none other than Ann Lee.

The Shakers noisy style of worship offended their neighbors. There were objections to tempestuous meetings lasting into the late night. Stories of strange worship, with its shakings and speaking in odd languages circulated in the community. The dark prophecies of the group spread through the nearby towns and villages.

During this dark period, Ann Lee became aware that she was possessed by Christ. One of the mysterious truths revealed to her was that the cause of the world's anguish was the act of sexual copulation. This revelation became like the North Star of the Shaker faith. From that point forward, the search for sexual freedom meant celibacy. Ann began to preach openly against marriage and sexual intercourse of any kind. All the world's wrongs: war, disease, slavery, famine, poverty, the inequality of the sexes -- all were the result of "concupiscence."

Ann received numerous visions. Among these, she declared that she was shown a group of chosen people waiting for her in New England. So, in 1774, she left England with her husband and a small band, leaving the Wardleys behind.

Characteristically, when they arrived in New York, Mother Ann marched her little troupe down the streets of of the city until she suddenly turned at a certain house and knocked at the door. She announced to the occupants that she was commissioned by God to preach the everlasting Gospel in America and that an angel had directed her to this particular door to receive lodging and care. Amazingly, the people of the house took her in and helped the Shakers establish themselves in America.

Eventually, a tract of swampy land in upstate New York was made available to the group. While Mother Ann and her husband remained to work in New York City, her small band of followers moved to the area known as Niskeyuna, near Albany, cleared land and built a small two-story cabin. The brothers lived on one floor; the sisters on the other. Some of the men found work in Albany.

Abraham, Ann's husband, did not share her faith. He was often found in taverns and once brought a harlot home with him, announcing his intentions to have sex with her if Ann persisted in her faith. As a result, after 13 years, the unhappy marriage ended in 1775. For the rest of that year, Ann lived in dire poverty.

When one of the brethren returned from a trip back to England, he stopped in New York City and took Ann with him to Niskeyuna. Now, the entire group was living together as a matter of survival. Communal living, from that point forward, became a cardinal point of Shaker faith and practice. This early period in Shaker history is known among them as "the opening of the Testimony in America."

Eventually, by 1781, the mere struggle for existence had ended. Shakers began their widespread evangelistic venture, first in New England. Their doctrines offended many, and, as a result, the objections of others were taken as persecution by the Shakers -- persecution that only spurred them on.

Nevertheless, some were curious about this female Christ with her strange teachings. Joseph Meacham, a Baptist lay preacher from Enfield, Connecticut, sent a representative to find out about her. His associate, Calvin Harlow, was so enthused when he returned that Meacham returned with him to see this woman in the wilderness. Meacham became Mother Ann's first native-born American convert, and later, he became head elder of the church.

Only a year after her trip to New England, Mother Ann died in 1784. Her mantle fell on her chief disciple, James Whittaker, or Father James, as he was known among the Shakers. Under his leadership the gathering of Shakers into formal communities began in 1787, first in New Lebanon, New York. By 1794, twelve such communities were formed: two in New York, four in Massachusetts, two in New Hampshire, one in Connecticut, and three in Maine.

To read an early Shaker broadside, click on the thumbnail below.

Shaker Broadside

As new members joined the communities, they either sold their land and other property or turned it over to the community. Gradually, Shaker society increased in material goods.

Probationers were housed in a special area of the community where they were taught the principles of the faith, still keeping their property and family ties. If they wished to continue they were moved to a junior order known as "family relation," still optionally retaining part or all of their property. When they were accepted into the senior order, a solemn signing of a covenant, setting aside oneself and all one owned to the Society.

In the 1800s, frontier revival fires drew Shaker evangelists westward. New communities were established in Ohio and Kentucky. Mother Ann predicted the opening of the western lands to Shaker evangelism, so when the revival news came, the Shakers took it as a sign from Mother Ann. One Presbyterian convert, Malcolm Worley, gave his 4,500 acre estate in Ohio to the Society, while in this same period the Society accepted Anna Middleton, a black woman and former slave. The Shakers accepted people regardless of sex or race and were among the first active proponents of abolition and women's rights. By 1823, there were 1,700 members, and by the time of the Civil War, 6,000 members lived in "families" from Maine to Kentucky. Shakers often cared for orphans in their communities. They were not necessarily expected to become Shakers, however.

