The Shakers, a Protestant religious denomination officially called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, originated in Manchester, England in 1772 under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee, who moved the nine-person group to New York in 1774.
The oral tradition of the Shakers, gathered at the death of Mother Ann Lee, insists on two dates for the origin of their movement: 1706, the coming of five "French prophets" to London, well recorded in historical sources as camisards from Cévennes in the south of France after a five-year war against the king of France, prophesying the end of times to gather English popular Puritans for the final Armageddon. The second one, 1747, is the first contact of Mother Ann Lee with James Wardley, a preacher who maintained in a small group the "possession by the spirit" of the French prophets. This oral tradition has not found written confirmation, but is consistent with the 18th-century history of English Protestantism, the relegation of popular Puritanism to small groups very reluctant to appear in public as did their Elizabethan ancestors.
The Shakers built 19 communal settlements that attracted some 200,000 converts over the next century. Strict believers in celibacy, Shakers maintained their numbers through conversion and adoption of orphans. Turnover was very high; the group reached maximum size of about 6,000 full members in 1850, but now has only four members left.
The Shakers of New England should not be confused with the religion of the Indian Shakers of the Pacific Northwest of North America. Only a few of the original Shaker buildings are still in use today.
Origin of the nameEdit
The name "Shakers," originally pejorative, was derived from the term "Shaking Quakers" and was applied as a mocking description of their rituals of trembling, shouting, dancing, shaking, singing, and glossolalia (speaking in strange and unknown languages). In 1747 Ann Lee pulled together nine of her followers from an English sect known as the Wardleys, founded by Jane and James Wardley, which she joined in 1758. They arrived on August 6, 1774 in New York City, and in 1776 the Shakers settled in Niskayuna, New York, where a unique communal life began to develop and thrive. Lee taught her followers that it is possible to attain perfect holiness. Like her predecessors the Wardleys, she taught that the demonstrations of shaking and trembling were caused by sin being purged from the body by the power of the Holy Spirit, purifying the worshipper. Distinctively the followers of Mother Ann came to believe that she embodied all the perfections of God in female form.
(Note : the Shaker community north of Albany was called by Shakers the Niskayuna community. The township they were in was then officially called Watervliet, although they bordered Niskayuna, the adjacent township to the northwest in Schnectady County. The township of Watervliet is now the township of Colonie, (since 1895). And the name Watervliet now limited to only the incorporated City of Watervliet, (1896). This has led to some confusion, but the best method is to use the name the Shakers used for their community, Niskayuna. It is also fairly common to refer to the members there as Niskayuna Shakers.)
First Shaker societyEdit
The village was divided into groups or "families" that were named for points on the compass rose. Each house was divided so that men and women did everything separately. They used different staircases and doors, and sat on opposite sides of the room.
A spiritualistic revival in New Lebanon, some forty miles away, sent many penitents to Niskayuna, who accepted Mother Ann's teachings and organized in 1787 (before any formal organization in Niskayuna) the New Lebanon Society, the first Shaker Society, at New Lebanon (since 1861 called Mt. Lebanon), Columbia County, New York. The Society at Niskayuna, organized immediately afterwards, and the New Lebanon Society formed a bishopric. The Niskayuna Shakers, as pacifists and non-jurors, had got into trouble during the American War of Independence; in 1780 the Board of Elders were imprisoned, but all except Mother Ann rose were speedily set free, and she was released in 1781.
Communalism under Joseph MeachamEdit
Between 1781 and 1783 the Mother, with chosen elders, visited her followers in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. She died in Niskayuna, New York on September 8, 1784. James Whittaker was head of the Believers for three years. On his death he was succeeded by Joseph Meacham (1742–1796), who had been a Baptist minister in Enfield, Connecticut, and had, second only to Mother Ann, the spiritual gift of revelation. Under his rule and that of Lucy Wright (1760–1821), who shared the headship with him during his lifetime and then for twenty-five years ruled alone, the organization of the Shakers and, particularly, a rigid communalism (religious communism), began. By 1793 property had been made a "consecrated whole" in the different communities, but a "noncommunal order" also had been established, in which sympathizers with the principles of the Believers lived in families. The Shakers never forbade marriage, but refused to recognize it as a Christian institution since the second coming in the person of Mother Ann, and considered it less perfect than the celibate state.
