Shaker Studies: Who Are the Shakers?
The Shakers are a small Protestant religious denomination founded in Manchester, England in the mid-1700’s as a dissident group of the Society of Friends (Quakers). Derisively called “Shaking Quakers” because their meetings included both singing and dancing, they were joined by a young woman, Ann Lees [later shortened to “Lee”] (b. 1736 – d. 1784), who was, according to those who knew her, at times “filled with visions and revelations of God.” The “light and power of God” revealed in Ann caused her fellow believers to acknowledge her as the “first spiritual Mother in Christ” and to give her the title of “Mother” Ann. However, the Shakers’ manner of worship stirred up “rage and enmity” and the Shakers decided for their own safety to leave England.
The first group of Shakers, five men and three women led by Mother Ann Lee, arrived in America from England in August 1774. Within a few years, they had settled at Watervliet, New York, a tiny hamlet near Albany. After the American Revolution, many people were converted to the new faith and nine Shaker communities were founded in New York state and throughout New England. In the early 1800’s, the movement spread west into Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. By 1824, the Shakers had 19 self-sufficient communities from Maine to Indiana. Each community was a “society” and as a group they called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. At their peak in the mid-19th century, they were the largest and most successful utopian group in existence. Today, one Shaker community remains-at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
The essential principles of the Shaker faith, as it developed in America, include celibacy, equality of the sexes, community of goods, oral confession of sin (to Shaker Elders and Eldresses), pacifism, and withdrawal into their own communities from the “World” (their term for all non-believers). The Shakers accept that Mother Ann Lee’s revelations have led them into the Millennium foretold in the New Testament (Revelation 20: 1-6). Since 1821, all Shaker communities have lived under the “Orders and Rules of the Church,” known also as the “Millennial Laws”. The Orders, as modified in January 1938, are still in force within the United Society today (2020).
Books and Articles by the Shakers (Primary Source Material)
- FIRST – Read the Principles and Beliefs of the Shakers in their own words (2020)
A statement and an invitation from the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
- Interested in Becoming A Shaker? Read the Requirements and Process for Membership (2020)
Note the very important link to the “Shaker School”, a comprehensive Shaker reading list.
- Shaker Brother Arnold Hadd Talks About the Shaker Life, Spiritual and Otherwise.
Youtube interview filmed in December 2019.
- Shaker Dancing and Marching, by Sister Lillian Phelps (1961 or 1962)
Imagine a group of eight or ten Shakers singers occupying the center of the meeting room, around which the other Shaker members
marched in perfect formation. Canterbury, NH Shaker Sister Lillian Phelps describes the perfect spiritual union produced by the Shaker marches.
- Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message, by Anna White & Leila S. Taylor (1904)
The last history of the Shakers by members of the Society, written by Mt. Lebanon Eldress Anna White and published by the Shakers themselves. She had access to original material that was later lost to researchers.
- The Aletheia: Spirit of Truth, by Aurelia G. Mace (1899)
Included are a series of letters that Sister Aurelia Mace wrote in 1883 and 1884 to the Bangor, Maine Messenger, as well as articles that she wrote for The Manifesto with the purpose of providing a “clear and correct idea of the Shakers’ belief and manner of life”.
- Social Life and Vegetarianism, by Martha J. Anderson (1893)
In this little booklet, Sister Martha Anderson describes life at the Mt. Lebanon, NY Shaker village from a woman’s point of view–
the “culinary department”, sickness, sleep, clothing, and recreation–and also provides seven pages of Shaker vegetarian recipes.
- Life With the Shakers, edited by Elder Frederick W. Evans (1888)
Simplified description of a “typical” week at the Mt. Lebanon, NY Shaker village in the 1880’s.
- Orders for the Church of Christ’s Second Appearing (1887)
The 1887 version of the rules that guide the Shakers in their daily lives.
- The Beauty of My Shaker Faith, by Eldress Harriet Bullard (1872)
Very compelling testimony, and an invitation, by a member of the Central Ministry at Mt. Lebanon, New York.
- A Petition to President Abraham Lincoln on the Draft, by the Shakers (1863)
The Civil War was a calamity for the Shakers, and particularly Shakers in Kentucky. Elders John Rankin and Harvey Eades petitioned President Abraham Lincoln directly asking him to release Shaker men from the draft. Read their letter and learn of the subsequent response.
- The Testimony of Christ’s Second Appearing, Exemplified by the Principles and Practice of the True Church of Christ,
by Benjamin Seth Youngs, (1854)
First published in 1808 and called by the “world’s people” the Shaker Bible, it gives a masterly analysis of Christian belief
before the coming of Mother Ann Lee (pages 1-538), the most complete statement of Shaker theology that can be found
anywhere (pages 539-614), and a history of the Shakers from their founding to the end of the 19th century (page 615-631).
Probably the most important book ever published by the Shakers.
