Skip to main content

Shakers – A Utopian Community: Founded In U.S. 1776

The Shakers – A Utopian Community


Introduction: There were hundreds of communal utopian experiments in the early United States, and the Shakers alone founded around 20 settlements. While great differences existed between the various utopian communities or colonies, each society shared a common bond in a vision of communal living in a utopian society. The definition of a utopian colony, according to Robert V. Hine, author of California’s Utopian Colonies, “…consists of a group of people who are attempting to establish a new social pattern based upon a vision of the ideal society and who have withdrawn themselves from the community at large to embody that vision in experimental form.” These colonies can, by definition, be composed of either religious or secular members, the former stressing (in the western tradition) a community life inspired by religion while the latter may express the idealism of a utilitarian creed expedient to establishing human happiness, with a belief in the cooperative way of life. The more familiar non-monastic religious communal movements typical in Western society have generally originated from a deliberate attempt among various Christian sects to revive the structure of the primitive Christian community of first-century Jerusalem, which “held all things in common” (Acts 2.44; 4.32).

The Shaker, Rappite and Amana experiments, as well as the Oneida community and Brook Farm, find their origins in the European Protestant Reformation and the later Enlightenment.

Shaker Dance and Worship During the Era of Manifestations
Shaker Dance and Worship During the Era of Manifestations

The Shakers: Formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, the Shakers developed their own religious expression which included communal living, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, the equality of the sexes, and a ritual noted for its dancing and shaking. A significant portion of Shakerism was founded by (Mother) Ann Lee, in 1758. Ann Lee and some followers arrived in America in 1774. Ann Lee died in 1784, but Shaker colonies, spread to newer communities. Containing 6,000 members before the Civil War, these communities maintained economic autonomy while making items for outside commercial distribution. Intellectually, the Shakers were dissenters from the dominant values of American society and were associated with many of the reform movements of the 19th century, including feminism, pacifism and abolitionism: an Enfield Shaker’s diary, for example, records the visits of fugitive slaves, including Sojourner Truth. Their work was eventually redirected from agricultural production to handcrafts, including the making of chairs and furniture. The Endfield Shakers Historic District in Endfield, Connecticut and the Hancock Shaker Village, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, stand as two noteworthy examples of Shaker communities. The community at Enfield, which began in the 1780s, peaked from 1830 to 1860. In 1860 there were 146 Shakers in Enfield, living in same-sex housing, working in its garden-seed industry. The Enfield Shakers Historic District, containing 15 buildings, has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in reflecting the social values and communal lifestyle of the Shakers. The Hancock Shaker Village was considered the center of Shaker authority in America from 1787 until 1947, and is today designated as a National Historic Landmark. Four other Shaker Village have also been designated as National Historic Landmarks: Shakertown at Pleasant Hill Historic District (Harrodsburg, Kentucky), Canterbury Shaker Village (Canterbury, New Hampshire), Mount Lebanon Shaker Society (New Lebanon, New York) and Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village (New Glochester, Maine), the latter is the sole surviving Shaker community.

Source: National Park Service “The Amana Colonies:”

Origin of the Shakers

The founder of the Shakers, Ann Lee, was a blacksmith’s daughter and a mill hand in Manchester, England. Looking for a more personal and emotional religion than the officialChurch of England, in 1758 she joined a group called the Wardley Society that had left the Quakers. Because the Wardley’s version of religious worship including shakings of the body and motions of the head and arms, they came to be called “Shaking Quakers” and this in time was shortened to Shakers. The group’s official name, which they used after emigrating to America, was the “United Society of Believers in the Second Coming of Christ.” In their earlier years they usually referred to themselves as “Believers.”

Ann Lee was not very active in the group until she experienced several unhappy events — her father arranged a marriage for her with another blacksmith, Abraham Standernin, and her four children all died either at birth or in early infancy. She also began to have visions; these, and her innate leadership ability and charisma, led to her becoming leader of the group. However, their nontraditional mode of worship also brought the group much persecution. Finally one of Ann Lee’s visions directed her to take her followers to America.

They arrived in New York City on August 6, 1774 (a date later celebrated by the Shakers) and set about to find a place to settle, while taking jobs in the city to earn their living. There were eight others in the group including Ann’s brother, William. These early Shakers found a suitable site — land eight miles northwest of Albany and, accompanied by four others who had come from England, settled there in 1776.

Early Years in Albany

In the first years, the Shakers settled in an area called “Niskayuna” (later Watervliet). The first years were difficult, and the small band lived in primitive conditions.

The land proved to be both swampy and covered with dense brush. From the beginning the small group worked hard at draining the land, redirecting and straightening the small stream that flowed through it, and filling in low spots. They also accepted converts, with the first new members recorded as joining by 1778. Growth was slow, however, until after 1780.

The group persevered, although a Shaker brother, Jonathan Clark, later told that in 1778 they had little and sometimes no bread, butter or cheese during the spring and summer. Their principal food was rice and milk and sometimes they went to the river to get fish. Joseph Preston and another brother went fishing one day, and Joseph was so hungry he ate two herring raw. In order to provide for the needs of the group, they worked at planting, sowing grain, and harvesting. This hard work resulted in loss of weight and fainting. Their group now numbered fifteen, but they had to lay on the floor of their log house to sleep. There were no pillows and only some had blankets. In the fall, when crops began to ripen, things were better.

