The name Shakers, and the variant, Shaking Quakers, originally pejorative, was applied in the early 18th century to a Manchester offshoot of the English Quakers (the Society of Friends) as a mocking description of their rituals of trembling, shouting, dancing, shaking and glossolalia (speaking in unknown languages).

Table of contents
1 Wardley predecessors
2 Ann Lee
3 Communism under Joseph Meacham
4 Communal spiritual family
5 Distinguished craftsmen
6 Modern-day Shakers

Wardley predecessors

The Shakers originally derived from a small branch of English Quakers who had adopted some of the doctrines of worship followed by the 'French Prophets,' as Londoners called the Camisards, who had been driven into English exile from the provinces of Vivarais and Dauphiné. Under the leadership of James and Ann Wardley, husband and wife, the group became known for their intense, ecstatic worship. The Wardleys' followers, when "wrestling in soul to be freed from the power of sin and a worldly life," writhed and trembled, purportedly under the influence of the Holy Spirit, 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.

The original and proper name of the group is the United Society of Believers In Christ’s Second Appearing, but followers quickly adopted the derogatory nickname, Shaking Quakers, which had been given to them by their many detractors.

Ann Lee

Under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee, beginning in 1772, the rejection of marriage and the work ethic for which they have ever since been known, began to typify the movement. She joined the Wardleys in 1758.

Although a believer in celibacy, she had, at her parents' urging, married Abraham Stanley (Standley, or Standerin), and bore him four children, all of whom died in infancy. She was miserable in marriage, and by 1770 had begun to insist that the institution was not compatible with the kingdom of God. Like many others in the Quaker tradition, she believed in and taught her followers that it is possible to attain perfect holiness. Like her predecessors the Wardleys, she taught that the demonstrations of shaking and trembling were caused by sin being purged from the body by the power of the Holy Spirit, purifying the worshiper. Distinctively, the followers of Mother Ann came to believe that she embodied all the perfections of God in female form.

She rose to prominence in the movement through her dramatic urging of the Believers to preach more publicly concerning 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. 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, she was chosen by the society as "Mother in spiritual things" and called herself "Ann, the Word" and also "Mother Ann." Another revelation bade her take a select band to America. Mother Ann arrived on August 6, 1774 in New York City, and in 1776 the Shakers settled in the township of Watervliet, near Albany, where a unique community life began to develop and thrive.

First Shaker society

The village was divided into groups or "families" that were named for points on the compass rose. Each house was divided so that men and women did everything separately. They used different staircases, doors and even sat on opposite sides of the room. The men and women were segregated to prevent them from touching one another during the epileptic-like fits that they fell into during worship. The elders would watch over them through the windows, to make sure no physical contact happened.

A spiritualistic revival in the neighboring 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 pacifists and non-jurors, had got into trouble during the American 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.

Communism under Joseph Meacham

In 1781-1783 the Mother with chosen elders visited her followers in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. She died in Watervliet on September 8, 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 practiced. In Kentucky and Ohio Shakerism entered after the Kentucky revival of 1800-1801, and in 1805-1807 Shaker societies were founded at South Union, Logan county, and Pleasant Hill, Mercer county, Kentucky.


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 miles west of Lebanon, Warren county, Ohio. McNemar was a favorite of Lucy Wright, who gave him the spiritual name Eleazer Riotht, which he changed to Eleazer Wright; he wrote The Kentucky Revival (Cincinnati, 1807), probably the earliest defense of Shakerism, and a poem, entitled A Concise Answer to the General Inquiry Who or What are the Shakers (1808).

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, New York, was merged in the Mount Lebanon, New York and Enfield, Connecticut communities. The peak was probably reached between 1830 and 1850 at about 6000 members. 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.

Eventually the Shakers had eighteen major communities in eight states and six smaller communities in Florida and Indiana. At its peak in 1850, the Shakers had close to 6,000 members.

Communal spiritual family

The Shakers did not believe in procreation so therefore had to adopt a child if they wanted one. Another way they could expand their community's population was to allow converts into the Shaker society to live and function as one. When Shaker boys reached the age of twenty-one, they were given the choice to leave the Shaker religion and go their own separate way or to continue on as a Shaker. The Shakers lived in "families" sharing a large house with separate entrances for each family within the "family"; thus the families were exclusively male or female - the sexes were segregated into separate living areas.

Men and women reputedly exchanged sexual partners frequently within the community, while breaking up all exclusive romantic attachments, which were described as "social love", antisocial behavior threatening communal order. The Shakers struggled with complex human problems that have no simple answers, and they managed to set up and sustain a distinctive way of life with much appeal for more than two hundred years.

Revelations and visions

A peculiar, intense kind of spirituality began to develop under this unique arrangement. A period of spiritual manifestations among the Believers began in 1837 and lasted through 1847. Children told of visits to cities in the spirit realm and brought messages to the community which they received 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 man as 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.

