Since April, I have had the privilege of working at Hancock Shaker Village. This is a museum that straddles the border of Hancock and Pittsfield in Massachusetts, and I’ve been visiting there for about as long as I’ve lived here in MA (since 2003). This historic site was once part of a Shaker community which lived in much of Hancock, Pittsfield, and Richmond from c.1780, when the first locals converted to the faith, to 1959, when the last two Shakers moved out. Here we see a picture that my brother took of the iconic Hancock Round Stone Barn back in 2009:


Credit: Karl Mick

But who are the Shakers? Why are they called that? Since answering these question proves a lengthy discussion, I will break it into two installments.

The Shakers, more formally known as the United Society of Believers or the United Society of Shakers, are a radical monastic Protestant Christian sect that began around the 1750s. Some of their core beliefs are:

  • Confession of sin – living a life of repentance and holiness.
  • Communal living – sharing goods equally among all believers, as was done in the early Church. The Shakers are noted for this early form of Communism.
  • Celibacy – perhaps the most famous aspect of Shaker life, they live a life of sexual abstinence. Their founder, Ann Lee, believed that sex is what brought about the Fall, and continues to bring about suffering in the world. Also, they attempt to bring Heaven to Earth, and Jesus taught that there will be no marriage in heaven. Lastly, with a celibate life you are not distracted by pleasing a spouse and so can devote your life wholly to God.
  • Charismatic worship – The Shakers are known as such because of the singing, dancing, whirling, speaking in tongues, barking, and other boisterous modes of worship that they practiced. Today, Shakers only sing.
  • Millenarianism – Shakers believe that Christ’s Second Appearing came through their founder, Ann Lee. They do not believe that Jesus is God, but that God came down on him when he was baptized. With the spiritual baptism of Ann Lee, the end of the world has come, and the Kingdom of God is here.
  • Equality – The Shakers believe that God is one (not a Trinity), and is manifested in two forms: Male and female. Thus, men and women can both be religious leaders in Shakerism. All races and ethnicities are treated as equals in the faith.
  • Pacifism – Shakers do not fight in wars, and have (mostly) tried to abstain from politics (though during the Progressive Era they did become more politically active). They also avoided corporal punishment except as a last resort.

As you can see, most of these ideas, perhaps all of them, were quite radical in the 18th century, and many are still very radical for Christians today. As a consequence, the Shakers encountered much persecution in the first sixty to seventy years of their existence. The movement started in mid-18th century in Manchester, England. The Industrial Revolution was just starting there, bringing in many social changes, and various Christian sects and denominations contended with the Anglican church, including Quakers, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Camisards (French Huguenots now living in England).

Many people, dissatisfied with their previous religious communities, started up meetings in their own homes. A young woman named Ann Lee became involved in one of these home churches that was led by a Jane and James Wardley. Concerned about her spiritual welfare, Ann zealously participated in the services, quickly becoming a leader in the group. However, the noisy services would offend neighbors, and Ann Lee and others would sometimes disrupt Anglican Sunday morning services. She and many of her followers spent bouts in jail, as well as other mistreatment. It was during a stay in jail that Ann Lee became convinced of the need for celibacy. She was married, and had given birth to four children within a six year period, but in that period all of them had died.

Ultimately, due to the persecution that they experienced in England, Ann Lee and eight others, including her husband and one of her brothers, decided to sail to the American colonies. They arrived in New York harbor in 1774, which was not a good time to be English in America. As the Revolution swirled about them, the band of eight tried their best to make a living and share their new faith. Abraham Stanley, Ann’s husband, decided that a celibate life was not for him and abandoned his wife. The remaining band ended up finding a spit of land known as Niskayuna (eventually Watervliet) outside of Albany, New York, and they settled down there (the location is now within the town of Colonie).

Fortunately for the Shakers, while the time of 1770s was one of revolution, it also was one of revival. Numerous “stirrings” and charismatic movements flowed through congregations of various denominations, and people were eager for a new religious experience. The Shakers found man converts in the backwoods of New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, as these pioneers trekked out to Niskayuna to see these radicals from England that they’d heard tell about. Unfortunately for the Shakers, their activities also attracted persecution. In addition to the ridicule and sometimes physical violence that they received do to their unorthodox beliefs, their pacifism convinced many that they were Loyalists opposed to American independence, and the New York government became convinced that they were spies, and locked away some of the group. After six months of jail time, Ann Lee and those with her were released and told not to speak out against the war.

1780 was the year that the Shakers started seeing some major progress in their missionary efforts. Joseph Meacham, a minister from New Lebanon and Canaan, New York, visited the Shakers, converted, and convinced most of his congregation to convert. Valentine Rathbun from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, also converted, along with most of his congregation. Six months later, he would abandon the Shakers and become a major detractor, but many of his former congregants stayed Shakers. With Meacham, Rathbun, and other high profile ministers and civic leaders converting, people all throughout Columbia County, New York, and Berkshire County, Massachusetts, decided to join the Shakers and participate in the effort to establish utopia on earth.

Spurred on by a zealous faith and these early successes, Ann Lee, her brother William, James Whittaker, and other Shakers went on a series of mission trips from 1781-1783. Through all seasons, they traveled across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, preaching and holding services as they went. They attracted numerous converts, as people flocked to their services to see the chaotic, charismatic worshipers in action. However, just as in the past years at Niskayuna, Ann Lee attracted much negative attention as well. Mob violence would spring up in many cities that they traveled to, including Tyringham, Harvard, and Shirley, Massachusetts. William, James, and other men often were beaten until bloody, and at least once Ann Lee was attacked and her clothes torn as a mob of men tried to discover whether or not she was a secretly a man in disguise. Yet persecution often has the opposite effect than that intended: Instead of driving away potential converts, the persecutions faced by the Shakers only increased the number of faithful. The steadfast resolution of Ann Lee and her disciples amidst violence and hatred proved to many the truth of their message.

Thus, by 1784, there were faithful Shakers throughout New England and Upstate New York. All of these faithful would soon be dealt a massive blow: Both William Lee and Ann Lee died within months of each other that same year. Though both were fairly young – in their early forties – the hardships and violence they’d suffered had left them weak. Ann Lee never claimed to be immortal, and scolded anyone who thought that she or they themselves would live forever physically, but her and her brother’s death shocked her faithful, and left a hole in the spiritual leadership for this new faith. The next phase of Shakerism began.