Partly from necessity as well as principle, Shakers advocated the "simple living" principles of other plain people. They were known far and wide for their clean, functional style in household furnishings, dress, and industry. Everyone was required to learn a trade, often several trades. Every community was a beehive of activity. They were known for their high quality products, which included such things as: flat brooms, packaged seeds and herbs, dairy cattle, cabinets and other furniture, and patent medicines.

Inventions and improvements to save time and effort became Shaker hallmarks. Among their inventions were a machine for turning broom handles, making baskets, machines for filling seed bags, printing labels and bags, etc. They invented such things as a screw propeller, Babbitt metal, a rotary harrow, a turbine water wheel, a threshing machine, the circular saw, and a pea-sheller. The common clothes pin was a Shaker invention, as was the first one-horse wagon used in the United States, and the flat broom, among other things. They were constantly finding ways to do things more easily through their inventions, but with only a few exceptions, they patented none of their inventions.

Because of their reputation for honesty, their goods were readily sold to the world's people. Shaker practicality attracts many collectors to this day.

The basic teachings of the Shakers can be summarized as:

  • Community of interest
  • Celibacy
  • Non-resistance
  • Full equality of women
  • Direct guidance by the Holy Spirit in personal and groupworship
  • Perfectionist code of conduct
  • Mystic healing power
  • Punishment of the wicked is not eternal
  • Abandoned the doctrines of original sin and predestination
  • Discarded the practice and doctrines of baptism, communion, the Trinity, and the atonement
  • Replaced literal Bible interpretation with direct revelation
  • Chaste, honest, saintly living
  • Refusal to use tobacco or alcohol
  • Refused to practice war, politics, or corporal punishment

Shaker worship differed from most other groups. It was called "spiritual labor," distinguishing it from "temporal labor," or one's normal occupation. They did not like to draw too sharp a distinction between the two. Mother Ann told early Shakers, "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God." This became the Shaker motto.

At first, Shaker worship was somewhat disorganized -- a free form of all types of psychic and spiritual phenomena. Singing, dancing, speaking in unknown tongues, healings, and various miraculous events occurred. At times rolling on the ground, "the jerks," and "the barks" were part of these ecstatic experiences. In time, the dances became more stylized, hymns were written out and sung, messages from the spirit world were orderly, and some "gifts" were incorporated into regular worship.

The "gift of love" was practiced for some years, in which brethren and sisters embraced one another -- the sexes separately.

The gifts increased during periods of revivals. One such period in the mid-1800s became known as "Mother Ann's Work" and was particularly intense. Numerous messages were purportedly received from Mother Ann calling Shakers back to simplicity and purging laxity.

Despite all their evangelistic efforts, the honest reputation, and their enthusiasm, the order gradually declined as the Shakers entered the twentieth century. No doubt factors such as the economic expense of maintaining the order and the full impact of general industrial expansion played a large role in this. Their investment had been primarily in land. But with the rise in taxation on land and the failure to turn to large scale manufacturing, economic events resulted in gradual decline.

In addition, Shakers found themselves confronted with the changes in the society at large. It became more and more difficult to justify a way of life that, if practiced by all, would lead to the extinction of the human race. Shaker thinkers had answers, but the answers were no longer accepted as readily. By 1900, the number of Shakers had declined to about 1,000. Since then, the numerical decline continues. Over the years, various communities were abandoned with any remaining members moving to the remaining communities.

Shaker prophetic teachings include the hope that when the time is right, their message will enjoy a resurgence.

There is a photo album of Shaker Settlements on the Photos & Videos page.

Shaker Sites

The Dewdrops page includes an article and a photo album about the Shakers.