The Shakers (the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing) are a religious sect that began as an off-shoot of Protestantism in England in the mid-1700s. Escaping persecution, the Shaker's founder, Mother Ann Lee, and eight followers immigrated to the United States in 1774 and settled in Watervliet, New York, north of Albany. Although not free from persecution in the New World either, Mother Lee was able to attract loyal followers who spread the gospel in New England, the Midwest, and the South. At its height in the mid-1800s, Shakerism numbered over five thousand "brothers and sisters" living in some eighteen communities, or "societies," in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida.
Since that time Shakerism has steadily declined, and today there are only twelve Shakers left, residing at the two communities in Canterbury, New Hampshire, and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Although the Shakers have largely disappeared, the Shaker way of life remains part of the American scene, primarily through Shaker museums, restored Shaker communities open to tourists, Shaker manufactures such as chairs and oval boxes which command prices of over $100,000 in the antiquities market, and Shaker songs such as "The Gift to Be Simple."
Shaker life is centered on a number of core beliefs and values, including a belief in the second coming of Christ, communal living, celibacy, humility, simplicity, efficiency, hard work, and equality between the sexes. Behaving in accordance with these values is seen as the route to salvation. Although outsiders often attribute the decline of Shakerism to celibacy, the Shakers themselves argued that most people who experimented with Shakerism left the communities Because of difficulty in putting aside self-interest for the Community's interest.
Although Shakers lived in their own communities in the form of large farms with multiple buildings and considerable acreage, did not vote, and were pacifists, they did not live totally outside mainstream society. In fact, Shakers were often the first in their region to use electricity and telephones, often owned cars, trucks, and tractors for community use, and today use televisions, computers, and other modern conveniences. Most important, celibacy required that all new Shakers had to be recruited from the outside world. The Shakers were open to all those interested including American Indians, Jews, and especially orphaned children, although few actually signed the covenant required for a lifelong commitment to Shakerism.
Shaker communities were large self-sufficient farms with a variety of cottage industries such as furniture making, metalworking, seed packaging, basketry, broom making, and weaving. The products of these endeavors were both used within the community and sold to outsiders. Some, such as the sale of seeds in packages, a Shaker innovation, were highly successful. In all their work, simplicity and efficiency were the guiding principles. The Shakers invented a number of objects still in use, including the circular saw, brimstone match, flat broom, and the revolving oven. Although equality between the sexes was stressed, the actual day-to-day work of the communities was divided on traditional sexual lines. Men usually did most of the outside work and heavy manufacturing, and women were responsible for domestic work, cooking, and traditional female work such as cloth making and weaving. As the number of male Shakers decreased over time, female manufactures began to be a major source of income.
At its height with some eighteen active societies, over 100,000 acres of land, and thousands of members, the Shakers constituted a multistate corporation. Central authority rested with the two elders and two elderesses at the New Lebanon society, east of Albany in New York, with the head elder or elderess the official head. Elders appointed their successors. Each Shaker society was governed by two elders and two elderesses assisted by deacons, who managed the day-to-day operation of the society, and trustees, who dealt with the outside world and were essentially the financial managers. Within the communities, the Shakers were divided into Families of about one hundred persons each, who lived and worked separately from other families and with strict sexual segregation within the families. Despite the fairly rigid social structure, authoritarian rule was the exception; social cohesion was mostly the result of a shared commitment to Shaker values and beliefs. All property was owned communally, and new members were required to turn over all personal property to the society upon signing the covenant. This was a major source of the large acreage owned by the Shakers, but also the cause of a number of lawsuits by former members and heirs of deceased members. These suits were nearly always decided in favor of the Shakers.
Shaker religious beliefs are essentially fundamental Christianity, although there are some clearly unique beliefs that deviate from the main branches of Christianity and other sects. The Shakers reject the Trinity; instead they believe in a God made up of female and male elements reflected both in the supernatural and the real worlds. The requirement of celibacy is based on the belief that sin arose from Adam and Eve's sexual behavior in the Garden of Eden, although they do not feel that non-Shakers who marry and have sexual relations are sinners. The Shakers were also strong believers in active, direct communication with the deceased, but this practice apparently declined over the years.
Perhaps the feature of Shaker life that has drawn the most attention was their religious services. The services tended to be long, drawn-out events performed by the Shakers, but often with many non-Shaker observers. During the height of Shakerism in the mid-1800s, these services were ecstatic experiences for the participants, involving hand clapping, dancing, singing, stomping, shaking, jumping, shouting, having visions, and speaking in tongues. Some social scientists suggest that these services provided an emotional outlet for the Shakers who otherwise lived an austere life. As Shakerism declined, so too did the fervor of the services.
Hopple, Lee C. (1989-90). "A Religious and Geographical History of The Shakers, 1747-1988." Pennsylvania Folklife 39:57-72.
Kephart, William M. (1987). Extraordinary Groups. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Purcell, L. Edward (1988). The Shakers. New York: Crescent Books.
Richmond, Mary L. (1977). Shaker Literature: A Bibliography. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England.