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The Shaker Experience in America

The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers

Stephen J. Stein
Copyright Date: 1992
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 576
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  • Book Info
    The Shaker Experience in America
    Book Description:

    The Shakers, once a radical religious sect whose members were despised and harassed by their fellow Americans, have in recent years become celebrated-and sentimentalized-for their communal way of life, the simplicity of their worship, their belief in celibacy, pacifism, and equality of the sexes, and not least, their superb furniture and handicrafts. This monumental book is the first general history of the Shakers from their origins in eighteenth-century England to the present day.

    Drawing on written and oral testimony by Shakers over the past two centuries, Stephen J. Stein offers a full and often revisionist account of the movement: their charismatic leaders, the early years in revolutionary New York and New England, the expansion into the West, the maturation and growth of the sect before the Civil War, the decline in their fortunes after the war, the painful adjustments to society Shakers had to make during the first half of the twentieth century, the renaissance of interest after 1950, and the "forbidden topic" within contemporary Shakerism-the conflict between the two remaining villages at Canterbury, New Hampshire, and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Stein provides many new interpretations of the Shaker experience. He reassesses the role of founder Ann Lee, emphasizes the impact of the western Shaker settlements on the course of the society's history, and describes the variety of cultural enterprises that have obscured the religious and historical dimensions of the Shakers. Throughout Stein places the Shaker experience within the wider context of American life and shows how the movement has evolved to deal with changing times. Shattering the romantic myth that has been perpetuated about the quaint and peaceful Shakers, Stein portrays a group that is factious, practical, and fully human.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16085-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. x-xi)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xii-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xx)
  7. PART ONE A New and Strange Religion:: The Age of the Founders, 1747–1787

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 1-3)

      It was an inauspicious beginning in America for the small band of English enthusiasts, known to some as Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, who landed at New York in early August 1774. Ann Lee, leader of the religious group, probably took employment as a domestic. Her companions, including her blacksmith husband, apparently did likewise. Several years would pass before Lee, a woman of nearly forty, resumed public leadership of the remaining handful of her followers.

      These were turbulent times for the American colonies. The same New York newspaper that listed an opening for “a middle-aged woman of good character, well acquainted...

    • Background
      (pp. 3-10)

      The world of religious sectarianism in eighteenth-century England was crowded with sometimes strange but always interesting groups. The Shaking Quakers were one among many manifestations of radical religion that arose in the land during and after the English Civil War. Many sects were “enthusiastic” in character, a designation used pejoratively on both sides of the Atlantic to condemn radical dissenters for heterodox beliefs and excessive emotionalism. Sectarians, by definition, live in tension with their host culture; they seek to turn the world upside down. “Enthusiasts,” from the vantage point of the orthodox and established parties of that day, were “unconventional...

    • Beginnings in America
      (pp. 10-14)

      Nearly all observers agree that 1780 marked the “opening” of the Shaker gospel in America, when events catapulted the Shaking Quakers into the public eye. Guided by charismatic leaders, the English immigrants had secured sufficient land for home sites and had reassembled as a religious society in the Albany area. Initially the distinctive beliefs and practices of the small group attracted little attention, perhaps because of the relative isolation of Niskeyuna. That same isolation from the outside world, according to Shaker tradition, allowed them to hold “solemn meetings” once again without interference. But the society did not escape all notice....

    • An Apostate’s View
      (pp. 15-18)

      One day after Ann Lee’s release from prison, Valentine Rathbun, a Separate Baptist minister in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, signed the draft of a publication describing “the matter, form and manner, of a new and strange Religion, that has lately taken place among many people, in the States of Massachusetts and New York.” His account of the Shakers, which appeared in print in 1781, is the first extensive published report dealing with the society in America. It is an extremely valuable contemporary description based in part on his personal contact with members of the society.36

      Rathbun had embraced the Shaker gospel in...

