The Shakers

Ohenewaa Larbi

The Shakers were idealistic and uncompromising people whose success eventually became their undoing. Shakers formed celibate and communistic communities with a lifestyle that was strictly controlled through a system of regulations implemented by Elders. Under such rigorous governance, Shaker communities evolved into highly ordered, productive, and efficient societies. These qualities attracted people to Shakerism, but, once they became Shakers, many of them found their lives too structured and controlled to bear. This led to the eventual decline of Shakerism. This paper explores Shakerism from its inception to the height of its popularity in the early to mid 19th centuries, and its eventual decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The story of the Shakers begins with a former Quaker couple by the name of James and Jane Wardley in South Lancashire (England) and the formation of the Wardley Group. Jane Wardley announced to her husband one day that she had received a message from God telling her to go about her town teaching the truth about the end of the world: that Christ was about to return, and that His Second Appearance would be in the form of a woman, as is written in the book of Psalms in the Bible. Her first convert was her husband. Together with a few people- including her husband and former Anglicans and Methodists- Jane Wardley formed the Wardley Group, popularly called the Shaking Quakers. The mode of worship of the Wardley Group was influenced by the French Prophets who were living in England at that time . These prophets, known as the Camisards in France, were persecuted Protestants who fled to England in the early 18th century to gain freedom of religious worship. Shaker worship began with a silence similar to Quaker worship, which progressed into dancing, shaking and shouting, at which point they believed the spirit of God possessed them. Bolton-on-the-Moors, the place where the Wardleys lived, was a poor town with a populace that, Jane believed, lived in moral decadence. She therefore went about urging men and women to be celibate in order to qualify to live in God's New Kingdom.

Ann Lee became a follower of the Wardleys in 1758 at the age of twenty-two years. She was born in 1736 in Manchester, in England. Her father was a blacksmith and her mother, a housewife. Ann was the second of eight children; she had five brothers and two sisters. The Lees were a poor family that lived in the slums of Manchester. The Lee children were taught to work instead of attending school, as was common with poor families in manufacturing towns. They worked in factories to earn money for the upkeep of the family. It is through this that Ann Lee acquired the habit of industry. Before joining the Wardley Group, she worked fourteen hours a day in a cotton factory preparing cotton for the looms and cutting velvet. Ann Lee joined the Wardley group because she was attracted by the teachings of Jane Wardley about sexual morality and celibacy.

Ann Lee had a complex with her sexuality, and sex in general. From an early age she was firmly against sexual relationships between men and women because she saw sex as a sinful act. She believed that celibacy was the only way to attain perfect spiritual saintliness. However, Ann's moral conviction did not win enough support from the people around her to strengthen her and enable her to pursue the holiness that she longed for. Her mother, who could have provided her with some support, died when she was still young, and her father was strongly opposed to her views. In spite of her moral convictions, Ann was forced by her father to marry Abraham Standley in 1762. Ann's marriage was fraught with problems; she had four children all of whom died, and she constantly felt remorse for having sex with her husband. Torn between her marital obligations and her desire to serve God with her whole life, Ann approached Jane Wardley for help. Jane Wardley advised her to live with her husband as brother and sister without any physical intimacy. Although Ann did as she was told, she continued to battle between what was she believed to be right and wrong. This made her seriously ill but eventually she regained her health. Ann believed that she had been reborn because she had finally overcome her problems about morality . She became actively involved in the Wardley Group and their message about celibacy.

The Wardley Group became the United Society of the Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing in the 1770s, with Ann Lee as their Leader. Police often raided the meetings of the Wardley group (which consisted of six to seven people) because their neighbors complained about their incessant loud church services. The members of the group were therefore often arrested and jailed for being a nuisance to the public. In 1773, Ann Lee was arrested for a similar offense in Manchester and her life took a dramatic turn during the time she spent in jail. According to her, while in prison, the Lord Jesus came into her cell and united with her in body and spirit. She therefore became the Female Christ whom Jane Wardley was preaching about. After her release, Ann Lee was raised to the rank of Mother, to replace Jane Wardley as the leader.

The Shakers moved to New England in 1774 and began to spread Shakerism in the eastern United States. In England, the Shaking Quakers faced a lot of persecution, which led to their eventual exodus to America. According to Mother Ann Lee, she had a vision one day in which she saw a large tree so bright that it shone like a huge torch. This, according to Mother Ann, represented the church that God wanted her to establish in America . The Shakers, eight in number, arrived in New York on 6th August 1774, just before the Civil War. They went separate ways for two years. Their first meeting was in September 1776 in Watervliet near Niskeyuna, about seven miles northwest of Albany. They settled in Watervliet and began to make farms and build houses. They worked very hard at building their new settlement, and they held regular meetings until their first testimony to the outside world in 1780. From 1781 to 1783, Mother Ann and some other Elders embarked on a missionary journey through the north eastern region of the United States. They visited many places including Harvard and Petersham, in Massachusetts, where they faced a lot of persecution. They eventually returned to Watervliet in 1783. Mother Ann died on September 8th, 1784 at the age of forty-eight. By the time of Mother Ann's death, Shakerism had spread through New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. This was certainly a very rapid spread and several reasons can be attributed to this.

