1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Shakers

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SHAKERS, an American celibate and communistic sect, officially called “The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing” or “The Millennial Church.”[1] The early Quakers were sometimes called Shakers, and the name, or its variant, Shaking Quakers, was applied in the early 18th century to a Manchester offshoot of the English Quakers, who, led by James and Ann Wardley, accepted the peculiar doctrines of the French Prophets, or Camisards, of Vivarais and Dauphiné.[2] The Wardleys were succeeded by the real founder of Shakerism, Ann Lee (1736-1784), the daughter of a Manchester blacksmith. Although a believer in celibacy, she had at her parents' urging married one Abraham Stanley (Standley, or Standerin); had borne him four children, who died in infancy; had joined the Wardleys in 1758; and had influenced their followers to preach more publicly the imminent second coming and to attack sin more boldly and unconventionally. She was frequently imprisoned for breaking the Sabbath by dancing and shouting, and for blasphemy; had many “miraculous” escapes from death; and once, according to her story, being examined by four clergymen of the Established Church, spoke to them for four hours in seventy-two tongues. While in prison in Manchester for fourteen days, she said she had a revelation that “a complete cross against the lusts of generation, added to a full and explicit confession, before witnesses, of all the sins committed under its influence, was the only possible remedy and means of salvation.” After this, probably in 1770, she was chosen by the society as “Mother in spiritual things” and called herself “Ann, the Word.” In 1774 a revelation bade her take a select band to America. Accompanied by her husband, who soon afterward deserted her; her brother, William Lee (1740-1784); Nancy Lee, her niece; James Whittaker (1751-1787), who had been brought up by Mother Ann and was probably related to her; John Hocknell (1723-1799), who provided the funds for the trip; his son, Richard; and James Shepherd and Mary Partington, Mother Ann arrived on the 6th of August 1774 in New York City. Here they stayed for nearly two years. In 1776 Hocknell bought land at Niskayuna, in the township of Watervliet, near Albany, and the Shakers settled there. A spiritualistic revival in the neighbouring town of New Lebanon sent many penitents to Watervliet, who accepted Mother Ann's teachings and organized in 1787 (before any formal organization in Watervliet) the New Lebanon Society, the first Shaker Society, at New Lebanon (since 1861 called Mt. Lebanon), Columbia county, New York. The Society at Watervliet, organized immediately afterwards, and the New Lebanon Society formed a bishopric. The Watervliet members, as non-resistants and non-jurors, had got into trouble during the War of Independence; in 1780 the Board of Elders were imprisoned, but all except Mother Ann were speedily set free, and she was released in 1781.

In 1781-1783 the Mother with chosen elders visited her followers in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. She died in Watervliet on the 8th of September 1784. James Whittaker was head of the Believers for three years. On his death he was succeeded by Joseph Meacham (1742-1796), who had been a Baptist minister in Enfield, Connecticut, and had, second only to Mother Ann, the spiritual gift of revelation. Under his rule and that of Lucy Wright (1760-1821), who shared the headship with him during his lifetime and then for twenty-five years ruled alone, the organization of the Shakers and, particularly, a rigid communism, began. By 1793 property had been made a “consecrated whole” in the different communities, but a “noncommunal order” also had been established, in which sympathizers with the principles of the Believers lived in families. The Shakers never forbade marriage, but refused to recognize it as a Christian institution since the second coming in the person of Mother Ann, and considered it less perfect than the celibate state. Shaker communities in this period were established in 1790 at Hancock, West Pittsfield, Mass.; in 1791 at Harvard, Mass.; in 1792 at East Canterbury (or Shaker Village), New Hampshire; and in 1793 at Shirley, Mass.; at Enfield (or Shaker Station), Connecticut; at Tyringham, Mass., where the Society was afterwards abandoned, its members joining the communities in Hancock and Enfield; at Gloucester (since 1890, Sabbath-day Lake), Maine; and at Alfred, Maine, where, more than anywhere else among the Shakers, spiritualistic healing of the sick was practised. In Kentucky and Ohio Shakerism entered after the Kentucky revival of 1800-1801,[3] and in 1805-1807 Shaker societies were founded at South Union, Logan county, and Pleasant Hill, Mercer county, Kentucky. In 1811 a community settled at Busro on the Wabash in Indiana; but it was soon abandoned and its members went to Ohio and to Kentucky. In Ohio later communities were formed at Watervliet, Hamilton county, and at Whitewater, Dayton county. In 1828 the communal property at Sodus Bay, New York, was sold and the community removed to Groveland, or Sonyea; their land here was sold to the state and the few remaining members went to Watervliet. A short-lived community at Canaan, N.Y., was merged in the Mount Lebanon (New York) and Enfield (Connecticut) communities. The numerical strength of the sect decreased rapidly, probably from 4000 to 1000 in 1887-1908; and there has been little effort made to plant new communities. The Mt. Lebanon Society in 1894 established a colony at Narcoossee, Florida; the attempt of the Union Village Society in 1898 to plant a settlement at White Oak, Camden county, Georgia, was unsuccessful. In 1910 the Union Village Society went into the hands of a receiver.