    • Ann Lee’s Public Ministry: An Insider’s View
      (pp. 18-25)

      Following Ann Lee’s release from prison in 1780, the activities of the society again centered on Niskeyuna, the principal residence of the English Shaking Quakers. To that site came a growing number of Americans seeking nurture and instruction, counsel and advice, from the leaders of the sect. Converts and inquirers alike participated in the meetings and then returned to their homes throughout New England and adjacent areas of New York. Shaker tradition speaks of large numbers visiting and of remarkable religious manifestations among them. “Signs and operations, prophecies, visions and revelations of God greatly abounded,” one recalled. Thus the word...

    • The Teachings of the First Witnesses
      (pp. 25-31)

      The teachings of Ann Lee and the other early leaders were not written down during her lifetime. Therefore one of the most difficult tasks facing the historian who wishes to reconstruct the development of Shaker theology is identifying the original kerygma proclaimed by the founders. That proclamation must be distinguished from pronouncements ascribed to them by later traditions. Making this distinction is essentially the task of the source critic, for within the body of oral testimonies collected, edited, and printed by the Believers in the nineteenth century lie clues to the original Shaker gospel. The confidence of some scholars notwithstanding,...

    • The Close of the Age of the Founders
      (pp. 32-38)

      Following the return of the itinerants to Niskeyuna in September 1783, the resident ministry of the Shaker leaders resumed much the same pattern as previously. The autumn and winter months were filled with counseling, spiritual labor, and preaching. Increasing numbers of converts and inquirers sought these services. The sect had profited greatly from the missionary effort to “lay the foundation of Christ’s Kingdom on earth,” even though the three leaders of the society had suffered physically from the hardship and fatigue attendant on the travel and from the persecution and hostility.78

      Soon, however, the situation of the young society changed...

  8. PART TWO The Gathering and BUilding of the Church:: The Establishment of the United Society, 1787–1826

    • The Beginnings of Communitarianism
      (pp. 41-49)

      Less than a month after the death of James Whittaker, two Shakers in the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, area were attacked while traveling to a public meeting. Summoned before a justice of the peace, the assailants confessed that without provocation they had assaulted and shamefully abused the two, both verbally and physically. This incident reveals only one of the problems facing the members of the society at the time. Scattered across the countryside, the Shakers were extremely vulnerable to harassment and attack. Without strong leadership, they also faced the prospect of quickly losing the sense of common purpose and commitment that bound...

    • The Ministration of Lucy Wright
      (pp. 49-57)

      “Your Mother will have the gifts of God for you after I am gone.” With these words Joseph Meacham is said to have assured the smooth transfer of power to Lucy Wright after his death. She, in turn, was acknowledged to be first in the order of the ministry by consent of the elders and by union of the members. The change in leadership did not bring immediate alterations in the fortunes of the young society. Nor were there indications that the Shakers were about to enter their most creative and productive decades, or that this daughter of New England,...

    • Expansion into the West
      (pp. 57-66)

      Lucy Wright’s most significant decision during her twenty-five years of leadership was the authorization of a missionary expedition into the Ohio Valley at the beginning of 1805. According to Shaker tradition, Ann Lee had anticipated this move many years earlier. It is reported that Lee prophesied, “The next opening of the gospel will be in the southwest; it will be at a great distance and there will be a great work of God.” But prophecy was hardly the determining factor in Wright’s decision. Reports concerning western revivals had been circulating throughout America for years, filtering into the Shaker villages, too....

    • The Origins of Shaker Theology
      (pp. 66-76)

      One of the guiding assumptions of this study is the fundamental tension between “charism” and “institutions,” to use the categories of sociologist Max Weber. Charism manifests itself in radical enthusiastic movements that express ideals of equality. Institutions give rise to established routines, rules, traditions, and rationalizations that confirm the principles of hierarchy and bureaucracy. Theological reflection is part of the process of building institutions. By contrast with religious experience or the direct encounter with the divine, theology represents “an intellectualrationalizationof the possession of sacred values.” Theology follows religious experience in both temporal and logical sequence in the evolution...

