The Shakers: Origins, Beliefs, Influence

Celibate Millennialists Who Influenced American Culture

Religious Meeting of the Shakers
Shaker workshop service showing worshippers on benches and marching in a spiral.

Historical / Getty

The Shakers are a nearly-defunct religious organization whose formal name is the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. The group grew out of a branch of Quakerism founded in England in 1747 by Jane and James Wardley. Shakerism combined aspects of Quaker, French Camisard, and millennial beliefs and practices, along with the revelations of visionary Ann Lee (Mother Ann) who brought Shakerism to America. The Shakers were so-called because of their practices of shaking, dancing, whirling, and speaking, shouting, and singing in tongues.

Ann Lee and a small group of disciples came to America in 1774 and began proselytizing from their headquarters in Watervliet, New York. Within ten years, the movement was several thousand strong and growing, with communities built around the ideals of celibacy, equality of the sexes, pacifism, and millennialism (the belief that Christ had already returned to Earth in the form of Ann Lee). In addition to founding communities and worshipping, Shakers were known for their inventiveness and cultural contributions in the form of music and craftsmanship.

Key Takeaways: The Shakers

  • The Shakers were an outgrowth of English Quakerism.
  • The name came from a practice of shaking and trembling during worship.
  • Shakers believed that their leader, Mother Ann Lee, was the incarnation of the second coming of Christ; this made Shakers Millenialists.
  • Shakerism was at its height in the United States during the mid-1800s, but is no longer practiced.
  • Celibate Shaker communities in eight states developed model farms, invented new tools, and wrote hymns and music still popular today.
  • Simple, beautifully crafted Shaker furniture is still prized in the United States.

Origins

The first Shakers were members of the Wardley Society, a branch of Quakerism founded by James and Jane Wardley. The Wardley Society developed in the northwest of England in 1747 and was one of several similar groups that formed as a result of changes to Quaker practices. While the Quakers were moving toward silent meetings, the "Shaking Quakers" still chose to participate in trembling, shouting, singing, and other expressions of ecstatic spirituality.

Members of the Wardley Society believed that they were able to receive direct messages from God, and anticipated the second coming of Christ in the form of a woman. That expectation was fulfilled when, in 1770, a vision revealed Ann Lee, a member of the Society, as the second coming of Christ.

Shakers in New Lebanon
Shakers in New Lebanon, NY. Shakers are a Christian sect who believe in celibacy and communal living. Bettmann / Getty Images

Lee, along with other Shakers, had been imprisoned for their beliefs. In 1774, however, after being released from jail, she saw a vision which led her to embark on a journey to what would soon be the United States. At that time, she described her dedication to the principles of celibacy, pacifism, and simplicity:

I saw in vision the Lord Jesus in his kingdom and glory. He revealed to me the depth of man's loss, what it was, and the way of redemption therefrom. Then I was able to bear an open testimony against the sin that is the root of all evil, and I felt the power of God flow into my soul like a fountain of living water. From that day I have been able to take up a full cross against all the doleful works of the flesh.

Mother Ann, as she was now called, led her group to the town of Watervliet in what is now upstate New York. The Shakers were fortunate that revivalist movements were popular in New York at that time, and their message took root. Mother Ann, Elder Joseph Meacham, and Eldress Lucy Wright traveled and preached throughout the region, proselytizing and expanding their group through New York, New England, and westward to Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.

At its height, in 1826, Shakerism boasted 18 villages or communities in eight states. During a period of spiritual revivalism in the mid-1800s, the Shakers experienced the "Era of Manifestations" —a period during which community members had visions and spoke in tongues, revealing ideas which were made manifest through the words of Mother Ann and the works of Shakers' hands.

Buildings in a Shaker village
Buildings in a Shaker village in rural area. John Loengard / Getty Images

Shakers lived in social groups made up of celibate women and men living in dormitory-style housing. The groups held all property in common, and all Shakers put their faith and energies into the work of their hands. This, they felt, was a way of building the kingdom of God. Shaker communities were highly regarded for the quality and prosperity of their farms and for their ethical interactions with the larger community. They were also well known for their inventions, which included items such as the screw propeller, circular saw, and turbine waterwheel, as well as the clothespin. Shakers were and still are well-known for their beautiful, finely-crafted, simple furniture and their "gift drawings" which depicted visions of the Kingdom of God.