The period of spiritual manifestations among the Believers lasted from 1837 to 1847; first, children told of visits to cities in the spirit realm and gave messages from Mother Ann; in 1838 the gift of tongues was manifested and sacred places were set aside in each community, with names like Holy Mount; but in 1847 the spirits, after warning, left the Believers. The theology of the denomination is based on the idea of the dualism of God: the creation of male and female “in our image” showing the bi-sexuality of the Creator; in Jesus, born of a woman, the son of a Jewish carpenter, were the male manifestation of Christ and the first Christian Church; and in Mother Ann, daughter of an English blacksmith, were the female manifestation of Christ and the second Christian Church — she was the Bride ready for the Bridegroom, and in her the promises of the Second Coming were fulfilled. Adam's sin was in sexual impurity; marriage is done away with in the body of the Believers in the Second Appearance, who must pattern after the Kingdom in which there is no marriage or giving in marriage. The four virtues are virgin purity; Christian communism; confession of sin, without which none can become Believers; and separation from the world. The Shakers do not believe in the divinity or deity of Jesus, or in the resurrection of the body. Their insistence on the bi-sexuality of God and their reverence for Mother Ann have made them advocates of sex equality. Their spiritual directors are elders and “eldresses,” and their temporal guides are deacons and deaconesses in equal numbers. The prescribed uniform costume with woman's neckerchief and cap, and the custom of men wearing their hair long on the neck and cut in a straight bang on the forehead, still persist; but the women wear different colours. The communism of the Believers was an economic success, and their cleanliness, honesty and frugality received the highest praise. They made leather in New York for several years, but in selling herbs and garden seeds, in making “apple-sauce” (at Shirley), in weaving linen (at Alfred), and in knitting underwear they did better work.

See John P. MacLean, A Bibliography of Shaker Literature, with an Introductory Study of the Writings and Publications Pertaining to Ohio Believers (Columbus, Ohio, 1905), and his Sketch of the Life and the Labors of Richard McNemar (Franklin, Ohio, 1905); Charles Edson Robinson, A Concise History of the United Society of Believers, called Shakers (East. Canterbury, N.H., 1893); Anna White and Leila S. Taylor, Shakerism, Its Meaning and Message (Columbus, Ohio, 1905); Frederick W. Evans, Shakers: Compendium of the Origin, History, Principles, Rules and Regulations, Governments and Doctrines of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing (Albany, 1858; and often elsewhere under other titles); M. Catherine Allen, A Century of Communism (Pittsfield, 1902); and the works of Nordhoff, Noyes, Hinds, &c., on American communism.


  1. Some of its leaders prefer the name “Alethians,” as they consider themselves children of the truth; but they do not repudiate the commonly applied name Shakers.
  2. The Wardleys' followers, when “wrestling in soul to be freed from the power of sin and a worldly life,” writhed and trembled so that they won the name Shakers; their trances and visions, their jumping and dancing, were like those of many other sects, such as the Low Countries dancers of the 14th and 15th centuries, the French Convulsionnaires of 1720-1770, or the Welsh Methodist Jumpers.
  3. A prominent part in this revival had been taken by Richard McNemar, a Presbyterian, who had broken with his Church because of his Arminian tendencies and had established the quasi-independent Turtle Creek Church. McNemar was won by Shaker missionaries in 1805, and many of his parishioners joined him to form the Union Village Community on the site of the old Turtle Creek, 4 m. W. of Lebanon, Warren county, Ohio. McNemar was a favourite of Lucy Wright, who gave him the spiritual name Eleazer Right, which he changed to Eleazer Wright; he wrote The Kentucky Revival (Cincinnati, 1807), probably the earliest defence of Shakerism, and a poem, entitled A Concise Answer to the General Inquiry Who or What are the Shakers (1808).