THE SHAKERS:A NINETEENTH-CENTURY GENIUS
In 1774 Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker sect, and eightfollowers, traveled from Manchester, England, to the New World in search of greater freedom of religious expression.She was herself strongly influenced by the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. In their early years this new collectiv-ity came to be called “Shaking Quakers,” a term derived fromcertain movements performed in their liturgy. This namewas later shortened to Shakers, although the sect is officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Ap-pearing. Like the Quakers, the Shakers were pacifists who avoid-ed politics, theater, strong drink and “vain amusements” of every sort. They wore simple clothing, spoke in simple terms, lived insimple surroundings. Their way of life was clearly the antith-esis of materialism. Today a single stone marks the graves of allat New Gloucester, Maine. On its face is inscribed ‘SHAKERS.”The earliest Shaker settlements were at Watervliet andLebanon, New York; Hancock and Harvard, Massachusetts; andEnfield, Connecticut. Later, as the number of converts grew, set-tlements were established in Maine and New Hampshire. By themiddle of the nineteenth century there was a total of nineteencommunities extending as far west as Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.Not unlike other sects of the periods, such as the OneidaCommunity in upstate New York, the Amana group of Iowa,and the idealists of New Harmony, Indiana, the Shakers envi-sioned a religious, political and social utopia. Celibacy, com-munal ownership of property, and a reverence for perfection inwork characterized their lives. It is all but impossible for us inthe 21st century to understand, let alone empathize with, thispervasive selflessness. Yet in this chapter of American history,Shakerism flourished, both spiritually and economically. TheShakers achieved a social order based upon equality, sharing,and personal anonymity. At the heart of the creed was Christ’sSecond Coming, for, as set down by Mother Ann Lee, Christwas ever present within the soul of each member and withinthe community per se. This presence is made manifest in allaspects of Shaker life, particularly in the products of theircraftsmanship. Her admonitions, “Put your hands to work and your hearts to God,” and “Do your work as though you had athousand years to live, and as if you were to die tomorrow,”
A classic Shaker ladderback rocker. This piece is in the collection atthe Pleasant Hill Shaker Village in Kentucky. Plans to build this type of chair can be found on page 154.
THE SHAKER STYLE