Shakers in Early American History

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Led by their founder Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers left a rich legacy in early 19th Century American culture through their religious beliefs, artifacts, and music.

In 1774 Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, led a small group of followers from England to the American colonies. Although she died in 1784, her movement endured and grew during the early nineteenth-century, leaving a rich legacy of music, artifacts, and a unique work ethic. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, as the movement was formally known, sought to experience what they called “authentic Christianity.” It was one of the largest Utopian communities in American history.

The Beginning of the Shaker Movement

Ann Lee was a factory worker in Manchester, England. After the deaths of her four infant children, she began to receive visions. Leading a movement out of the Quaker faith, her followers experienced intense physical demonstrations of personal spiritual emotionalism, earning them the name of “shaking Quakers” or “Shakers.” Unlike other faith traditions, Quakers saw women as fully equal in terms of worship and the sharing of faith. For Shaker believers, Mother Ann was a female prophet possessing extraordinary spiritual powers.

Shakers believed in celibacy. Historians and sociologists speculate that it was celibacy that contributed to the Shaker energy in other areas of their lives. Shaker communities separated male and female followers yet grew by taking in orphans as well as entire families. Orphans were loved and cared for within the Shaker community and upon reaching adulthood could decide to remain as permanent members of the community or go back into “the world.” Shakers were pacifists, even refusing to be drafted during the Civil War, until earning a reprieve from Abraham Lincoln.

Communal and apocalyptic, Shakers attracted members of other revivalist groups such as the Free Will Baptists and the New Light Baptists. Mother Ann taught that the Shakerism represented the link between what she called the “earthly space” and the “heavenly space.” Later Shakers, during the Panic of 1837, emphasized trances and visions, incorporating spiritualist elements, such as communication with those who had died.

Shaker Innovations and Folk Music

Within their over twenty enclaves, the Shakers established fully self-sufficient communities. Shaker communities were clean, simple, and designed for utility. Hard workers, the Shakers introduced innovations like the clothes pin, the flat broom, and the circular saw. They designed clothing fabric that was water resistant. Shaker furniture was simple yet carried certain elegance in line with the Shaker’s view of doing everything to the glory of God.

Perhaps the most enduring Shaker tune is “Simple Gifts,” popularized by Aaron Copland’s 1944 Appalachian Spring. The Shakers wrote thousands of songs, many coming out of their worship practices that featured ritual dancing. According to Edward Andrews, “the songs reflected in content the thought and aspiration of the whole group…In no other way…could the restrained Shaker spirit find such freedom of expression.”

Decline of the Shakers

As the United States entered into the Industrial era after the Civil War, Shaker communities began to decline. Factories produced mass products and people bought fewer Shaker hand-made products. Society in general rejected the type of communal living represented by the austere Shakers. In earlier years before the Civil War, particularly during the period of the Second Great Awakening and the Panic of 1837, desperate people seeking a deeper meaning to life had flocked to Utopian communities like the Shakers, but that had changed.

The Shakers sought to establish perfection in a world that was, by Shaker definition, imperfect. Shaker communities could not survive in a modern society that encroached upon their communities. Fewer converts and the greater inability to sustain their communities forced the closure of most of the communities. The Shaker legacy remains, however, as a rich part of American cultural, social, and religious history.

Sources:

  1. Edward Deming Andrews, The Gift to be Simple: Songs, Dances, and Rituals of the American Shakers (Dover Publications, 1940).
  2. Brian J. L. Berry, America’s Utopian Experiments: Communal Havens From Long-Wave Crises (Dartmouth College: University Press of New England, 1992).
  3. Doris Faber, The Perfect Life: The Shakers in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974).
  4. Richard Francis, Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers, The Woman Clothed With the Sun (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001).
  5. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1981).