    • The Creation of a History
      (pp. 76-87)

      The anonymous author of the earliest effort to write the history of the Shakers compared himself to a traveler moving through an unmapped and “almost impervious wilderness, without a single way-mark to guide his steps.” His task was all the more difficult in 1795 because this “wild sect” had written no accounts of its own “profession or practice.” Drawing on limited public information, he traced the origins of the society to Jane Lees, a woman who “procured her living at the expence of her chastity.” A person of “extraordinary pretensions” whose activities were “subversive,” she had been declared a “public...

    • The Consolidation of the Millennial Church
      (pp. 87-106)

      The appearance of theSummary Viewin 1823 signaled the completion of the establishment of the Shakers as a society, now formally called the United Society of Believers. In their publication Green and Wells provided not only carefully crafted historical and theological statements, but also information on the “progress” and “practical order” of the society. By the middle of the 1820s the Believers could point with pride to their success as a national communal society, stretching from Maine in the East to Kentucky and Indiana in the West. Not surprisingly, Shaker accounts accented the union and order prevailing in the...

    • The Close of the Formative Period
      (pp. 106-118)

      The history of the Shakers does not divide neatly into distinct, self-contained periods. Developments that began during the Age of the Founders continued into the era of their successors. The forces set in motion by Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright, the second generation of leaders, lasted long after their deaths. The tendency of historians to draw sharp dividing lines within the story of Shakerism distorts our understanding of the society. The most egregious errors of this sort involve the selection of wars as turning points in Shaker history, an especially inept choice for a community committed to the principles of...

  9. PART THREE Too Much of the Wind, Fire, and Earthquake:: The Maturation and Revitalization of the Society, 1827–1875

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 119-122)

      The middle of the nineteenth century presents a study in contrasts for the student of United States history. The nation was experiencing periods of growth and prosperity alternating with times of turmoil and upheaval. Geographical expansion, internal improvements, advances in agricultural technology, the influx of immigrants, the growth of a middle class, the beginnings of industrialization and urbanization—these and other changes were contributing to the modernization of America. Yet at the same time political, economic, and social conflict was the norm. The citizens of the United States marked fifty years of independence in 1826 with increasing debate over a...

    • A New Generation of Leaders
      (pp. 122-133)

      During the 1820s responsibility for leadership in the society passed into the hands of the third generation of Shakers in America, for the most part members who had come to maturity after the deaths of the English founders. Some of these Believers had known only Lucy Wright’s tenure in the central ministry. The transition to new leadership was accomplished with relative ease, for now the principle of a self-perpetuating hierarchy was established in practice and sanctioned by tradition. Following Wright’s death in 1821 at the age of sixty-one, only one member of the parent ministry at New Lebanon continued to...

    • The Economics of Community
      (pp. 133-148)

      By the mid-1820s the United Society of Believers was composed of a highly complex network of social and economic units tied together by religious commitments and a growing body of legal arrangements. The society was no simple utopia, nor did it resemble the primitive communism of the early Christian church. On the contrary, Shaker common life had become highly structured, involving multiple levels of subordination and established patterns for making decisions. Gone were the days of the early Believers, who shared their possessions out of a sense of spiritual affection and joined in the tasks at hand because it was...

    • The Social Situation
      (pp. 148-165)

      Reconstructing the social situation of ordinary Believers in the mid-nineteenth century requires a careful handling of historical evidence, whether written documents or material objects. The inherent biases of these sources frequently skew the picture of daily life in the villages. Shaker documents often reflect the official view of the society because they were penned by persons appointed or approved by the ministry. Physical artifacts can also be misleading because some “things” that have endured may have had little actual use. Worn-out items, by contrast, are frequently discarded. Material objects must be resituated in their proper historical context. Reconstruction of the...

    • The Spiritualistic Revivals
      (pp. 165-184)

      No period of the United Society’s history has attracted more attention and speculation than the years of spiritualistic activity beginning in the late 1830s and extending into the 1850s. Shaker historians, pointing with pride to this outpouring of gifts, have compared it favorably with the first century of Christianity. Sympathetic non-Shakers have depicted the period in much the same way. Critics and opponents of the Believers, by contrast, quickly seized on the frenzy of the revivals and attacked the beliefs and practices of the society. They ridiculed the ecstatic activity and pointed to the widespread religious commotion as a sign...

    • The Legacy of the Manifestations
      (pp. 184-200)

      The religious commotion of the revival period threatened the stability of the United Society. Early in the Era of Manifestations, Seth Y. Wells gave voice to a fear that gripped the leadership when he wrote, “A ship or even a little boat, with a sufficient weight of ballast, will go safely through the water with spreading sails; while another without ballast is in great danger whenever her sails are spread; because she is greatly exposed to be upset with the first blast of wind that blows.” Wells and others spoke of the need to balance the spiritual gifts with sufficient...

    • The Changing Situation
      (pp. 200-215)

      Rhetoric cannot mask the failure of the revivals to redirect the evolution of the sect. The Believers were rapidly assimilating into the culture of the United States. Members of the United Society were increasingly conforming to the ways of the world, having abandoned their radical sectarian past. Although they maintained a continuing commitment to certain elements of their tradition—the principle of celibacy, the practice of confession, and communal arrangements—by 1860 the society was changing rapidly. These developments did not please all the Believers.172

      On the eve of the Civil War, Isaac N. Youngs, then sixty-seven, took stock of...

    • The View from the Outside
      (pp. 215-222)

      During the middle decades of the century, a growing number of outsiders visited Shaker villages and recorded their conflicting impressions. Among the visitors were many persons of prominence, including writers and celebrities. James Fenimore Cooper, after inspecting Hancock, New Lebanon, and Watervliet, praised the outward appearance of the settlements. In spite of the order and cleanliness, however, he depicted the Believers as “deluded fanatics” because of their strange worship activities. Ralph Waldo Emerson was equally condescending about the life situation of the Shakers, which he described as a “protestant monastery,” a place inhabited by “a set of clean, well disposed,...

    • The Closing of the Middle Period
      (pp. 222-238)

      By 1870 all factions in the United Society agreed that drastic steps were needed to offset the “universal declension in the religious element.” In the judgment of many Believers, religion had “lost its vitality” throughout the United States. In June the central ministry wrote a circular letter to the villages in which they lamented the “unfaithfulness in Zion” evidenced by declining numbers. A few “weak souls,” they noted, were even intimating that the gospel was “running out.” But, the ministry declared, “God forbid that his Zion should perish; for, She is His vicegerent on the earth.” As a partial corrective,...

  10. PART FOUR In the Van of an Advancing Host:: The Transformation of the Society, 1876–1947

    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 239-242)

      The celebration of America’s centennial in 1876 was marked by patriotic observances across the nation. Although all parts of the country were not prospering equally, many Americans struck a cheerful note in their assessment of the state of affairs in that anniversary year. The United States had weathered the Civil War and now was regrouping for further advancement. Even the South, facing complex problems with the failure of Reconstruction, was struggling to rebuild. A note of optimism echoed through the chambers of government and business, education and religion, as well as in the halls of the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia.¹...

    • Declining Membership and Geographical Retreat
      (pp. 242-256)

      The closing decades of the nineteenth century contrast sharply with the society’s years of expansion in the early 1800s. The dominant institutional reality shaping the experience of the Shakers after 1876 was the precipitant numerical decline in the ranks of nearly every village. After the closing of Tyringham, the society struggled to maintain itself and to shore up its collective sense of community in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. In spite of the loss of membership, the Believers did not lose heart. Their confidence and commitment, though sorely tested, found repeated expression. One stouthearted resident of the Second Family...

