Early Years. The Shakers, formally called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, were a small but prominent religious order whose communitarian lifestyle and practice of celibacy drew both harsh criticism and extensive praise from nineteenth-century Americans. The group was founded in England in the early 1770s by a Quaker named Ann Lee, who concluded after several unsuccessful pregnancies that sexual intercourse was at the root of all sin. Lee and her small group of followers held meetings characterized by trembling, shaking, shouting, and singing, earning them the name "Shaking Quakers," or "Shakers." Faced with persecution in England, the Shakers immigrated to New York in 1774. They acquired some land near Albany, where they lived communally and practiced celibacy. They believed that Christ had returned to earth in spirit to begin the thousand years of peace and harmony known as the millennium. Christ's spirit would come to reside in all who lived in harmony and abstained from sin. Beginning in the 1790s, after Ann Lee's death, the Shakers began to make substantial progress in their efforts to convert others to their beliefs and way of life. Under the leadership of Lucy Wright and Joseph Meacham, the Shakers spread to the North and to the West, establishing nineteen communities between Maine and Indiana. By 1825 there were about six thousand people living in Shaker villages.
Communal Lifestyle. The Shakers were like many other Americans of the antebellum period in their desire to unite religious ideals with their vision of a perfect society. The society they developed, however, was quite distinctive and unusually successful. Shaker communities were made up of extended "families" of men, women, and children who lived together in large houses that were divided into male and female living quarters. Men and women worked and ate separately, and all goods and chores were shared equally. The children, who joined the communities either with their parents or as orphans, were raised communally. Each village was presided over by groups of elders, both male and female, who dealt with the outside world and carefully regulated both work and leisure within the community in an effort to keep people from tiring at any one task. These efforts must have succeeded, for Shaker fields and shops produced far more than was needed to sustain the community, and the surplus was sold to the outside world. Shaker villages became widely known for their industry and inventiveness, and simple, elegant furniture based on Shaker designs is still highly valued today. The group also made advances in herbal medicine, invented many common items such as the clothespin and the flat broom, and was the first to develop an extensive business selling packaged seeds.
Suspicion from Outside. While they had a prosperous and relatively harmonious relationship with the outside world in terms of business, the Shakers were also an object of intense suspicion because of their unusual beliefs and social arrangements. They had their own printing presses, from which they issued numerous books and tracts explaining their beliefs. These publications gained them some converts but also fed the fire of anti-Shaker sentiment that occasionally erupted into mob violence. Some people objected to the Shakers' communal economic arrangements or felt threatened by their economic success, but many more had strong objections to the practice of celibacy. On a practical level celibacy seemed a highly unusual practice for a religious group that clearly desired to increase its numbers--leading to accusations that the Shakers abducted children for this purpose. More important, celibacy was seen as inherently contrary to nature, God, and the sanctity of marriage. Traditional notions of the family were further threatened by the unusually prominent role of women in the church. In an age where most men and many women believed that women should remain in positions of deference, the Shakers (whose first leader and visionary was a woman) defied social norms by giving women equal authority in both spiritual and temporal affairs. Even more radical was their belief that God was both male and female, and that Ann Lee had been the feminine incarnation of Jesus.
Worship. To those who could accept the choices made by Shakers, the group became something of a marvel. Numerous foreign visitors, as well as such notable American tourists as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, visited Shaker villages and wrote accounts of their remarkable industry and prosperity, the apparent contentment of their members, and the well-tended appearance of their houses and gardens. Many were also fascinated by the distinctive character of Shaker worship. Indeed, this was probably the most important aspect of life for the Shakers themselves. Men and women participated together in highly emotional services that placed great importance on music and dancing. Hundreds of Shaker songs composed during the nineteenth century still survive. Speaking in tongues and falling into trances were also common in Shaker meetings. Between 1837 and 1847, in an early manifestation of the Spiritualist craze that overtook the nation after 1848, public séances became an important part of Shaker religious life. The mediums, who were usually adolescents or older women, conveyed messages from deceased members of the Shaker community, Native American "spirit guides," and historical figures ranging from Jesus to George Washington. Eventually, however, most of the mediums left the Shakers, and after 1850 Shaker membership in general began to decline rapidly. Nonetheless, on the whole the group was remarkable in its longevity and stands as one of the nation's most successful communitarian experiments. A small group of Shakers still exists today in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality. The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981);
Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).