Shaker communities in this period were established in 1790 at Hancock, West Shaker Village); and in 1793 at revival of 1800–1801, and in 1805–1807 Shaker societies were founded at South Union, Logan County, Kentucky, and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, Mercer County, Kentucky.
Expansion and contractionEdit
A prominent part in this revival had been taken by Arminian tendencies and had established the quasi-independent Turtle Creek Church. McNemar was won by Shaker missionaries in 1805, and many of his parishioners joined him to form the Union Village community in Lebanon. McNemar was a favorite of Lucy Wright, who gave him the spiritual name Eleazer Riotht, which he changed to Eleazer Wright; he wrote The Kentucky Revival (Cincinnati, 1807), probably the earliest defense of Shakerism, and a poem, entitled A Concise Answer to the General Inquiry Who or What are the Shakers (1808).
In 1811 a community settled at Busro on the Wabash in Canaan, was merged into the communities in Mount Lebanon (in New Lebanon) and Enfield, Connecticut.
The peak was probably reached between 1830 and 1850 at about 6,000 members. The numerical strength of the sect decreased rapidly, probably from 4,000 to 1,000 from 1887 to 1908, and there has been little effort made to plant new communities. The Mt. Lebanon Society in 1894 established a colony at Narcoossee, Florida; the attempt of the Union Village Society in 1898 to plant a settlement at White Oak, Georgia, was unsuccessful. In 1910 the Union Village Society went into the hands of a receiver.
At various times, the Shakers had eighteen major communities in eight states and six smaller communities in Florida and Indiana. The city of Shaker Heights, Ohio, population 29,000, a suburb of Cleveland, was originally a Shaker settlement.
The lands of the Niskayuna settlement are now the site of the Albany International Airport, and one house and a small cemetery with Ann Lee's grave remain adjacent to the airport as a historic site. Much of the Mt. Lebanon community is now a private boarding school, yet retains much of its original beauty. There is a small museum on the site. The Hancock Shaker Village just across the Massacchusetts state line is a museum of Shaker arts. The Enfield, New Hampshire site is now a Catholic convent.
Today there are but a handful of Shakers remaining, all living at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
Communal spiritual familyEdit
The Shakers did not believe in procreation so therefore had to adopt a child if they wanted one. Another way they could expand their community's population was to allow converts into the Shaker society to live and function as one. When Shaker boys reached the age of twenty-one, they were given the choice to leave the Shaker religion and go their own separate way or to continue on as a Shaker. The Shakers lived in "families" sharing a large house with separate entrances for each family within the "family"; thus the families were exclusively male or female — the sexes were segregated into separate living areas.
Revelations and visionsEdit
A peculiar, intense kind of spirituality began to develop under this unique arrangement. A period of spiritual manifestations among the Believers began in 1837 and lasted through 1847. Children told of visits to cities in the spirit realm and brought messages to the community which they received from Mother Ann. In 1838 the gift of tongues was manifested and sacred places were set aside in each community, with names like Holy Mount; but in 1847 the spirits, after warning, left the Believers. The theology of the denomination is based on the idea of the dualism of God: the creation of man as male and female "in our image" showing the dual sexuality of the Creator; in Jesus, born of a woman, the son of a Jewish carpenter, were the male manifestation of Christ and the first Christian Church; and in Mother Ann, daughter of an English blacksmith, were the female manifestation of Christ and the second Christian Church — she was the Bride ready for the Bridegroom, and in her the promises of the Second Coming were fulfilled. Adam's sin was in sexual impurity; marriage is done away with in the body of the Believers in the Second Appearance, who must pattern after the Kingdom in which there is no marriage or giving in marriage. The four virtues are virgin purity; Christian communism; confession of sin, without which none can become Believers; and separation from the world. Their insistence on the dual sexuality of God and their reverence for Mother Ann have made them advocates of sex equality. Their spiritual directors are elders and "eldresses," and their temporal guides are deacons and deaconesses in equal numbers.