- Fifteen Years in the Senior Order of Shakers, by Hervey Elkins (1853)
Brother Hervey Elkins left the Shakers in 1852 and married Martha Hart, a former Enfield Shaker sister, in 1854. His first-person account of everyday life at the Shaker Village in Enfield, New Hampshire also describes the leaders’ efforts to keep the two young Shakers apart.
- Christmas Among the Shakers in the Olden Time, by Elmina Phillips (1850?)
On Christmas Day at the North Union, Ohio Shaker community, a company of young Shakers went around in the early morning singing a Christmas song to awaken the rest of the Shaker family. Sister Elmina Phillips tells what it was like to experience a Shaker Christmas.
- A Summary View of the Millennial Church, or United Society of Believers (Commonly called Shakers), Second Edition
[by Calivn Green and Seth Y. Youngs] (1848)
First published in 1823, Part I describes in some detail Mother Ann Lee’s life and ministry; Part II outlines the Shaker system of government, education of children, and discusses the “origin, practice and reasonableness of Dancing, as an act of Divine Worship”; Part III is entirely theological.
- War and Peace – A Shaker Viewpoint (1848)
Pacifism is one of the Shakers’ core principles. This material is taken from A Summary View of the Millennial Church (above).
- Autobiography of Brother Issachar Bates (1832)
Brother Issachar Bates was an important early missionary who brought the Shaker message to Ohio and Kentucky. This is the story of his life in his own handwriting.
- Testimonies Concerning the Character and Ministry of Mother Ann Lee and the First Witnesses of the Gospel of Christ’s Second Appearing, Given by Some of the Aged Brethren and Sisters of the United Society, edited by S. Y. Wells (1827)
One of the most important early sources of information about the founders of Shakerism,
including testimonies about Mother Ann by those who actually knew her and heard her speak.
- The Kentucky Revival by Richard McNemar (1807)
The best and most authentic account of the massive upsurging of religious emotionalism known as the “Kentucky Revival”
that lead to the founding of the Shaker villages in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky.
Publications by the Shakers (Primary Source Material)
- The Shaker Manifesto (1871-1899)
The Shakers published The Shaker Manifesto as their official monthly periodical from 1871 to 1899. Every Shaker community contributed “Home Notes”; Shaker authors contributed articles on theology, farming practices, current events, etc.; and many Shakers were memorialized with comprehensive obituaries. The entire run of this periodical totals 16 volumes, 349 issues, and 8,136 pages. Fully indexed and searchable.
Visitors’ Accounts About the Shakers (Primary Source Material)
- A Shaker Village, by William Dean Howells (1876)
In 1875, Howells and his family regularly attended Sunday Meetings at the Shirley, MA Shaker community.
Books About the Shakers (Primary Source Material)
- A Concise History of the United Society of Believers Called Shakers, by Charles E. Robinson (1893)
Approved and later republished by the Shakers who appreciated the honesty and sympathy of the author’s treatment.
- Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles A. Nordhoff (1875)
Nordhoff gathered his facts and his impressions from personal visits to 14 Shaker societies throughout the U.S.
Historic Photos of the Shakers (Primary Source Material)
- Enfield Shaker Portraits
A comprehensive collection of cartes de visite of the Enfield, New Hampshire Shakers.
- In Time and Eternity: Maine Shakers in the Industrial Age, by David L. Richards
Forty-nine (49) historic images from the two Shaker villages in Maine—Alfred and Sabbathday Lake.
- The J. E. West Collection of New Lebanon Shaker Photographs, 1895-1903
Fifty-five (55) photographs and postcards depicting the Mt. Lebanon Shaker Village.
- Shakers and Kirkland, by Louis Baus (1931)
Eighty-three (83) images taken in the 1890’s at the North Union (Cuyahoga County), Ohio Shaker Village.
- Search the Online Collection of Shaker Photographs at Hamilton College Library
444 photographs with captions, primarily from Shaker communities in the northeast.
- Search the Online Collection of Shaker Cartes de Visite at Hamilton College Library
Seventy-nine (79) of the small photographic portraits that were very popular among the Shakers.
- Search the Online Collection of Shaker Postcards at Hamilton College Library
Over 1,200 early postcards illustrating Shaker villages from Maine to Florida.
- Search the Online Collection of Shaker Photographs and Postcards at the Winterthur Library
Over 1,100 black-and-white images from most of the Shaker villages in the U.S.
Videos About the Shakers (Secondary Source Material)
- Get an Introduction to the Shakers with Mt. Lebanon Shaker Museum, NY Director David Stocks.
Youtube video filmed in September 2014.
- Go on an Architectural Tour of Hancock Shaker Village, MA with Shaker Scholar Rob Emlen.
Youtube video filmed in December 2019.
- Visit the Cemetery at Harvard Shaker Village, MA with Roben Campbell and Brother Arnold Hadd.
Youtube video filmed in September 2012.
- Explore the Holy Hill at Harvard Shaker Village, MA with Roben Campbell and Brother Arnold Hadd.
Youtube video filmed in September 2012.
- Walk around Mt. Lebanon Shaker Village, NY with Director of Collections and Research Jerry Grant,
Photographer Jack Shear, and American Painter Ellsworth Kelly.
Youtube video filmed in 2011. Ellsworth Kelly died in December 2015.
- Hear about the History of the Shaker Village at North Union, Ohio (now Shaker Heights, OH).
Youtube video filmed in October 2011.
- Enjoy Harvestfest 2012 at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky with Interpreter Twana Patrick.
Youtube video filmed in September 2012.
- Learn about the Friends of the Shakers, who volunteer at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Maine.
Youtube video filmed in February 2015.
- See a History and Picture Gallery of the Sodus Bay Shaker Village, on Lake Ontario near Alton, New York.
Youtube video filmed in December 2018.
- Join a Tour of the Shaker Village at South Union, Kentucky with Museum Director Tommy Hines.
Youtube video filmed in May 2013.
- Take a Photographic Tour of Watervliet Shaker Village, near Albany, New York.
Youtube video filmed in November 2011.
- Come along on a Brief Tour of the Shaker Village at Whitewater, Ohio with Museum President Rich Spence.
Youtube video filmed in June 2016.
- Shaker Furniture: Clean By Design with Hancock Shaker Village Curator Leslie Herzberg.
Youtube video filmed in May 2015.
- Shaker Marches, Dances and Motioning Songs, a talk by Shaker Music Scholar Mary Ann Hagen.
Youtube video filmed in May 2018.
Articles About the Shakers (Secondary Source Material)
- Search back issues of the “American Communal Societies Quarterly”
Search “Shaker”; there are 309 results, with downloadable articles pertaining to all the Shaker communities.
- “The Founding Fathers and the Shakers”, by Christian Goodwillie (2016)
New research continues to give fresh insights into the longest-lived intentional community in the United States. Goodwillie’s work has yielded a number of fascinating references to the Shakers in the writings of the founders—and also one of the few known letters written by a Shaker directly to a president.
- The Great Stone Barn Project at Mt. Lebanon, NY (2013-2014)
Images and information about the largest of all Shaker barns at the Shaker Village in Mt. Lebanon, NY, as well as photos of other Shaker barns, including the 1854 Cow Barn at Enfield, NH.
- “Father retains his love of Shakerdom: The Journals of Wendell P. Elkins, 1872-1929”, by Galen Beale (2013)
In three generations, there had been sixteen Elkinses who had joined the Enfield Shakers and many of them—some apostates, some Believers—appear in Wendell’s journals. His journals confirm that the Elkins family’s relationship with the Enfield, New Hampshire, Shakers was neither combative nor dismissive, but rather, kind and loving.
- “The Mob at Enfield [NH]: Introduction”, by Elzabeth De Wolfe (2010)
For five days in May 1818, a mob set fear into the hearts of the Enfield, New Hampshire, Shakers. At issue in Enfield were the rights of wives whose husbands and children were Shakers. The rare manuscript reprinted here records the Shakers’ account of the five-day mob, likely as part of the legal proceedings that followed.
- “The History of the Shaker Gathering Order”, by Stephen J. Paterwic (2010)
All Shakers were divided into two groups, the Church Order and the Order of Families. The former was the inner core of Believers, and they lived near the meetinghouse. The Order of Families consisted Shakers living on peripheral farms. The Gathering or Novitiate Order was the place where adult converts could integrate themselves into Shaker life, guided by elders and eldresses specially chosen for the task.
- “‘Cummings and Goings’: The Impact of Shakerism on the Family of Edward T. Cummings”, by Mary Ann Haagen (2010)
It was not uncommon for entire families to join the Shakers and neither was it uncommon for some family members to leave. Edward Cummings brought five of his children, but not his wife, to the Enfield, NH Shaker community. Edward and two of his children eventually moved away, while three others became lifelong members; the gains and losses to the family and to the Shakers were immeasurable.
- “Shining Tree of Life: What the Shakers Did”, by Adam Gopnik (2006)
How did a sect so small make objects so sublime? Did they know what they were doing when they did what they did? Or were they doing something else, and doing this other, better thing on their way there?
- “Black Shakers at South Union, Kentucky”, by Kit Firth Cress (1993)
At the Shaker Village in South Union, Kentucky, no one was ever turned away. In fact, as this article reveals, the Shakers actually purchased slaves to free them so that they could become members and live together as Shakers.
- “Shaker Medicines”, by Harry D. Piercy, MD (1954)
Deals with herbal medicines in general use in the nineteenth century.
- “Shaker Education”, by Dr. Sherman B. Barnes (1953)
Examines Shaker educational practices and ideas, especially the ideas of Seth Youngs Wells (1757-1845).
Shaker Books – A Basic Shaker Reading List
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