Culture of work

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 colors. 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.

"Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow."
"Put your hands to work, and your heart to God."

The Shakers worshiped in meetinghouses that were painted white and unadorned. It was that way because they considered shutters and carvings to be worldly things. Shakers were known for an exquisite style of furniture that was plain, durable, and functional. A Shaker chair would take weeks to make because only one craftsman made it and put a great deal of effort into making sure every joint, corner and leg were correctly in place. Because of this craftsmanship, Shaker furniture is costly. One Shaker chair sold for $500,000. The Shakers believed in the value of hard work and kept comfortably busy. Each member learned a craft and did chores. Mother Ann said, "Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling."

Shakers worshiped in plain meetinghouses where they marched around, sang songs, danced, twitched and shouted. Many outsiders who witnessed Shaker worship services thought that they were heretics and protested in front of their places of worship. Mother Ann was arrested several times for disturbing the peace. Early Shaker worship services were unstructured, loud, chaotic and emotional. However, later on, Shakers developed precision dances and orderly rituals. The Shakers have also authored thousands of religious songs.

Distinguished craftsmen

One of the major attributes of the shakers was to build. They have a collection of furniture and utensils outside of Pittsfield, Mass. famous for its elegance and practicality. Shakers were very dedicated to hard work and leading lives of perfection. They contributed to culture in the United States through their architecture, furniture, and handicraft styles. Shakers designed their furniture with care, believing that making something well was in itself, "an act of prayer". They never fashioned items with elaborate details or extra decorations, but only made things for their intended uses. Shaker craftsmen made most things out of pine or other inexpensive woods. This shows that Shakers relied on their own skills and natural resources to provide for their families. The Shakers produced their own foods and furniture, and got income from purchased land. Although it seems as though the Shakers were very limited in what they were allowed to do, they were able to express their creativity through inventions. There is a museum founded by the Canterbury Shakers to preserve the Shaker history, since there are few, if any, left living today.

Shakers won respect and admiration for their productive farms and orderly communities. Their industry brought about many inventions like the screw propeller, Babbitt metal, the rotary harrow, the circular saw, and the clothespin. They were once the largest producers of medicinal herbs in the United States. Shaker dances and songs are a main, but unknown, aspect of folk art and the simple, honest architecture of their homes, meeting houses, and barns have had a long lasting influence on American architecture and design.

Shaker ways influenced many people to write books and adopt ways of life from Shakers. Kaare Klint, an architect and famous furniture designer, used styles from Shaker furniture in his work. Another example is Doris Humphrey, an innovator in technique, choreography, and theory of dance movement. She made a full theatrical art with her dance entitled Dance of The Chosen Ones in which the nature of the Shakers’ religious fervor was depicted.

Modern-day Shakers

Are there still Shakers today? Yes, there are a few devoted followers who live in New England today in the Sabbathday Lake community in Maine. Membership dwindled in the late 1800s for several reasons. People were attracted to cities and away from the farms. Shaker products couldn't compete with mass-produced products that became available at a much lower cost. Shakers couldn't have children, and although they adopted children, this was not a major source of new members. Some Shaker settlements, such as Pleasant Hill community in Kentucky, have become museums that you can visit today.

Believers have continually looked at the story of Ann Lee as a cornerstone of the theological architecture that has distinguished their church from other American religious groups. Shaker theology, its manifestation in material artifacts such as furniture and oval boxes, and the Ann Lee story have continually drawn the attention of outsiders either fascinated by or repulsed by them.

Although, there were six thousand believers at the peak of the Shaker growth, there were only 12 Shakers left by 1920. There is one active Shaker community in the United States today, at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After 1964, no new members were accepted into the sect, and by the 1980s, only a few aged sisters remained at the Sabbathday Lake community. The Sabbathday Lake community, founded in 1783, was one of the smaller and more isolated Shaker communities during the sect's heyday. They farm and practice a variety of handicrafts; a Shaker Museum, and Sunday services, are open to visitors. Now Mother Ann day is celebrated on the first Sunday of August. The people sing and dance and a Mother Ann cake is presented. One of Mother Ann's predictions states that there will be a revival when there are only five Shakers left. Only time will tell if prediction will come true.

The daily schedule of a Shaker in Sabbathday Lake Village is as follows: The day will begin for many at 7:30 a.m., the Great Bell on Dwelling House rings calling every one to breakfast. At 8:00 a.m. Morning Prayers will start. They may read two Psalms and then read from the Bible. This will be followed by Prayer and silent prayer, concluded with the singing of a Shaker hymn. Work for the Shakers begins at 8:30. Work is interrupted at 11:30 for Mid-day prayers. "Dinner" begins at 12:00. This is the main meal for the shakers. Work will continue at 1:00 p.m. At 6:00 it is supper time, the last meal of the day. On Wednesdays at 5:00 they hold a prayer meeting which is followed by a Shakers Studies class.