In 1774, Ann Lee and eight other Shakers arrived on the shores of America. Who were the Shakers? Today, Dr. Stephen Nichols discusses this community of people, walking us through their beliefs and way of life.
Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. On this episode, we are talking about the Shakers. These days, the Shakers are likely more known as a furniture style. It’s a style that has very clean lines and minimalist, very simple design. And these Shaker communities in the United States actually funded themselves by producing this furniture. And so, the legacy of the Shakers has come down to us as a style of furniture. But Shaker furniture and design is not our subject on 5 Minutes in Church History.
So, who were these Shakers? The official name was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or the Millennial Church. They began in England as a splinter group within the Quakers, and they very much struggled in those early years. In the year 1774, Ann Lee, who would come to be known as Mother Ann Lee, and was sort of considered the founder, the originator, of the Shakers, she boarded a boat in Manchester, England, with eight others and crossed the Atlantic. Crossing the sea in that era was a very difficult thing, indeed. It was rough waters and rather rudimentary sailing.
They were all shook up, but eventually, they arrived. And they landed and moved westward to a wilderness area around Albany, New York, and there they carved out a new community. It did not go well in those early years. One historian has pointed out that these years, 1774 to 1776, coincided perfectly with all the foment that would result in the American Revolution. And this was a group fresh from Britain, so they were suspect, and apparently, they were consequently persecuted.
They also held to very peculiar beliefs. Like the Quakers, they believed they would get the spirit coming upon them who would give them a word of knowledge or a “revelation,” in air quotes there. And the spirit would also cause them to have ecstatic physical experiences, hence the Quakers, or in this case, the Shakers.
They also believed that God was the Father-Mother figure and that the two genders of male and female mirrored this. They believed in equality, a full equality of the genders, and so as the Shakers developed, women would be in significant roles of leadership alongside of men. They also believed in celibacy, and they further believed that you could reach perfection in this life, and they so ordered their communities and their lives accordingly. They worshiped together, singing hymns, and also doing group dances with rather sophisticated choreography. In their communities, they lived segregated lives. They grew by missions and evangelism, and they would also adopt children.
They peaked around the time of the second Great Awakening. Many of the revival converts would join them, and so by the end of the 1800s, there were 20 Shaker communities across the Atlantic Seaboard. New York was the epicenter, but a Shaker community existed all the way north in Maine, and there was one all the way down south in Florida. In Osceola County, 7,000 acres were purchased, and a small Shaker community was established in the year 1896.
Well, what happened to these Shakers? Industrialization meant that they could not really compete in the marketplace with their handcrafted goods and furniture, and so they lost a means to fund themselves and to provide for themselves. And as I mentioned, they peaked back in the 1820s and 1830s with the Great Awakening, and they slowly declined from thereafter, and there was very little interest in joining the Shakers.
As we move into the 20th century, we quickly have the decline of Shakers. You could say the Shakers have left the building. They are an example of any number of utopian communities, not only here in America, but also across the globe, that get a hold of an unorthodox teaching and then, sadly, orient everything around it. Church history is, sad to say, full of detours and also is full of dead ends, and so it is with this story of the Shakers and the Shaker experience in America.
Well that’s the Shakers, more than just producers of simple furniture. And I’m Steve Nichols and thanks for listening to 5 Minutes in Church History.