Shakerism gained a large following in the late 18th century and the early half of the 19th century as result of the Shaker offer of an alternative lifestyle to the lifestyle and practices of the American society at that time. American society in this period was in transition . There was a disparity between moral ideals and the actual moral practices of the general populace. The trend in popular morality was towards non-reproductive sexuality . There were increased pornography, prostitution, abortions, birth control, and divorce. Corruption and deceit were also on a rapid rise. In public, old moral values were as the norm, but in private people ignored them and did whatever they pleased. This was all happening during the period of the Civil War, so many people were in distress about what was happening to their society. The problem was where to draw the line between right and wrong. Some people tried to ignore what was happening by simply going along with the societal changes. Others clung to their old moral beliefs and ideals, because they believed that the only way of remedying the situation was to return to old moral values.

The emergence of utopian communities in this period was an attempt to either return society to the way it was, or to offer an alternative "better" lifestyle. These communities chose the practices in society that they thought were pure, and practiced it. Most of the utopian communities of this period, such as the Mormons, the Oneida Perfectionists, and the Shakers, were based on different aspects of the sexual practices that were occurring in the American society in this period. In terms of sexuality, there were four alternatives to choose from. The first was total sexual freedom, which has never been totally accepted by any community. Monogamy was the second choice, and by far the most popular. Total rejection of sexuality (celibacy) was the third option, and the fourth choice was some form of regulated sexual behavior . The Shakers opted for total celibacy as the way to return the world to its former state and also to attain complete saintliness. The Oneidas and the Mormons, on the other hand, chose the fourth option of some form of sexual regulation as the true mode of worshipping God. Many of the people who still believed in moral ideals became disillusioned with life and sought a haven where they could continue to practice the ‘old morally decent' lifestyle that they longed for. Others were emotionally and physically tired of the Civil War, and they longed for a peaceful existence. Such people found such a safe haven in Shaker communities.

The Shakers were Millenialists, which accounts for their religious, social, and economic structure. Millenialists are people who believed that Christ's Second Coming has occurred, and that they are living as saints in God's Kingdom. As saints, the Shakers believed that one important quality they possessed was perfection, which, to them, was a dynamic process . Therefore, although they considered themselves to be free from sin, they were constantly perfecting themselves. The Shaker society was thus divided into three hierarchies. The lowest hierarchy was the Novitiate, with the least perfection. The next higher level of perfection was the Junior hierarchy. The Senior hierarchy had the highest perfection, and it is to this group that the Elders and Members of the Ministry belonged. A new member of a Shaker community could therefore move up in rank as he or she attained a higher perfection. The challenge, however, was how to ensure the highest possible standard of perfection for the whole community while preventing those of a lower perfection from having a negative influence on the more perfect people .

The answer to this problem was to have a social structure that was built on a system of rules and regulations for community living. The solution was to have complete segregation of the sexes (including children) to ensure that no lust was present between men and women. A highly authoritarian body of male and female Elders and Members of the Ministry governed each Shaker community. They believed if the sexes were not completely segregated, some people would be tempted to break their celibacy vows, and what they stood for would be destroyed. As a result, the segregation laws were strictly enforced. Men and women became brethren and sisters once they joined the Shaker community. This applied to married couples as well. Men and women were forbidden to have any form of physical contact with each other. They were forbidden to talk to each other in private, go out together, or visit each other. In Mount Lebanon (New York), for example, men and women had separate stairways . In communities where there were no separate stairways, men and women were not allowed to pass each other on the stairs. Although males and females shared the same living quarters, their sleeping areas were kept apart. The only times that men and women came in close contact was during worship and visiting meetings. (Visiting meetings were made up of about ten people, mostly women). Even in these situations they were forbidden to touch each other. Segregation was so strictly enforced that there was a system of informers who reported any one seen to be breaking the law. Offenders of the laws were excommunicated and usually expelled.

The Shakers were communists. As such, they had a highly organized society in which everyone did their part to make their system a viable one by working long hours. This social structure accounts for their economic prosperity. The first aim of Shakers in any kind of production was to supply their own needs . This was to make them self-supporting and independent of the outside world of non-believers. Mother Ann's advocacy for labor and her divine authority inspired her followers to establish a true Christian community that was able to sustain itself without assistance from the outside world. They manufactured many different kinds of things to ensure their independence from society. Their second aim was directly related to their belief in Millenialism and perfection. Since they were perfectionists living in God's Kingdom, everything that they did also had to be as perfect as possible. They were building God's Kingdom and they could in no way fill it with inferior quality items. They worshipped God through their handiwork. The Shakers did not make items or build houses for ornamental reasons. Everything that they made served a practical purpose. They built their houses to last, tended their farms and animals with the utmost care, made excellent quality furniture, and wore good quality, yet simple, clothes. When the Shakers had excess produce or products, they applied the same strict standards to the goods that they sold to the outside world. This was to ensure that the Shaker name was not disrespected in any way. This is the reason why they were reputed for excellent quality products.