Culture of work and further extremitiesEdit
The prescribed uniform costume with woman's neckerchief and cap, and the custom of men wearing their hair long on the neck and cut in a straight bang on the forehead, still persist; but the women wear different colors. The communism of the Believers was an economic success, and their cleanliness, honesty and frugality received the highest praise. They made leather in New York for several years, but in selling herbs and garden seeds, in making apple-sauce (at Shirley), in weaving linen (at Alfred), and in knitting underwear they did better work.
- "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."
Shakers were known for a style of furniture, known as US$100,000.
Shakers worshipped in plain meetinghouses where they marched, sang songs, danced, twitched and shouted. Many outsiders who witnessed Shaker worship services considered them heretics and protested in front of their places of worship. Mother Ann was arrested several times for disturbing the peace. Early Shaker worship services were unstructured, loud, chaotic and emotional. However, later on, Shakers developed precision dances and orderly rituals. The Shakers have also written thousands of religious songs.
The meeting-houses were painted white and unadorned, with shutters and carvings eschewed as worldly things. The Shakers believed in the value of hard work and kept comfortably busy. Each member learned a craft and did chores. Mother Ann said, "Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling."
Culture and artifactsEdit
Shaker beliefs have generated a unique culture and ways of life that have enriched the cultural history of the United States as well as subsequently inspired many modern fields.
One of the major attributes of the Shakers was to build. This combined with their dedication to hard work and perfection has resulted in a unique range of architecture, furniture and handicraft styles. They relied on their own skills and natural resources for all these as well as for providing for their family. Shakers designed their furniture with care, believing that making something well was in itself, "an act of prayer." They never fashioned items with elaborate details or extra decorations, but only made things for their intended uses. The ladder-back chair was a popular piece of furniture. Shaker craftsmen made most things out of pine or other inexpensive woods and hence their furniture was light in color and weight. Shaker interior spaces are characterized by an austerity and simplicity. For example, they had a continuous wooden device like a pelmet with hooks running all along the lintel level from which they hung the very light furniture pieces such as chairs when not in use. The simple, honest architecture of their homes, meeting houses, and barns have had a lasting influence on American architecture and design. There is a collection of furniture and utensils at Hancock Shaker Village (outside of Pittsfield, Massachusetts) that is famous for its elegance and practicality.
Shakers won respect and admiration for their productive farms and orderly communities. Their industry brought about many inventions like the screw propeller, Babbitt metal, the rotary harrow, the circular saw, the clothespin, the flat broom and the wheel-driven washing machine. They were once the largest producers of medicinal herbs in the United States, and pioneers in the sale of seeds in paper packets. Shaker dances and songs are a main, but largely unrecognized, aspect of folk art.
Shaker ways influenced many people to write books and adopt ways of life from Shakers. By the middle of the twentieth century, as the Shaker communities themselves were disappearing, some American collectors whose visual tastes were formed by the stark aspects of the modernist movement found themselves drawn to the spare artifacts of Shaker culture, in which "form follows function" was also clearly expressed. Kaare Klint, an architect and famous furniture designer, used styles from Shaker furniture in his work. Another example is Doris Humphrey, an innovator in technique, choreography, and theory of dance movement. She made a full theatrical art with her dance entitled Dance of The Chosen Ones in which the nature of the Shakers' religious fervor was depicted.
The Shakers considered music to be an essential component of the religious experience, and created some of the most tuneful, idiosyncratic, and utterly singable music in American history. In Shaker society, a spiritual "gift" could also be a musical revelation, and they considered it to be important to record musical inspirations as they occurred. Scribes, many of whom had no formal musical training, used a form of music notation for this purpose: it used letters of the alphabet, often not positioned on a staff, along with a simple notation of conventional rhythmic values. This method has a curious, and coincidental, similarity to some ancient Greek music notation.