Nevertheless, through hard work and Ann Lee’s missionary zeal, the group prospered and gained large numbers of converts in the 1780s and 1790s. Several other communities had been founded and in 1793 there were 12 settlements across New York and New England. By 1800 the Watervliet community numbered 87.

The Ritual Dance of the Shakers
The Ritual Dance of the Shakers

The Beginnings of Communal Settlements and the Shaker “Families”

Initially, most Shakers at each site lived in one communal settlement, but a few members who joined stayed on their own farms. In 1787, the Lead Ministry, then at Mt. Lebanon, directed all members to join the communal settlements, which were known as “Families.

The first communal dwelling house at Watervliet, probably of logs, was built in 1779. It was soon replaced by a good-sized dwelling built in 1783; this was used until a larger one was built in 1816, when the original became the “second house” and was used as a kind of infirmary.

The Shaker “families” would range in size from 50 to 150 people.

At Watervliet the building of both a new dwelling house and a new meeting house in 1790-91 was made necessary by the great “ingathering” or influx of new members that occurred from that time until 1850, causing the enlargement of established communities and the creation of new ones.

First Meeting House at Watervliet, 1784

A log meeting house had been built in 1784 but, according to a listing of buildings made in 1826 by David Buckingham, although it was still standing it was “decayed.” It was two stories and, in the west part, Father Joseph Meacham (who had succeeded to the leadership after Mother Ann’s immediate successor, James Whitaker, died after serving only two years) had a room which was eventually used by Father John Hocknell. (Hocknell was one of the original group of eight who came from England.) When the latter lived there, he used to walk the floor for hours at a time and sing. The boys had a room immediately under him and could hear him. Mother Lucy Wright (who was in the Ministry with Father Joseph) had a room at the end of the hall for her use when she visited Watervliet.

Second Meeting House, 1791

The 1791 Meeting House was built under the leadership of Moses Johnson, who framed ten such meeting houses for different Shaker communities between 1785 and 1794. He began work on this gambrel-roofed structure at Watervliet in March 1791, with Moses Mixer, Stephen Markham and John Bruce as helpers. Johnson stayed until June to supervise the foundation and basic framing, after which he went to Enfield, Connecticut to help with their meeting house. This meeting house stood until 1927 when it was razed by Albany County.

Shakers harvesting their famous herbs
Shakers harvesting their famous herbs

All the Shaker settlements launched overwhelming building programs during this 1790-1850 period. At the Watervliet Church Family, this amounted to 27 buildings by 1858, including the new dwelling house already mentioned, the Brick Shop in 1822, the Ministry Shop in 1825, the Brick Office in 1830, the stone Sisters’ Shop in 1840, and a Laundry in 1858. All of these buildings are still standing except the Stone Sisters’ Shop which, along with most of the wooden buildings on the site except for the 1848 Meeting House, was razed by the County in 1927.

Construction of the Third Meeting House, 1848

The construction of a new meeting house was a big event and both the preparations and the actual construction are well recorded in the journals. As soon as weather permitted in the spring of 1848, construction began. The stone used in the foundation was brought from an old mill site on the property; there was an older building on the proposed site, and this was moved in May. The brethren then began digging the cellar. Beginning on May 8, the foundation was laid by a crew of hired masons. It took seven weeks to complete. The cost for the foundation was 8 bits (or $1.00) per yard and there were 389-1/2 yards.

The entire timber frame was put up in one day, an event which everyone participated in – much as we hear about “barn raisings” in the surrounding area. This occurred on June 27, 1848 under the direction of Oliver Prentiss.

In addition to the Watervliet brethren, four hired men were employed. Then on July 1st, six brethren came from Mt. Lebanon to help, three being tinners for the roof and three woodworkers. Tinning began July 6th and was finished on the 18th. On August 13th the brethren began siding with clapboards bought in Albany, and by August 22nd the building was completely covered, even to the door caps. Meanwhile other brethren were mixing paint, and by October 14th, three coats of white had been applied.

Then, with colder weather coming on and the outside being completed, work began on the interior. Plastering of the interior was done by six hired men under the direction of a master mason named Woodruff.

Woodstoves were put in the ministry apartments for heating, but the meeting room had an “air heater” or furnace. No physical evidence exists today as to the size of this furnace, but later journal entries indicate it was inadequate.

Source: Shaker Heritage Society of Albany, New York:

Editor’s Note: About Shaker Heritage Society of Albany, New York: The mission of the Shaker Heritage Society is to celebrate and interpret America’s first Shaker settlement and to preserve it for the benefit of future generations. The vision of the Shaker Heritage Society is to be a nationally recognized interpretive center dedicated to educational programming regarding the Shakers, their history, their innovative spirit and influence on American culture.

Shaker Heritage Society is an education and historic preservation organization incorporated by the New York State Department of Education.


One response to “Shakers – A Utopian Community: Founded In U.S. 1776”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *