The Shakers: The Beginning and the Decline Introduction

Today when many people think of the Shakers, a well-made chair or cupboard comes to mind. The Shakers in American were truly excellent furniture craftsmen, known for their simplicity of design and functionality. Ironically, as the Shakers as a religious sect have all but disappeared, they have achieved a popularity that they never achieved at the height of their existence as a Christian sect. But the furniture designed and created by the Shakers were an expression of their faith. The Catholic monk and mystic wrote in 1966: The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it (Stein, 1992, p. xiii). More poignantly, a little over twenty years later, a surviving elderly Shaker named Mildred Barker from the last existing Shaker village said, “I almost expect to be remembered as a chair or a table”(Stein, 1992, p. xiii). It is a little odd to think that after 200 years of mockery and persecution, the Shakers have become fashionable because of their craftsmanship. At the same time, people today have come to think of them as having a char, in their piety that they did not actually possess. This paper will reveal the Shakers, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, as rather contentious people, fond of alcohol, with aggressive ways and means of bringing in new converts to their celibate sect. While there is much to admire in their industriousness and simplicity of life, there is also much popular myth and lore that would make them into something sentimental and more graceful than they ever were in reality.

The Beginning:
The Shakers, or Shaking Quakers, as they were originally called came out of Quakerism in England. The leader and founder of the early years of the Shakers was a young woman name Ann Lee or Ann Lees on her baptismal record. At some point, the ‘s’ at the end of Lees was dropped. She was born on February 29, 1736. Church records indicate that she was baptized at Manchester Cathedral on June 1, 1742. She was the oldest of eight children, born to John Lees, a blacksmith. Her mother’s name is unknown. As a young woman, Ann Lee worked in a cotton mill and for a time, she worked as a cook in an infirmary. Around the year 1758, when Ann Lee, was 22, she joined a small group of Quakers, who had split off from the Methodists, which met in members’ homes to worship. The group was lead by Jane and James Wardley, particularly by Jane who was called ‘Mother’. The group was Charismatic in nature and the members worshiped God by the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Quakers experienced unstructured, ecstatic worship of God. The early Quakers were known to be as aggressive in stating their beliefs as the Shakers came to be. They were frequently taken to court and thrown in jail for blasphemy. The courts of the time wanted to know if the Quakers and the Wardley believers believed that one or more of their members was the second Christ or if they were only overtaken by His living Spirit. Many believers did in fact believe that George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, was the second messiah. The Wardley group believed that that the Spirit of God could possess each believer. The Quakers were often beaten and imprisoned for their faith. By the time Ann Lee joined the Wardley fellowship, they

were already known as the Shaking Quakers for their literal body shaking during worship (Kirk, 1997, p. 11). By the time the Wardleys formed their own group in Bolton, near Manchester, England, the Quakers had settled into a more ordered form of worship with rather quiet worship services as they waited on God to speak to them. This reduced their original emotional spontaneity. For the Quakers and the Wardleys, the directness of God’s presence in individuals made priests or ministers unnecessary. Women were as important as men, sharing equality in leadership and teaching. However, the Wardley group continued to worship with fevered emotion and shaking, jerky movements as they believed the Spirit of God lead them. According to the first published Shaker theological statement, printed in 1790, the Second Coming of Christ had occurred in 1747, the year Jane and James Wardley separated from the Quakers. In January 1762, Ann Lee married Abraham Standerin, a blacksmith like her father. Both were unable to read or write and signed the marriage record with crosses. Ann Lee Standerin had four children, all of whom died in infancy. After the death of her fourth child, she became more involved with the Shakers as a source of consolation and comfort. According to Shaker tradition, she began to feel a sense of shame and judgement because of the loss of her children and came to the conclusion that copulation, even with one’s husband, was a sin in the eyes of God. She began to believe that only by mortifying her flesh could she truly serve God. It is said that during this period her…”flesh wasted away, and she became like a skeleton…. In this manner she was more or less exercised in soul and body for about nine years, during which the way of God, and the nature of his work, were gradually revealed….” (Kirk, 1997, p. 12).

Ann Lee was convinced that Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis in the Bible had been separated from God because of their physical joining and that cohabitation of the sexes was the source of evil. Jane Wardley shared Ann Lee’s views of celibacy but did not believe that it was necessary for all true believers. She told Lee, “James and I lodge together, but we do not touch each other any more than two babes. You may return home and do likewise” (Kirk, 1997, p.12). Not surprisingly, Ann Lee’s husband Abraham Standerin grew unhappy about his wife’s new celibacy in their marriage. He complained to the Wardleys but they urged restraint on him and elevated Ann’s status in the fellowship. From then on she was known as Mother Ann. While the Wardleys taught sexual restraint and confession of sins, Mother Ann insisted on celibacy and confession of sin to her, or to another member of the group whom she appointed. Interestingly, Ann Lee taught male supremacy over the female, as taught by St. Paul in I Corinthians 7:1-40 and Ephesians 5:22 in the New Testament of the Bible. However, by the time the Shakers came to America, they were accused of dividing families. But at this time, the arrests and fines for their radical beliefs became frequent. A series of local arrest records show Ann Lee’s heavy involvement with the small society already known as the Shakers in the 1770s. The Shakers proclaimed themselves the only true religion and condemned all others. Ann Lee had openly declared at this time in reference to her many visions and prophesies, “It is not I who speak, but Christ who dwells in me” (Pearson, Neal, 1974, p. 24). In 1772 and 1773 there were multiple Shaker arrests and Ann Lee and members of her family including her father, brothers and sister, were well known in the courts. The