The Shakers are credited with a long list of innovations and improvements. They invented the flat broom, the common clothespin, the metal pen, and the first packaged garden seeds. They also invented a threshing machine, a pea sheller, an apple parer and corer, a revolving oven, a wood-burning stove, and an improved washing machine. They produced their own flax, wool, and silk, which they spun and wove in their own factories. They also made water-repellent cloth and iron-free fabric. Some of their products were even exported to England, including baskets, confectionery, boxes, and pincushions. They invented a lot of machinery, much of which was ahead of their time. In the Shaker laundry and dairy at Canterbury (New Hampshire) in 1868, there was a stationary steam engine that washed, spun, dried, and ironed clothes. Very few of the Shaker inventions were ever patented. None-the-less, their products certainly had (and still have) a rare and lasting beauty to them.

Shakerism began to decline from the 1860s. In the 1860s there was an ideological challenge that threatened to change Shaker views on celibacy and to destroy the structure of the Shaker community . This outbreak of discontent was as a result of the advent of the Spiritualist Movement and their belief that there could be reconciliation between the physical world, which is the flesh, and the spiritual world, which is worshipping God. In 1864, a group of young believers at Mount Lebanon began to advocate for this union between flesh and spirit. However, the Shaker Leaders stood firm, bent on their resolve that it was impossible to reconcile the two and still maintain saintliness. At Hancock, Massachusetts, the Leaders were accused of being old-fashioned. As a result of similar uprisings across the eastern United States, there were many expulsions from Shaker communities in the 1860s. The number of apostates also grew. Others remained in the Shaker communities. However, some who stayed were unable to withstand the pressure of living in complete celibacy and constant perfection. As a result of a guilty conscience and a sense of failure they went insane, became demented or committed suicide. The 1830s and 1870s were the periods of highest suicide and insanity . Compared to the annual suicide rates for New England, the Shaker communities had a higher suicide rate. From 1833 to 1880, the annual suicide rate for Mt. Lebanon was 0.125/492, which is higher than the annual rate for New England in 1856 to 1880, which was 6.85/100,000 . More men attempted suicide than did women.

The Shakers lost their appeal for several reasons. Shakerism died down because some people could not survive under the stringent rules in Shaker communities. Also the number of people converting to Shakerism dwindled because the Civil War was over, and people in general had moved more towards an acceptance of the changes in society instead of dwelling on the past and trying to achieve a perfect society. The generation of people at the inception of Shakerism was dying, and the new generation did not have any first hand experience about life in the past to want to return to the way things were before their time. The fourth reason why Shakerism died down is due to the lack of procreation in Shaker communities. The Shakers had hoped to gain an eternally large following by conversion. This certainly failed. The only surviving Shaker community, made up of a handful of people, is in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

The qualities of Shaker communities that initially attracted a large following eventually repelled many people, leading to the decline in Shakerism. Many people who joined Shaker communities realized that life as a Shaker was not as peaceful and fulfilling as it had appeared at first. To be a Shaker was to forgo all freedom of choice and opinion, and live in complete celibacy in a community where there was no compromise between sexuality and spirituality. This was certainly a difficult life to lead, especially at a time when society was becoming more liberal in terms of personal choice and opinion.

The Shaker Communities

Watervliet, New York: 1787-1938
Mount Lebanon, New York: 1787-1947
Hancock, Massachusetts: 1790-1960
Harvard, Massachusetts: 1791-1918
Enfield, Connecticut: 1790-1917
Tyringham, Massachusetts: 1792-1875
Alfred, Maine: 1793-1932
Canterbury, New Hampshire: 1792 -?
Enfield, New Hampshire: 1793-1923
Sabbathday Lake, Maine: 1794-Present
Shirley, Massachusetts: 1793-1908
Gorham, Maine: 1808-1819
West Union (Busro), Indiana: 1810-1827
South Union, Kentucky: 1807-1922
Union Village, Ohio: 1806-1912
Watervliet, Ohio:1806-1910
Pleasant Hill, Kentucky: 1806-1910
Savoy, Massachusetts: 1817-1825
Whitewater, Ohio: 1824-1916
Sodus Bay, New York: 1826-1836
Groveland, New York: 1836-1895
North Union, Ohio: 1822-1889
Narcoossee, Florida: 1896-1911
White Oak, Georgia: 1896-1902

This page was last modified on Friday, April 12, 2002.