Who were the Shakers, and why do they hold such continuing interest for us today, more than a century after their flourishing?
In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, they fled the "World" to create communities of Heaven on Earth in the American countryside, and yet, thanks to their enterprise, they were among the most "worldly" of the many American Utopian societies.
In a time of rigid patriarchy, the domination of men over women, they practiced a near-revolutionary equality of shared power and authority within their communities--and their worship.
In a time of exuberant ostentation--the Victorian period--they produced deliberately unostentatious architecture and furniture and useful smallware like baskets and oval boxes, elegantly simple, appearing to the modern eye as fresh and appealing as the day they were made.
The sect has for all practical purposes died out, and yet the popularity of "Shaker"--their goods if not their lifestyle--has never been greater. Their furniture and artifacts sometimes bring astronomical prices at auction; their minimalist style is widely copied; even their forward-looking policies of adopting both orphan children and the newest technology of their era make them seem oddly, satisfyingly "modern."
Because they danced and sang during their religious worship, they were called "Shaking Quakers" in their native Manchester, England--the dark, brutal epicenter of England's Industrial Revolution. Their ecstatic movements and singing were meant to drive out the "evil" in them. Soon they became notorious; their name was shortened to "Shakers." Their leader was one Ann Lee, an impoverished, illiterate cotton operative in the Manchester factories. In the 1740's, married, having borne four children and watched them all die, Lee became a Shaker. When she proclaimed herself the Second Coming of Christ, she was accepted as their leader. With a small band of followers, she emigrated to America in 1774, on the eve of the Revolution.
The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, as the Shakers were formally known, was a breakaway Christian sect whose members believed in a simple life, communitarian values, confession of sins, pacifism, spiritualism--and celibacy. Most important, they believed in the dual nature of the Deity--male and female--and in equality of the sexes on earth. Their numbers grew, therefore, by conversions and by their practice of adopting orphans; when the adopted children reached the age of 21, they were free to leave if they chose.
After the Revolution, the Shakers settled in small communities throughout New England and into the Western Reserve, Ohio and Kentucky. They became known for their honest business dealings, their inventiveness, and the high quality of the goods they made for sale: chairs and chests of drawers, clocks, oval boxes. They made numerous inventions and innovations, including the flat broom, the circular saw, the packaging of seeds, the clothespin, and the rocking chair. At the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, the Shaker slat-back chair took first prize for design--a design which they patented.
As "Mother Ann" said, "Hands to Work and Hearts to God" gave the Shakers, for a time, a hope of success. After the Civil War, however, their way of life became increasingly unacceptable to the growing industrial nation that was the United States of America--a place where private property, individualism, urbanization, and the promise of family life far outweighed the attractions of celibate, communal life in some remote rural area.
They remain in the work that they did. The Shaker legacy can be seen today in the museums that have grown up where once hundreds of Shakers lived and worshiped and worked. From time to time, Shaker goods are offered at auction. There are four Shakers alive in the world. They live in the once-thriving Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
Edward Deming Andrews. The People Called Shakers
Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews. Masterpieces of Shaker Furniture
Adam Gopnik. "Shining Tree of Life: What the Shakers Did."
The New Yorker, February 13 and 20, 2006
John T. Kirk. The Shaker World: Art, Life, Belief
June Sprigg. Shaker Design
Stephen J. Stein. The Shaker Experience in America
Canterbury Shaker Village. http://shakers.org
Enfield Shaker Museum. www.shakermuseum.org
Fuitlands Museums. www.fruitlands.org
Hancock Shaker Village. www.hancockshakervillage.org
Mt.Lebanon Shaker Village. http://mountlebanonshakervillage.org
Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village (The United Society of Shakers)
Shaker Museum and Library. www.shakermuseumandlibrary.org
Shirley Shaker Village. http://www.shirleyhistory.org/shaker.htm
The Shaker Museum at South Union. www.shakermuseum.com
Shaker Historic Trail. http://www.cr.nps.gov