Many of the lyrics to Shaker tunes consist of syllables and words from unknown tongues, the musical equivalent of glossolalia. Many of them were imitated from the sounds of Native American languages, as well as from the songs of African slaves, especially in the southernmost of the Shaker communities.
The most famous Shaker song is Lord of the Dance," adapted in 1963 by English poet and songwriter Sydney Carter.
The Shakers composed thousands of songs, and created also many dances; both were an important part of the Shaker worship services. Some scholars, such as Daniel W. Patterson and Roger L. Hall, have compiled books of these songs, and groups have been formed to sing the songs and perform the dances. There are recordings available of Shaker songs, both documentation of singing by the Shakers themselves, as well as songs recorded by other groups .
Membership in the Shakers dwindled in the late 1800s for several reasons. People were attracted to cities and away from the farms. Shaker products could not compete with mass-produced products that became available at a much lower cost. Shakers could not have children, and although they did adopt up until the states gained control of adoption homes, this was not a major source of new members. Some Shaker settlements, such as Pleasant Hill community in Kentucky, and Canterbury, New Hampshire, the latter of which died with its last member, Ethel Hudson, in September 1992, have become museums.
Believers have continually looked at the story of Ann Lee as a cornerstone of the theological architecture that has distinguished their church from other American religious groups. Shaker theology, its manifestation in material artifacts such as furniture and oval boxes, and the Ann Lee story have continually drawn the attention of outsiders either fascinated or repulsed by them. The Shaker practices of Brandon Handelman have also become the standard for the modern day Shaker.
Although there were six thousand believers at the peak of the Shaker movement, there were only twelve Shakers left by 1920. In the United States there is one remaining active Shaker community, at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, which as of 2006 has four members. The Sabbathday Lake community still accepts new recruits, as it has since its founding. Shakers are no longer allowed to adopt orphan children after new laws were passed in 1960 denying control of adoption to religious groups, but adults who wish to embrace Shaker life are welcome. This community, founded in 1783, was one of the smaller and more isolated Shaker communities during the sect's heyday. They farm and practise a variety of handicrafts; a Shaker Museum, and Sunday services are open to visitors. Now Mother Ann Day is celebrated on the first Sunday of August. The people sing and dance and a Mother Ann cake is presented. There is a legend that one of Mother Ann's predictions states that there will be a revival when there are only five Shakers left. However, there is no evidence to suggest Mother Ann stated this. The daily schedule of a Shaker in Sabbathday Lake Village is as follows:
- The day will begin for many at 7:30 a.m., the Great Bell on Dwelling House rings calling every one to breakfast.
- At 8:00 a.m. Morning Prayers will start. They may read two Psalms and then read from the Bible. This will be followed by Prayer and silent prayer, concluded with the singing of a Shaker hymn.
- Work for the Shakers begins at 8:30.
- Work is interrupted at 11:30 for Mid-day prayers.
- Dinner begins at 12:00. This is the main meal for the Shakers.
- Work will continue at 1:00 p.m.
- At 6:00 it is supper time, the last meal of the day.
- On Wednesdays at 5:00 p.m. they hold a prayer meeting which is followed by a Shakers Studies class.
To preserve their legacy as well as their idyllic, lakeside property at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, the Shakers announced in October 2005 that they had entered into a trust with the state of Maine and several conservation groups. Under the agreement, the Shakers will sell conservation easements to the trust, allowing the village to ward off development and continue operating as long as there are Shakers to live there.
The agreement does not specify whether the property will become a park, museum or other public space should the Shakers die out. That decision would be made by a nonprofit corporation—the United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake Inc.—whose board members are largely non-Shakers. The $3.7 million conservation plan relies on grants, donations and public funds.
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