Over the next few decades, interest in Shakerism declined rapidly due, in large part, to their insistence on celibacy. By the start of the 20th century there were only 1,000 members, and, at the start of the 21st century, there were only a few remaining Shakers in a community in Maine.

Beliefs and Practices

Shakers are Millenialists who follow the teachings of the Bible and of Mother Ann Lee and leaders who came after her. Like several other religious groups in the United States, they live separately from "the world," yet interact with the general community through commerce.

Beliefs

Shakers believe that God is manifested in both male and female form; this belief comes from Genesis 1:27 which reads "So God created him; male and female he created them." The Shakers also believe in Mother Ann Lee’s revelations which tell them that we are now living in the Millenium as foretold in the New Testament (Revelations 20:1-6):

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

Based on this scripture, Shakers believe that Jesus was the first (male) resurrection while Ann Lee was the second (female) resurrection.

Principles

The principles of Shakerism are practical and were implemented in every Shaker community. They include:

  • Celibacy (based on the idea that original sin consists of sex even within marriage)
  • Gender equality
  • Communal ownership of goods
  • Confession of sins to Elders and Eldresses
  • Pacifism
  • Withdrawal from the "world" in Shaker-only communities

Practices

In addition to the principles and rules of daily life described above, Shakers conduct regular worship services in simple buildings similar to Quaker meeting houses. Initially, those services were filled with wild and emotional outbursts during which members sang or spoke in tongues, jerked, danced, or twitched. Later services were more orderly and included choreographed dances, songs, marches, and gestures.

'Shakers near Lebanon', c1870
'Shakers near Lebanon', c1870. Members of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Community, Lebanon Springs, New York State, 'dancing' at their meeting. Artist: Currier and Ives.  Print Collector / Getty Images

Era of Manifestations  

The Era of Manifestations was a period of time between 1837 and the mid-1840s during which Shakers and visitors to Shaker services experienced a series of visions and spirit visitations described as "Mother Ann's work" because they were believed to be sent by the Shaker founder herself. One such "manifestation" involved a vision of Mother Ann "leading the heavenly host through the village, three or four feet off the ground." Pocahontas appeared to a young girl, and many others began speaking in tongues and falling into trances.

News of these amazing events spread through the larger community and many attended Shaker worship to witness the manifestations for themselves. Shaker "gift drawings" of the next world became popular as well.

Initially, the Era of Manifestations led to an increase in the Shaker community. Some members, however, doubted the reality of the visions and were concerned about the influx of outsiders to Shaker communities. Rules of Shaker life were tightened up, and this led to an exodus of some members of the community.

Legacy and Impact 

Shakers and Shakerism had a profound impact on American culture, though today the religion is essentially defunct. Some of the practices and beliefs developed through Shakerism are still highly relevant today; among the most significant are egalitarianism between the sexes and careful management of land and resources.

Iron woodstove w. a ladder-backed wooden
Iron woodstove w. a ladder-backed wooden armchair in a restored Shaker parlor. John Loengard / Getty Images

Perhaps more significant than Shakers' long-term contribution to religion is their aesthetic, scientific, and cultural legacy.

Shaker songs had a major impact on American folk and spiritual music. "Tis a Gift to Be Simple," a Shaker song, is still sung across the United States and was reconceived as the equally popular "Lord of the Dance." Shaker inventions helped to expand American agriculture during the 1800s and continue to provide a basis for new innovations. And Shaker "style" furniture and home decor remain a staple of American furniture design.

Sources

  • “About the Shakers.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-shakers/about-the-shakers.
  • “A Brief History.” Hancock Shaker Village, hancockshakervillage.org/shakers/history/.
  • Blakemore, Erin. “There Are Only Two Shakers Left in the World.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 6 Jan. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/there-are-only-two-shakers-left-world-180961701/.
  • “History of the Shakers (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/articles/history-of-the-shakers.htm.
  • “Mother Ann's Work, or How a Lot of Embarrassing Ghosts Visited the Shakers.” New England Historical Society, 27 Dec. 2017, www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/mother-anns-work-lot-embarrassing-ghosts-visited-shakers/.