Shakers, including Ann Lee, more than once invaded and interrupted other church services to vocally and violently attack them for their beliefs. Their tactics grew more and more confrontational with outsiders (Stein, 1992, pp. 4-5). External pressure was mounting on the society of Shakers. It is thought by some that the true reason Ann Lee and her followers came to the United States was because of the pressure from the authorities in England has become unendurable. The Shaking Quakers were known as pious radicals, fueled by hostility from their surrounding society, which in turn strengthened the small group among themselves. In any event, Manchester was no longer believed to be a fertile environment to enlist new converts, so they made the decision, reportedly as a direct prophecy of God to Ann Lee, to move to the New World. The Wardleys stayed behind in England.

The Shakers In America:
The small group of nine believers, which included Ann, her brother, William, her niece, Nancy, her husband Abraham, and a few others left England from Liverpool on the Mariah, headed by a Captain Smith, on May 19, 1774, arriving in New York City on August 6th. Ann Lee’s husband Abraham Standerin abandoned his wife soon after arriving in the United States. At this point, the group apparently scattered to find employment and adjust to their new environment and little record exists as to their activities for several years. It is believed that Ann Lee took work as a domestic for a time. Several went up to a place called Niskayuna (later renamed Waterlivet) near Albany. They began to clear the land and erect buildings. By 1776, the little group had begun

community life together again. Because this was the time of the American Revolution, and being British and pacifists, the Shakers kept a low profile. Shaker historians date the first public testimony of the society in the United States to May 19, 1780, the so-called “Dark Day” in New England. This was a day when the sun did not shine, apparently caused by smoke from fires used to clear farmlands, but the perception was that it had some connection between heavenly and affairs and was unnerving to the early Americans. Religious activity among the population, in general, increased. The Shakers gained a substantial number of converts from New Lebanon and the surrounding area. It is worth noting that these converts were the result of inquiries rather than by initiation on the part of the Shakers. From the time of the arrival in America in 1774, they had been content to retreat from the world, live in their own private communities, not actively seeking converts. In America, the Shakers envisioned a new, more perfect society. Their lives were dedicated to a life of perfection through farming, architecture, furniture and handicrafts. Their religious rituals were known and ridiculed by most people because of their shaking, dancing, shouting and singing. In “Testimonies of Mother Ann Lee and the Elders”, an early Shaker document, originally published in 1816, Mother Lee is quoted to a young Shaker woman, Zeruah Clark, Be faithful to keep the gospel; be neat and industrious; keep your family’s clothes clean and decent; see that your house is kept clean, and your victuals [food] is prepared in good order, that when the Brethren come in from their hard work they can bless you…

Later, in the same document, Mother Ann is quoted with a fairly well known quote, which became a sort of motto to the society of believers: Go home and put your hands to work, and your hearts to God; for if you are not faithful in the unrighteous mammon, how can you expect the true riches? (Testimonies of Mother Ann Lee and the Elders, 1816, chapter XXX, pages 207-210)

During one of her English imprisonments, Ann Lee had a revelation that she was the Second Coming of Christ, the vital component of the God the Father-Mother. Shakers contended that she had, “the fullness of the God Head” within her and called her the, “Queen of Heaven, Christ’s wife” (Stein, 1992, p. 16). As orderly as their everyday lives were, their meetings were seen by outsiders as ‘bedlam”. A Separate Baptist minister by the name of Valentine Rathbun from Pittsfield, Massachusetts spent time with the Shakers and was disgusted by what he witnessed. His visit took place approximately one week after the “Dark Day” of 1780. He was angered by the way the Shakers treated visitors or those who inquired into their beliefs. They met such persons, he wrote, “with many smiles, and seeming great gladness.” The society fed and entertained them with songs, with hospitality Rathbun saw as contrived. He wrote that the meetings, supposedly led by the Spirit of God were only commotion and bedlam. The noise of the night meetings, he maintained, could be heard from two miles away. He described strange activities such as hooting like owls, crowing like roosters, hissing, running naked through the woods. Rathbun also wrote about drunken brawls between

