Shaker History

A Little About the Shakers

shaker dance

Shaker Marching Dance

Shaker History or to use their full name, The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, can be traced back to 17th century France and the Camisards.  These early French Calvinists flourished in the Cévennes Mountains, southern France and took their name from the Provence word “Camiso” for shirt.  Later, having lost their battle with the army of Louis XIV in 1706, some of the survivors, who came to be known as the French Prophets, were forced to flee to England.  This was to be a defining moment in Shaker History. These exiles continued to preach their beliefs, greatly influencing some groups of Quakers, or Society of Friends; founded by George Fox in 1652. Both the Camisards and Quakers believed that everyone could find God through personal experience, rather than through the the organised church. One such group, in Manchester England led by Jane and James Wardley, broke away from the Quakers to form their own group known both as the Wardley Society or Shaking Quakers. So named for their ecstatic form of worship, involving a marching dance where they would tremble and shake, with some falling into a trance. The Quakers themselves had a short time earlier decided to give up the

Ann Lee joined the society in 1758, becoming one of its most vocal proponents and was arrested on a number of occasions for disturbing the peace. She had visions during one such incarceration revealing how, through purity, mankind could find redemption. She made known these revelations to the society; then in 1770, probably as a direct result, was elected leader of the society, becoming known as “Mother Ann”.

Four years later and as a result of another vision, she left England for America, accompanied by seven followers. They arrived in New York on the 6th of August 1774. Their idea was to establish a communal utopian society, a popular idea at the time. Extolling the virtues of purity, pacifism, tolerance and equality of the sexes, they gained many enthusiastic followers, reaching a peak of membership in the early 19th century of around 6000. Unfortunately, Mother Ann Lee died in 1784, without seeing the culmination of her life’s work. The Shakers succeeded in building 19 communities in total and were without doubt the most successful of all the utopian experiments of the 19th century. Sadly, decline set in following the American Civil War and by 1900 there were only 1000 followers.


Tree of Light

* * Between 1781 and 1783 the Mother, with chosen elders, visited her followers in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. She died in Niskayuna, New York onSeptember 81784. James Whittaker was head of the Believers for three years. On his death he was succeeded by Joseph Meacham (1742–1796), who had been a Baptist minister in Enfield, Connecticut, and had, second only to Mother Ann, the spiritual gift of revelation. Under his rule and that of Lucy-Wright (1760 –1821), who shared the headship with him during his lifetime and then for twenty-five years ruled alone, the organization of the Shakers and, particularly, a rigidcommunalism (religious communism), began. By 1793 property had been made a “consecrated whole” in the different communities, but a “no communal order” also had been established, in which sympathizers with the principles of the Believers lived in families. The Shakers never forbade marriage, but refused to recognize it as a Christian institution since the second coming in the person of Mother Ann, and considered it less perfect than the celibate state.

Shaker communities in this period were established in 1790 at Hancock, West Pittsfield, Massachusetts; in 1791 at Harvard, Massachusetts; in 1792 at East Canterbury, New Hampshire (or Shaker Village); and in 1793 at Shirley, Massachusetts; at Enfield, Connecticut (then also known as Shaker Station); at Enfield, New Hampshire (or “Chosen Vale”); at Tyringham, Massachusetts, where the Society was afterwards abandoned, its members joining the communities in Hancock and Enfield; at New Gloucester, Maine (since 1890: “Sabbathday Lake”); and at Alfred, Maine, where, more than anywhere else among the Shakers, spiritualistic healing of the sick was practiced. In Kentucky and Ohio, Shakerism entered after the Cane Ridge, Kentucky revival of 1800–1801, and in 1805–1807 Shaker societies were founded at South Union, Logan County, Kentucky, and Pleasant Hill, KentuckyMercer County, Kentucky.* *                        * * Source

It is not generally know that the Shakers were the first global business. Their products were sold throughout the British and French empires, which at that time covered most of the world, and also in a number of other countries. Their products included not only furniture, but herbal medicines, seeds and supplies to the pharmaceutical industry. These products were sold through agents like  A.J. White Co. The Shakers were the first to sell packet seeds. Their wagons being a familiar sight travelling the countryside. They also sold seeds by mail order. At the height of their production they were the largest suppliers of herbs to the pharmaceutical industry, listing over 400 species on their inventory.

Today a number of former communities have been turned into museums. The last remaining community continues with a small number of followers at Sabbathday Lake Maine.

The lives of the Shakers’ were strictly ordered with a law covering every aspect of daily life. These were known as the millennial laws. They were, however, revised from time to time, reflecting the Shakers flexibility to a changing world. This was a necessity. Because of the Shaker adherence to celibacy, the survival of the movement depended on recruits from outside.

Luckily for us their striving for perfection on earth has left us with a lasting testament to their Industry, in the shape of their furniture. By striping away unnecessary ornament and condemning beauty for beauty’s sake, the Shakers contrived to produce some of the most beautiful furniture made. “All beauty that has no foundation in use soon grows distasteful and needs continuous replacement with something new.” By concentrating on form and function they were probably 150 years ahead of their time; the precursors to the modern movement.

Shaker barn, Hancock, Massachusetts


Links To Shaker Communities and ResorcesSabbathday Lake Shaker Village — New   Gloucester, Maine
Alfred Shaker Historic   District — Alfred, Maine
Enfield Shaker Historic District —   Enfield, New Hampshire
Canterbury Shaker Village —   Canterbury, New Hampshire
Harvard Shaker Village Historic   District — Harvard, Massachusetts
Shirley Shaker Village —   Shirley, Massachusetts
Hancock Shaker Village —   Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Tyringham Shaker Settlement   Historic District — Tyringham, Massachusetts
Enfield Shakers Historic District —   Enfield, Connecticut
Mount Lebanon Shaker Society —   New Lebanon, New York
Watervliet Shaker Historic   District — Albany, New York
North Union Shaker Site —   Cleveland, Ohio
Whitewater Shaker Settlement —   New Haven, Ohio
South Union Shakertown Historic   District — South Union, Kentucky
Shakertown at Pleasant Hill   Historic District — Harrodsburg, KY