The New International Encyclopædia/Shakers

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The New International Encyclopædia
Shakers
Edition of 1905. Written by Richard T. Ely and Thomas Sewall AdamsSee also Shakers on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SHAKERS. The name commonly applied to the members of ‘the Millennial Church,’ or ‘the United Society of Believers,’ a communistic society having branches in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida. They say that they were originally a sect of Quakers and were derisively called Shaking Quakers because of their movements of the body in religious meetings. The Shaking Quakers appeared in England about 1747, were organized under the leadership of Jane and James Wardley, and were joined later by Ann Lee (q.v.) of Manchester, who claimed to be Christ in His second reincarnation, and who came to America in 1774 with seven of her converts and established a small church at Niskayuna, near Watervliet, N. Y. Ann Lee died in 1784 and the society was placed upon a communistic basis in 1787. A religious revival in 1779-80 brought to the society a large number of converts, and it grew steadily in wealth and importance. The Shakers now have 17 communities, the larger divided into several ‘families,’ the members of which vary from only a few to 100 or more. In 1887 they numbered about 4000 members; an estimate for 1902 is 1000. From the economic standpoint they have been unusually successful, but seem less so in recent years.

In origin the society is a religious community and may be said to rest upon ‘the belief in the revelation of Christ's second appearance in Ann Lee.’ The fundamental principles of the sect, that the root of human depravity is found in the ‘disorderly’ or natural relation of the sexes, and that in God exists the maternal as well as the paternal nature, are believed to have been revealed to Ann Lee. She also foretold and sanctioned the communistic order of living, which has now become of equal importance with celibacy, non-resistance, and the equal rights of women in the simple creed of the Shakers. They neither condemn nor oppose marriage for the ordinary or ‘generative’ world, and they “freely admit that the private family is necessary and must always exist,” but they assert the possibility of attaining a higher or angelic order of existence to which virginity is a prime requisite, and they further hold that the virgin life is indispensable in organized communism, because the family relationship necessarily implies private centres of affection and economic interest incompatible with successful communism. In their religious ceremonies they worship neither Christ, Ann Lee, nor any other person, but “the highest good, wherever it may be found;” and they hold that the Bible, while of incalculable value to the human race, contains traditional biographies and records which are purely secular. Their form of worship is thus described in an official pamphlet: “We sing and march to times of different measure, and move our hands in a gathering form, expressive of one's desire to obtain the treasures of the spiritual realm. Sometimes we are led to go forth in the dance, which seems to quicken body and soul and kindle anew the fire of truth. We use some stronger means to banish the elements of worldly bondage by shaking, as an expression of our hatred to all evil; are bold in denouncing idolatry, pride, deceit, dishonesty, and lust. Unlike the outside churches, all the members are free to speak their religious convictions, and to exercise in any good gift. Our songs, hymns, and anthems are original, most of them written under the power of inspiration; they are the simple expressions of an earnest hope and a living faith, and are well adapted to our manner of devotional exercises.” A fundamental part of their religious creed and practice is the confession of sin in the presence of a witness, men and women confessing to an elder of their own sex. They believe in a ‘continuous revelation,’ and this makes their doctrine as well as their practice plastic and adaptable to changing conditions, and has enabled them to indorse and defend land nationalization, spiritualism, and other modern radical movements. Except in the fundamental doctrines mentioned above they are tolerant and broad-minded. “Our only demands,” says the Plain Talks Upon Practical Christian Religion, “are the successful prosecution of a pure life after the Christ pattern; believing and realizing that all other features of Christian communism will immediately succeed.” The Shakers regard ostentation, luxury, and private property as sinful and unchristian. They live in groups or ‘families.’ The government of the family is parental. The supreme authority is vested equally in an elder and eldress, or two of each sex when the order is full. Temporal affairs are managed by an equal number of deacons and deaconesses acting in counsel with the elders. The two sexes eat in the same halls, and social intercourse is free and open. Healthful living is regarded as a religious duty, and much attention is given to hygiene; the result is a low death-rate and a large proportion of centenarians. Their income is derived from farming, small manufactures, and the education of children. The latter, however, is in many cases gratuitous and undertaken in the hope of replenishing their membership.

The Shakers were the first to establish a communistic settlement in the United States, and their historical significance rests upon the fact that for more than a century these settlements have been successfully maintained. The oldest and largest commimity is situated at Mount Lebanon, N. Y., 25 miles southeast of Albany, and is recognized as “the central executive of all the Shaker societies.”

Bibliography. The following are regarded by the Shakers as their most important publications: Christ's First and Second Appearing and Millennial Church (Albany, 1856); Dunlavy's Manifesto (New York, 1847); Green and Wells, Summary View of the Millennial Church (Albany, 1848); Eads, Shaker Theology (ib., 1879); Precepts of Mother Ann and the First Elders; Evans, Shakers' Compendium (New York, 1859); id., Autobiography of a Shaker (Mount Lebanon, 1869); Blinn, Concise History of the Shakers (East Canterbury, N. H., 1894); McNemar, The Kentucky Revival (New York, 1846); Hollister and Green, Pearly Gate (Mount Lebanon, 1894); Robinson, Concise History of the Shakers (East Canterbury, N. H., 1893). Most prominent among periodical publications, all of which have ceased to appear, are the Shaker Manifesto (1871-90) and the Shaker and Shakeress. Consult also: Noyes, History of American Socialisms (Philadelphia, 1870); Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of the United States (New York, 1875); Ely, Labor Movement in America (New York, 1886); Hinds, American Communities (Chicago, 1902).