The Shaking Quakers, or “Shakers,” as they are commonly known were members of a movement originated in a Quaker revival in England in 1747 led by James and Jane Wardley. However, their strength and prominence in the United States developed after the appearance of Ann Lee, or as she would become known, “Mother Ann.” The Shaker societies reached their peak during the 1830s. The term “Shakers” was attributed to the group because of their wild outbursts of song and dance during their religious ceremonies.
While singing, dancing, and marching characterized many phases of Shaker worship, other tenets included: celibacy, open confession of sins, communal ownership of possessions, separation from the world, pacifism, equality of both the sexes and the races, and consecrated work.The Shakers rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and drew much inspiration from the Pentecostal Church, of which the five primary principles were: common property, celibacy, non-resistance, separate government, and power over physical disease.
Another critical aspect of their society was the “family” system. In this system, each Shaker community was divided into semi-autonomous subdivisions called “families.” Each community consisted generally between 2-6 families, ranging in size from about ten to more than one hundred members. Each family was administered by either an elder or elders who acted as the leading characters of the family. These leaders knew the occupations and locations of every Shaker within the family, conducted the initiations of novices and controlled the movements of trustees in their external dealings. The basic unit of social interaction for each shaker was the family. While the sexes were equal, they interacted minimally in order to circumvent human sexual desires. In accordance with the practice of Mother Ann, the only question asked of those who sought admission to the society was “are you sick of sin, and do you want salvation from it?” Overall, the society was one of extreme restriction on individual freedom in the interests of the community.
Religion played an immense role in Shaker society. Devotion to God led the Shakers to renounce a decadent life, sexual relations, and even nuclear family relations in order pursue their spiritual beliefs. In order to give all their attention to God and spiritual study, the Shakers eliminated all distractions and used all their energy to their religious devotion. One way of suppressing sexual desires, for instance, was for the Shakers to exert all their energy through active dancing and stomping through which they celebrated their religion.
The Shakers were also well known for their produce. As a self-sustaining community, members of the Shaker community spent the majority of their day contributing labor to the farmlands. This also contributed to their exertion of energy that exhausted them to the point of being unable to consider acting on their sexual desires.
The Shakers are also well-known for their excellent craftsmanship, particularly wood carving. Their simple, functional style has made their work famous throughout the states.
4 thoughts on “Shaker Societies”
The Shakers, like the rest of Christianity, are interesting to me. I’m Jewish, so the concept that Christianity is based on, and especially the fact that none of these sects can agree on exactly what this concept is, is fascinating to me.
It’s interesting also, that the Shakers have a few things in common with Oneida and yet where they diverge, it’s in the completely opposite direction. Both the Shakers and Oneida are religious communities based on their leaders’ personal experience of the best way to worship Jesus, and both of them have equality of the sexes, a type of communism, and are known for their work. But then you also have the Shakers practicing enforced celibacy and the Oneidans practicing enforced polygamy.
actually enforced polygamy isn’t the right phrase but it’s definitely enforced multi sexual partners which is the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction for sure.
I can’t understand why anyone would want to be part of the shaker community! It seems like they really suck the fun out of life (besides the singing and dancing). What is the point of life if you have to constantly work, be celibate and focus solely on the community? I actually wonder if there were any cases of promiscuity, which would have had to be kept secret. Still, I think that family and reproduction are vital to keeping a community alive which contributed to the downfall of the Shakers.
Of course, there are also benefits to being a Shaker. I think the concept of equality of all races and the genders is a very forward thinking philosophy that many groups did not share in the same time period. They also have fine craftsmanship judging by the pictures you posted. It is also clear that they were self sustainable.
I remember thinking that this was probably one of the worst communities to live in. The conspiracy theorist in me led me to wonder about what actually happened behind the scenes and how some may have secretly broken the rules.
It’s almost incongruous how they were very religious and conservative, yet progressively treated not only women but people of other races equally. Also, many conservative Christians today believe in the preservation of the nuclear family, while the Shakers lived more communally. Communal living is probably more accurate to the Bible, particularly the description of the first church:
44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.
The Bible also says to flee from sin, and the Shakers definitely did that, if not to an extreme. They go far beyond the abstinence and celibacy of the monks and nuns we read about in the beginning of the semester. However, it seems that they spent so much time focusing on not sinning that it consumed their quality of life and made it less joyful.
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