Great Stone Dwelling, School, Children and Teams, Enfield, NH circa 1880
Stereoview, “Looking North, School Children and Teams” C. E. Lewis, Photographer, Lebanon, NH ca. 1880

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)

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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)

Books About the Shakers (Primary Source Material)

Historic Photos of the Shakers (Primary Source Material)

Videos About the Shakers (Secondary Source Material)

Articles About the Shakers (Secondary Source Material)

  • “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 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.

Shaker Books – A Basic Shaker Reading List

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