    • The Feminization of the Society
      (pp. 256-272)

      The feminization of the United Society accelerated dramatically in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. Although women had always played an especially significant role in the Shaker experience compared with their counterparts in most other religious groups, during this period they achieved more than the parity theoretically possible under the covenants and Millennial Laws of the community. Shaker women began to dominate nearly every aspect of the society’s life. Feminization within Shakerism, therefore, by contrast with developments in America that historians have described at length as the “cult of domesticity” and the doctrine of “two spheres,” involved...

    • The World of Finance Capitalism
      (pp. 272-286)

      The last stronghold of male domination in the United Society was the financial and legal arena. What earlier had been the prerogative of the “order and office of deacons” under the Millennial Laws of 1821, by midcentury became the designated responsibility of the society’s trustees. It was they, for example, who held consecrated property in their own names on behalf of the society. They, and only they, legally could incur debt, hold bonds, transfer property by sale or mortgage, and enter into contracts with persons outside the society. The trustees were the chief financial officers of the society. As the...

    • The Impact of Modern Thought and Life
      (pp. 286-304)

      The pace of modernization within the United Society accelerated dramatically during the last decades of the nineteenth century. One Believer in western New York captured the new outlook with a brief sentence: “Happily we at Groveland are among the class known as disciples of the new and better way, advocating best systems of being and doing, thinking and acting.”Modernization, as employed by historians of culture, implies more than just the use of laborsaving devices, themselves symbols of a larger process. It describes the change in outlook that accompanies the development of modern institutions—technological, industrial, commercial, educational, governmental. It...

    • Reconciliation with the World
      (pp. 304-319)

      After 1876 the United Society no longer embodied the radical sectarian attitude that once had defined its relation to the world. That harsh critique gave way in the closing decades of the century to a reformist impulse, especially among members of the society’s progressive wing. Rather than simply condemning the world and trying to flee from it, many Shakers now wished to change things for the better. They came to see themselves as agents for the transformation of American society. Although but “a little body,” the Believers possessed “a great soul” and aimed at the “construction of a true Christian...

    • Varieties of Religious Experience
      (pp. 320-337)

      By the end of the nineteenth century the “varieties of religious experience” within Shakerism, to borrow a phrase from William james, defied easy categorization. The situation among the Believers paralleled the expanding pluralism within America. No one event signaled the growing religious diversity in the United States more than the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At that gathering in 1893 “Christians and jews, Mohammedans, Buddhists, Brahmans and followers of about every religious creed in the civilized world met in one grand assembly … for the first time in the history of the...

    • The Issue of Decline
      (pp. 337-354)

      As the realities of post–Civil War Shakerism became apparent, one question was asked most frequently by Believers and outsiders alike: “Are the Shakers dying out?” The faithful raised the question in order to answer it in the negative. Non-Shakers inquired for a variety of reasons, including perhaps the hope that “an institution so antagonistic to the elements of a worldly life … might die out”; so Giles Avery thought in 1879 when he set out to answer the question. Avery looked back into history and noted that only four villages had been closed during the previous century: West Union...

  11. PART FIVE I Almost Expect to Be Remembered as a Chair:: The Rebirth of Shakerism, 1948 to the Present

    • [PART FIVE Introduction]
      (pp. 355-358)

      The United States emerged from the Second World War, a conflict fought to end a demonic scourge, only to face a battery of newly bewildering and frightening circumstances. The atomic age brought the specter of nuclear attack and the necessity for shelters, real or imaginary. The Cold War replaced former enemies with the forces of communism. A new age of international tension opened, and limited warfare flared up with frightening regularity during the decades that followed. Political tests for patriotism became commonplace as Americans learned to live in the “global village.”¹

      Changes were no less dramatic on the domestic front...

    • Waiting for the End
      (pp. 358-370)

      “It is hard for those on the outside to comprehend the burdens, anxieties and inner workings of our organization,” wrote Emma B. King late in 1947, “and how much careful planning it requires with our present few members to meet the needs of the aged and feeble and keep these large homes running successfully.” On King’s shoulders rested the principal burden of leading the dwindling number of Believers. Gifted and resolute, this diminutive woman—remembered by some as Emma Be King—guided the society through the difficult postwar years. King, who had served for more than thirty years in the...

    • The Beginnings of a Shaker Revival
      (pp. 370-384)

      Around midcentury, when it appeared that the United Society was passing completely from the scene, the first stirrings of a new chapter in Shakerism’s story were felt. The signal event was the publication in 1953 of Edward Deming Andrews’s monographThe People Called Shakers. This modest-sized volume, which told in charming and sympathetic fashion the tale of the society before 1870, became the centerpiece in a renaissance of historical interest in the Shakers. Reissued a decade later in an enlarged edition that included footnotes, Andrews’s account became the standard introduction to the Believers for thousands, if not tens of thousands,...

    • Controversy among the Believers
      (pp. 384-394)

      Within Shakerism no single principle has received more attention through the years than union. From unity came societal strength, and from its lack came weakness. “o union thou great source of strength ever abide with us, for thou art our life, our all!” wrote one Believer at Pleasant Hill in 1890. Mary Johnston continued, “Have we not realized how harmoniously we progress when all are united in heart and spirit for the interest of each other and the glorious cause in which we have engaged? Herein lies our success or defeat.” The “journey in time,” according to her, was “too...

    • The Selling of the Shakers
      (pp. 394-409)

      The historical revival, which began modestly in the early decades of the twentieth century before the controversy between Canterbury and Sabbathday Lake, became the foundation for a vast array of commercial undertakings, many of which were linked only indirectly to the United Society. During the first century of the Shaker experience in America, in theory at least, temporal issues in the society had been subordinate to spiritual concerns. The trustees answered to the ministry, handwork was a form of worship, and activities in the meetinghouse sometimes displaced shop routines. That all changed during the second century of the Believers’ history....

    • The Ecumenical Shakers
      (pp. 409-422)

      By the 1960s Shakerism had become much more than the Believers; in fact, the world of Shaker was threatening to overshadow the Shakers themselves. There is some irony in that name—the world of Shaker—for the founders of the society and their early followers had withdrawn from the world because they regarded it as evil and carnal. In the late twentieth century the Believers were embraced by the world, which fed on them in parasitic fashion. The Believers welcomed this embrace, however, and a symbiotic relationship developed in which both parties were nurtured. As a result, in the case...

    • The Shaker Myth: A National Treasure
      (pp. 422-432)

      There is a connection between the recent ecumenism of the society and the unprecedented popularity the Shakers are enjoying today. The members of the United Society have become both a curiosity and an object of admiration. Their reputation is higher than ever before. Television documentaries and news clips, cookbooks and coloring books, gift books and doctoral dissertations, how-to-do-it kits for those who are handy or “not so handy” and samplers for those who sew, antique shows and auctions, record-breaking crowds at historical restorations and museums, high-priced seminars for collectors and informal study groups for Shaker enthusiasts, newsletters in abundance and...

    • Looking to the Future
      (pp. 432-442)

      A century ago Charles Edson Robinson wrote a series of essays on communism and Shakerism, which were printed in altered form by the Shakers at Canterbury in 1893. In the preface to that volume the author made evident his sympathy with the society by such observations as “No Shaker was ever known to make a false statement in relation to any business transaction whatever.” Robinson obviously had not encountered Nathan Sharp, Edward Chase, Isaiah Wentworth, Robert Valentine, or Joseph Slingerland in his researches. He also raised a question about the future of Shakerism, asking specifically whether the Believers would manage...

    (pp. 443-444)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 445-520)
    (pp. 521-524)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 525-554)