By Peyton Wall
The “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing,” more commonly known as the Shakers, were founded in the late 1700s. Although scholars disagree on their status as a utopia, the Shakers have created a unique community with wide ranging and long lasting impacts.
Led by Mother Ann Lee, the first Shaker settlement was purchased in Albany, New York in 1776. Due to the Shaker’s roots in Quakerism and their penchant for religious dances, Albany locals called their new neighbors “the Shaking Quakers.”
See a recreation of Shaker worship and dancing by the Hancock Shaker Village
The religious ideals in Shaker settlements involved a life of celibacy, commitment to communal living, equality of the sexes, and promotion of pacifism. According to Starlyn D’Angelo, the Executive Director of The Shaker Heritage Society of Albany, New York, “The Shakers were interested in devoting themselves to a life of work and worship. Their communal, celibate lifestyle was an attempt to emulate Jesus Christ but it also allowed them to devote themselves to work and worship.”
Today, the Shaker ideals and lifestyle live on in the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village of Maine. Here, four individuals—Brother Arnold Hadd, Sister Frances Carr, Sister June Carpenter, and Brother Brian Burke—practice Shaker traditions and accept new recruits. Brother Arnold Hadd has shared his insights on their community of faith. “We like to call them the three C’s, which are celibacy in imitation of the life of Christ. Community of goods because that’s how Christ and the apostles lived,” Hadd notes, “and then third is gateway into the church which is the confession of sin or opening of the mind.”
Hear more about the Sabbathday Lake Shakers and more from Brother Hadd
Historians including Donald Pitzer and Erik Seeman suggest that late eighteenth and nineteenth-century Shaker Society had utopian qualities. According to Pitzer, the Shakers were a utopian society in a “Christian millennialist sense.”Specifically, Shakers believed that Mother Ann Lee represented the second appearing of Christ. Shakers believed that she would usher in the biblical kingdom of God on earth, and create a Christian utopia.
Erik Seeman adds that nineteenth-century Shaker society was, like other utopias, secluded and isolated.“Because Shakers were willing to live apart from non-Shakers, they were more successful than most groups in creating utopian communities,” Seeman writes.
Today, Shakers caution people against making generalizations about their faith as a utopian society. They hope that the public won’t make conclusions about Shaker society based on limited or erroneous information. For instance, practicing Shakers in the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village don’t see their community as “perfect” or “idealistic.” They also don’t believe that Mother Ann Lee created a utopian society of God on earth. Instead, they believe that Lee gave them the tools to strive towards perfection in their everyday lives, work and worship.
Michael S. Graham, director of the United Society of Shakers, explains, “The Shakers do not feel that they are a Utopian Society. They make a big distinction between ‘attaining perfection’ and ‘striving toward perfection.’ The former is a theoretical stopping point (it has been achieved); the latter is a process, and, in fact a goal that is never reached.”
Shaker society’s cultural impact goes much further than investigations of their utopian tendencies.
According to Phoebe Bender, former President of Shaker Heritage Society of Albany, New York, the Shakers invented the flat broom, labels for packaging seeds, the circular saw, canned foods, and nail clippers. “They always felt if there is a better way to do something, you should do it,” Bender says, “They aimed toward efficiency. They were innovative and yet if they did it, it must be done right.”
Shakers also contributed to agricultural innovations. Starlyn D’Angelo, the current Executive Director of the Shaker Heritage Society of Albany New York, notes that “non-Shakers often sought out Shaker expertise related to farming and dairy operations. In fact, Gail Borden worked with the Shakers to develop condensed milk. This was important at a time when tainted milk was killing many people and when soldiers needed food products that could be transported easily.”
Shakers also proved noteworthy humanitarians and vocal pacifists. During the Civil War, the Shakers cared for Union and Confederate soldiers alike. They practiced non-violence and promoted peace in their communities and were especially outspoken during the Civil War and Russo Japanese War (1904-5). As Pitzer explains, “the Shakers held a peace conference to protest the Russo-Japanese War. Resolutions they sent to President Theodore stated unequivocally that ‘all wars are equally barbarous and equally unnecessary, their desolating cruelty effecting nothing for the cause of justice or human liberty, and to be regarded only as a return to primitive savagery.”
The Shakers were committed to creating a society that was equal for all, regardless of gender or race. According to Bender, it “can’t be overemphasized that the Shakers were led by a woman.” The Shaker faith informed this commitment to gender equality. As D’Angelo explains, “Shakers believed that God was both male and female in character so, men and women shared power in Shaker communities.” Beyond their isolated communities, the Shakers made history when the New York State Legislature granted the first divorce to a woman whose husband became a Shaker. This case jumpstarted the movement to legalize women’s right to divorce.
While the Shaker vow of celibacy threatened their society’s future, Shakers sustained their numbers by welcoming orphans, widows, the homeless, and struggling families into their ranks. In this respect, they provided critical social services for the broader community. However, when government began implementing state-sponsored social services after the Civil War, the population of the Shaker society began to dwindle.
Still, believers continue to practice the Shaker faith, carrying on their traditions and welcoming visitors to their worship.
Learn more about the history of the Shakers by reading “A Short History of Watervliet.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist