By indexer
6 years ago

The Shakers

The Shaking Quakers, better known as Shakers, were a remarkable group of Christians that flourished in the United States during the late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries. Although their numbers were never all that large their name lives on mainly because of the artefacts they left behind them.

History of the Shakers

Although they are always thought of as an American religious sect, the Shakers had their origins in England. Their founder was Ann Lee, who was born in Manchester in 1742. She came from a very poor background and had to work in a factory. She sought solace in religion and joined a group that held meetings in which dancing and shouting in strange languages were encouraged.

Ann Lee fell out with this group over her belief that the root of all evil was lust, which was the real reason, according to her, why Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. She felt herself called to spread the word about the need for chastity, and became convinced that the American colonies would be the most receptive place for her message. She therefore left England for America in 1774, accompanied by her husband and a few followers.

It was not until 1780 that Ann Lee began her public ministry (at Niskeyuna near Albany, New York), but this was followed by a missionary journey through New England from 1781 to 1783. This led to the setting-up of a number of “Shaker villages” that were to become the nucleus of the sect. Ann Lee’s message about the value of hard work, meekness and simple living went down well with the Yankees in their newly freed states, but many were not so happy about the idea of enforced celibacy and this led to physical attacks on Shaker worshippers.

Ann Lee and her husband both died in 1784, but the movement was then led by James Whittaker, who was followed by Joseph Meacham. Whittaker stressed the need for communal ownership of property and Meacham developed the blueprint for gathering Shakers into communal villages. He was joined in the leadership by Lucy Wright, and this established a pattern within the villages of a male leader or official being matched by a female one.

There were originally eleven villages in the New England states, and the movement later spread westwards into Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

Shaker communities
Shakers were allowed to marry but could not have sexual relationships. They therefore lived in separate dormitory-like buildings and children were raised in their own groups rather than directly by their parents.

Although new recruits to the movement would have brought their children with them, no further babies were born. Shakers therefore adopted orphans from outside their communities, and this no doubt solved many problems for non-Shaker women who bore children out of wedlock.

Shaker communities were founded on hard work and sharing various labours, but they did not believe in drudgery for its own sake. Shakers were responsible for producing several labour-saving devices, including the circular saw and a washing machine.

They traded extensively with the outside world, becoming known not only for the quality of their work but for their honesty in business dealings. Shakers became particularly well known for their furniture, which was basic in design but well-made and comfortable. Many pieces have survived to the present day.

By removing the burden of child-bearing from their women, the latter were able to play a full part in the life of their community to the extent that the sexes were regarded as equal in all material respects. It was true that certain tasks were regarded as men’s work and others as women’s work, but this did not mean that men’s tasks, such as blacksmithing and cabinet-making, were seen as being more important than the women’s tasks of cooking and cleaning. They were different in kind, not in status.

This attitude to gender roles and the importance of dual leadership were grounded in the Shakers’ theological view that God was both male and female and all creation was based on that duality. Ann Lee, who was revered as “Mother Ann” was the female counterpart to the male Jesus.

The “shaking” of the Shakers continued to be an important feature of their worship meetings, in which the sober behaviour of the people in their day-to-day activities was replaced by dancing and shouting. However, at times during the 19th century the Shakers adopted a less exuberant form of worship, with choreographed dance movements and songs that were sung unaccompanied. They allowed non-Shaker visitors into these more restrained Sabbath meetings and drew large crowds.

The decline of the Shakers

The Shaker movement was not attuned to modern times and it eventually faded away, starting from the late 19th century. The ban on sexual intercourse not only made it impossible for Shakers to maintain their numbers unless they adopted orphans, but it also made their way of life less attractive to those orphans when they grew up and, to be blunt, realised what they were missing. Many of them left the villages at the first opportunity. The Shaker lifestyle was in any case unappealing to most outsiders and recruitment became increasingly rare.

There is, however, one Shaker village still in existence. This is Sabbathday Lake in Maine, where the last few Shakers live out their days and the village acts as a museum of Shakerism. Meanwhile, genuine Shaker furniture attracts very good prices at antiques sales across the world on the rare occasions that it comes on the market.
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soncee Good artikle ?
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Shavkat Nice article...
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annie07 Very nice article...
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RasmaSandra This was very interesting. I had heard of the Quakers but not the Shakers. Do these two groups differ greatly
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indexer @RasmaSandra As the article makes clear, the Shakers are of historical interest only. Traditional Quaker meetings are carried out in silence, with occasional "testimony" offered by members - very different from what the Shakers got up to!
6 years