Most people confuse Shakers with Quakers. That’s understandable. The two groups generally dress, live, dance, and worship alike, and both hold that simplicity is a virtue. Their most famous song, Simple Gifts, describes their religious lifestyle in one clear – simple – phrase: “’Tis a gift to be simple.”
Here’s a thumbnail history of these groups:
The Quakers (1650s) broke away from the Seekers (1620s) who in turn had broken from the Anglicans (1530s) and became Congregationalists before they split into Wilburite, Hicksite, Gurneyite, Beaconite, and Evangelical factions. (Whew.)
Apparently, simplicity describes their lifestyle, not their doctrinal disputes. Quakers and Shakers both believe in the rule of individual religious experience over tradition and church authority, which is why inherent divisions always result in their movements.
With private interpretation of everything, no one can ever agree on anything.
In 19th century America, this principle became enshrined in a number of odd but rather fascinating religious movements that sought to create a sort of heaven on earth in the Promised Land of America. Access to Utopia, of course, was always through the channel of their particular religious affiliations.
There is an old Eagles song about the desire for perfection on earth: “We’re riding to Utopia; road map says we’ll be arriving soon…But it’s a long road out of Eden.”
A fascinating sect
The happy-go-lucky Mother Ann Lee, foundress of the Shakers
One of the most fascinating sectarian movements in American history is the religious sect known as the Shakers. Its official name is The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. (The very name establishes their Utopian credentials!)
The Shakers were founded by an English Quaker named Ann Lee (1736-84) who had a personal revelation while she was in prison (for disrupting an Anglican prayer service!). She believed she was the embodiment of Christ’s Second Coming and the female version of the Messiah. The vision told her that she should travel to the American colonies to start a new religion there.
As I said, private revelations can be a bit problematic. However, she arrived in New York in 1774 with seven followers, and the Shakers were born.
The name and the dance
Both the Quakers and the Shakers got their names from their behaviors during their ecstatic prayer sessions. Their unstructured, wild, and sometimes hilarious prayer sessions included whirling, chanting, screaming, laughing, gesticulating wildly, bodily agitating, jumping, falling down and writhing on the ground, among other things. Their form of prayer was similar to what we now think of as Pentecostal worship before the Pentecostals came on the scene.
(The video “A Shaker Worship Service” below shows a fascinating 1979 re-creation of what it must have been like to attend a Shaker prayer service.)
Because of their prayer habits, they were pegged by their detractors as “shakers”, but the name stuck. The English used the archaic term “quakers” to describe that style of ecstatic prayer.
The Shakers’ nemesis
At their high point in the late 1800s the Shakers had over 6000 adherents living in nineteen different utopian villages spread from Maine to Kentucky. Today there is only one community left of the nineteen. It is called the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in southern Maine, just north of Portland.
It is unclear how many actual Shakers exist today, but as of 2010 the official number was 3.
Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Maine
And there’s a pretty logical reason for their decline: celibacy. As a part of their utopian belief system, the Shakers believed that celibacy was the best way to maintain the purity of the Kingdom, both personally and communally. The only problem was that they were lay people, not consecrated clerics immersed in the hierarchical structure of the Church or the centuries-long traditions of religious orders.
Their desire to live celibacy for the sake of purity was admirable, but it made them like smoldering brands taken from a fire that was ultimately extinguished for lack of connection with the source of the fire, Christ’s true Church. As a generalized practice of the laity, celibacy doomed the community to a long, slow decline.
Despite it all, the Shakers survived for over 200 years due to their main ministry of adopting and caring for orphans, who were always given the freedom to join the community or venture out on their own at the age of 21. Many did, of course, but over time, the diminishing number of converts to Shakerism left the sect with a legacy of quaint museums through the northeast and one last community holding on for dear life.
Simplicity as a lifestyle
Simple, yes, and austere, ascetic, strict, etc. are terms to describe the Shaker lifestyle, but no one would accuse them of being simpletons. They were incredibly pragmatic and creative people!
Although any type of ornamentation was considered vanity to Shakers, once you accept their belief in the virtue of simplicity, everything fits together: the plain but functional architecture; the efficient organization of their communities; the solid, inventive designs of objects needed for everyday survival; their simple clothing.
Ironically, the Shakers were amazingly “modern” in some of their practices and beliefs, like the equality of the sexes, shared responsibilities, rotating work shifts, and the use of technological advances. They significantly improved on the use of the steam laundry as well as textile production and mill working techniques, and they were pioneers in herbal medicine. The Shakers even owned automobiles when those became current.
One of their sayings puts it all in perspective: “Don’t make something unless it is both made necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”
The foundress, Ann Lee, also gave them the motto: “Hands to work and hearts to God” – mottos we could all live by.
Perhaps the unique Shaker combination of simple gifts is best seen in their quaint, beautiful furniture, which is prized and often imitated in modern day American design.