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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.
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Render, Angela. “A Foot-Stomping, Toe-Tapping Culture”, Smithsonian


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