Ann Lee and her brother, William Lee, as well as the use of blasphemous language (Stein, 1992, pp. 16-17 & 51). In 1784, Ann Lee and her brother William Lee, another leader died. At this time, the Shakers had approximately 100 members throughout Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut. By 1787, the society was headed by American converts. By the mid-1800s, they reached their peak membership and popularity of nearly 6,000 members. It is believed that the Civil War ended the American fascination with utopian social experiments such as the Shakers and replaced it with an emphasis on class struggle in an increasingly industrial and urban society. Industrialization made Shaker crafts obsolete and created a society less interested in a way of life with an emphasis on celibacy and severe simplicity (“The Shakers”, 2001, p. 2). From this point forward due to the decline in attraction and the society’s inability to attract new converts, the communities steadily declined and disbanded. At one time, they had existed in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Main, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

The Shakers Today:
The last active Shaker community today is in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Many of the old villages are open to the public as museums, but Sabbathday Lake still has approximately 8 members living in community. Sabbathday Lake was founded in 1783 by a group of Shaker missionaries. In less than a year’s time, nearly 200 people had become a part of the community. Always referred to as, “the least of Mother’s children in the east”, it was one of the numerically smallest and poorest of the eastern Shaker communities (“Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village” Web site, 2002).

It would seem ironic that the smallest and poorest of the early Shaker communities would be the last one to survive. The community presently consists of eighteen buildings located on 1,800 acres of land. A tree farm, apple orchard, vegetable gardens, a commercial herb garden, hay fields, a flock of sheep and a variety of livestock are maintained. The Shakers’ occupations include basket making, weaving, printing and the manufacture of some woodenware. Here is the daily schedule:

7:30 am—The Great Bell on the dwelling house rings to summon all for breakfast. 8:00 am—Morning Prayers. Two Psalms which are read responsively, followed by two Bible readings, prayer, silent prayer, ending with a Shaker song. 8:30 am—Work begins. 11:30am—Mid-day Prayers. 12:00—Dinner, the main meal of the day. 1:00 pm—Work continues. 6:00 pm—Supper. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers believe that The Shaker is called to reveal by his life our Lord to the world, a world in which the will and purpose of God are largely forgotten. Sister Frances Carr, in her 70s, is a vibrant smiling woman who welcomes all visitors. All four brothers wear black trousers, white shirts, black vests. The four sisters, including Sister Frances, wear dark gowns, bodices modestly draped in hooded cloaks. Men and women still use separate entrances and sit apart from one another. Brother Arnold Hadd, in his 40s was 16 years of age and a Methodist when he wrote the Shakers with a question for a school project. “I was so impressed with the response that I started

corresponding” (Wolkomir, “Living a Tradition”, 2001). At age 21 he decided to become a Shaker. Brother Wayne Smith, also in his 40s, tends the community’s 50 sheep. He was raised a Baptist in Maine. He joined the community at age 17. But what of the future? The last Shakers feel that their way of life will continue in a world that is seeking simplicity of life. According to Stephen J. Stein, professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Frances Carr is not Ann Lee, nor does she aspire to be thought of as A founder. But she and the other youthful family members at Sabbathday Lake hold in their hands the future of the United Society of Believers. The world of Shaker, by contrast, lies beyond their control… The image of the Shakers seemingly belongs to anyone who wishes to use it. There is no longer any doubt that there will be Shakers in America for many years to come (Stein, 1992, p. 442).

If the passionate, younger believers at Sabbathday Lake, Maine are any indication, there is a possibility that there will always be a remnant of Shakers, at least for the foreseeable future. The early image of the Shakers with their emotional and noisy prayer meetings seems to be a thing of the past. What seems to be left is a group of gentle, soft-spoken and thoughtful people who believe that their chosen way is a good way, a way that honors their God. They do not believe that their way of life is an anachronism or that it can be easily dismissed. They believe that Shakerism has a message as valid today as when it was first expressed. Shakerism teachers that above all else, God is love and that their duty is to show God’s love in the world.

Brewer, Priscilla J. Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. University Hanover Press of New England, 1986. Burns, Deborah E. Shaker Cities of Peace, Love, and Union. University Press of New England, 1992. Harlan, Dominica. “New Religious Movements: The Shakers”, University of Virginia, 1998, http;// Kirk, John T. The Shaker World. Harry N. Abrams, Publishers, 1997. Pearson, Elmer R., Neal, Julia, & Whitehill, Walter Muir. The Shaker Image. New York Graphic Society, 1974. Render, Angela. “A Foot-Stomping, Toe-Tapping Culture”, Smithsonian Insitutuion, 2001. http;// Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. “About the Community”. http;// about.html. Shaker Shoppe Shaker History, “The Shakers”, 1998. http;// Stein, Stephen J. The Shaker Experience in America. Yale University Press, 1992. “Testimonies of Mother Ann Lee and the Elders”, 1816, http; SHAKER-MANUSCRIPTS/Testimonies/tstmnyx3.htm. Wolkomir, Richard & Joyce. “Living a Tradition”, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2001.

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