Shakers

The common name of the celibate and communistic “United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing,” originating in the Quaker revivals of mid-eighteenth- century England. Mother Ann Lee* (d.1784) is generally considered the founder of the movement. Persecution, limited success, and a direct revelation led Mother Ann and seven followers to emigrate to New York in 1774. In 1787 the first Shaker settlement was established at New Lebanon, New York, which became the main base for the society's missionary enterprise in America. By the time Ann died, in spite of bitter opposition, there were growing numbers of Shakers in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. The movement spread in the wake of revivalism* on the American frontier throughout the first part of the nineteenth century. Shaker communities were established as far west as Kentucky and Indiana. The society reached its zenith in the decade before the American Civil War when there were some 6,000 members in eighteen different settlements. After the war, the order began a steady decline which has lasted to the present. In 1900 there were fewer than 1,000 members; by 1970 only a handful of Shakers remained in three small communities.

Shaker celibacy rested on a form of dualism imposed on the society by Ann Lee, who came to regard sexual intercourse as the cardinal sin. According to Ann, God was both male and female, as was Christ who appeared in Jesus as the male principle. In Mother Ann the female principle of Christ was manifested and in her the promise of the Second Coming was fulfilled. From that time on, for believers, the two sexes were to be equal but separate. The Millennium started with the official foundation of the United Society in 1787. A Shaker's faith began with confession of sin and included celibacy, common property, separation from the world, uniformity of dress, the healing gift, and unstructured freedom of expression in worship which often involved dancing, marching, laughing, barking, singing, and shaking. Today the Shakers are largely remembered for their unique form of worship, their legendary thrift and industry, and their high quality craftmanship, especially in the making of furniture.