The Shakers – A Utopian Community
It is as impossible to fully set forth the power and effects of this new religion as to trace the airy road of the meteor. – Valentine Rathbun, 1781
The Shaker, or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, utopian community is the quintessential commune to which all other utopian communities are compared. The Shakers, named after their ecstatic dancing as worship, are the longest-lived American utopian experiment. Shaker influence can be widely seen in fashion, furniture, textiles, and music. Moreover, they were radical for their time in many ways; 75 years before emancipation and 150 years before suffrage, Shakers were already practicing social, sexual, economic, and spiritual equality (WETA, 2002).
The Shakers were founded in 1770 in England by Ann Lee. In the 1760’s, Lee joined the Shaking Quakers, having become disillusioned with the Anglican church after her fourth child died in infancy. This sect of Quakers were notable for their shaking as they danced and spoke in tongues. Through this community, Ann Lee began to have visions of God, who told her that sexual intercourse was the root of all sin, thereby demanding celibacy of “true” followers. Lee began to attract a following, and she was thought to be the second appearance of Christ on earth (Hogan, n.d.).
In 1772, Lee received another vision from God. As described by Lee, “I knew that I had a vision of America, I saw a large tree, every leaf of which shown with such brightness as made it appear like a burning torch representing the Church of Christ which will yet be established in this land.” Thus, in 1774, Ann Lee and nine of her followers traveled to America, settling in Western New York State. There, at Niskeyuna, the first American Shaker community was formed (Yale University Library, n.d.).
Ann Lee’s visions informed four basic tenets: communal living, celibacy, regular confession of sins, and separation from the outside world. To rigorously follow these tenets meant that they could achieve perfection. Moreover, following these rules meant assurances of spiritual and physical equality; in fact, non-Christians and all races were welcome if they agreed to these four principles. The Shakers also believed in gender equality, even though their spheres of activity and responsibility were kept separate. After Ann Lee’s death in 1784, her message continued to spread and colonies continued to form (Fogarty, 1980).
The Shakers were connected to many reform movements of the 19th century, including feminism, pacifism, and isolationism. In fact, fugitive slaves, including Sojourner Truth, visited the Enfield Shaker community in Connecticut. Furthermore, the Shakers became notable for their craftsmanship, because, according to Shaker tradition, God dwelt in the details and quality of their work (National Park Service, n.d.).
In 1830, the Shakers reached their height; by this time, there were more than 18 Shaker communities stretching primarily from Kentucky to Maine. By 1850, there were nearly 4,000 Shakers, and over the last 200 years, over 20,000 Americans have spent at least a fraction of their lives as Shakers. However, by the 1860s, Shakerism began to decline as the Spiritualist Movement took hold of many communities. According to the Spiritualist Movement, it was possible to reconcile both the physical world, that of the flesh, with the spiritual world, that of worship and dedication to God. This is in direct conflict with Shaker values, and many Shakers began to fantasize of a life without such stringent rules. Furthermore, Shaker numbers dwindled because, as a commune that forbade marriage and sexual activity, there was no procreation. Any Shakers who violated the terms of celibacy were exiled from the community. One Shaker community still exists in Maine, consisting of less than 10 members (Larbi, 2002).
Known Shaker Communities (Larbi, 2002).
- Watervliet, New York: 1787-1938
- Mount Lebanon, New York: 1787-1947
- Hancock, Massachusetts: 1790-1960
- Harvard, Massachusetts: 1791-1918
- Enfield, Connecticut: 1790-1917
- Tyringham, Massachusetts: 1792-1875
- Alfred, Maine: 1793-1932
- Canterbury, New Hampshire: 1792 -?
- Enfield, New Hampshire: 1793-1923
- Sabbathday Lake, Maine: 1794-Present
- Shirley, Massachusetts: 1793-1908
- Gorham, Maine: 1808-1819
- West Union (Busro), Indiana: 1810-1827
- South Union, Kentucky: 1807-1922
- Union Village, Ohio: 1806-1912
- Watervliet, Ohio:1806-1910
- Pleasant Hill, Kentucky: 1806-1910
- Savoy, Massachusetts: 1817-1825
- Whitewater, Ohio: 1824-1916
- Sodus Bay, New York: 1826-1836
- Groveland, New York: 1836-1895
- North Union, Ohio: 1822-1889
- Narcoossee, Florida: 1896-1911
- White Oak, Georgia: 1896-1902
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Fogarty, R. S. (1972). American Utopianism. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.
Fogarty, R. S. (1980). Dictionary of American Communal and Utopian History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Hogan, K. M. (n.d.) The Shakers. University of Virginia. Retrieved from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hns/cities/shakers.html
Larbi, O. (2002). The Shakers. Smith College. Retrieved from https://www.smith.edu/hsc/silk/papers/larbi.html
National Park Service. (n.d.). Utopias. Shaker Historic Trail. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/shaker/utopias.htm
WETA. (2002). About the Shakers. PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/shakers/shakers/
Yale University Library. (n.d.). Shakers. Yale University Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library. Retrieved from http://brbl-archive.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/utopia/uc04.html
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How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project. (2017). The Shakers – A utopian community. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/religious/the-shakers-a-utopian-community-founded-in-u-s-1776/