I originally stated that this series would be in TWO parts, but, after getting into it, I realized that even THREE parts is hard. However, I promise that this will be the last of this particular subject series. (By stringing this out for another week, I also can put off coming up with a new topic!)
Last week, I finished with the organization of the Shakers following the death of their founder, Ann Lee. I also gave an overview of the communities that they establish in the Northeast United States. This week we will look at the Western expansion of the Shakers and their overall history after that, up to the present day.
As mentioned last week, Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright started consolidating the Shaker communities in 1787. Father Joseph, as he became known, died in 1796. Lucy Wright, however, would live until 1821, presiding over the Shaker golden age. By 1800, the Shaker communities in Upstate New York and New England were going strong. Within a few years, news trickled in that out west, in the frontier territories of Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, the fire of revival burned through the scattered settlements. Since the charismatic revivals in New England had proved fruitful for the Shakers, Lucy Wright commissioned three men – John Meacham, Issachar Bates, and Benjamin Seth Youngs – to explore the Western frontier and share the Shaker faith, in the hopes that the Kentucky and Ohio valleys would also field a large harvest of converts.
After departing on January 1, 1805, and traveling across Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Tennessee on foot, the trio arrived in Kentucky in March the same year, and after a short stop there, went on to Ohio. Throughout Ohio and Kentucky, the Shakers did indeed find ready converts. Union Village, Ohio, formed in 1805. By 1807, the Watervliet, Ohio and Pleasant Hill and South Union, Kentucky villages were founded. By 1822, two more villages, Whitewater and North Union, were founded in Ohio. these villages prospered up to the 20th century. Union Village in the early 1820s achieved such a high population that in surpassed the New Lebanon village, with roughly 650 Shakers living in eleven different family orders!
Not all Shaker villages were successful, however. For instance, in 1807 the Shakers attempted to establish a community in Busro, Indiana, on the Wabash River near the Illinois border. Known as West Union, it fell apart from the turmoils of the War of 1812-1814 and the hostility of other pioneer settlers. Other attempted communities include Gorham, Maine; Savoy, Massachusetts; and New Canaan, Connecticut. In 1826, New Lebanon sent out Shakers to colonize a tract of land in Sodus, New York, on the shores of Lake Erie. After productive years at this site, the Shakers relocated to Groveland, New York, due to fears that a canal would be constructed through Sodus (it ultimately never was constructed).
The Groveland, New York community was the last long-term major established by the Shakers, apart from a long-lived, but quite small, urban community established in Philadelphia in 1858. As mentioned prior, Mother Lucy headed the Shakers until 1821, and the era of her rule from 1800 until her death is seen by some as the Golden Age of the Shakers: Converts poured in, industry and agriculture thrived, and religious fervor over-flowed from the Shaker faithful. After Lucy Wright’s death, the Shakers entered a period of prosperity and consolidation. With continued growth in population, the Shakers grew more and more materially wealthy. The intense, passionate faith of previous decades gave way to a more subdued, peaceful mode of spiritual expression. By the 1830s, missionary work slowed, and Shaker villages instead began taking in large numbers of orphans, instructing them in the Shaker faith and hoping that they would become the next generation of Shakers.
However, this complacency of the 1820s and early 1830s was soon overturned by what the Shakers called “Mother Ann’s Work,” and historians typically call the Era of Manifestations. Concentrated most strongly among the young people, particularly girls, under Shaker care, a charismatic revival began in the mid-1830s, a revival that mirrored the original, ecstatic faith as experienced during the time of Ann Lee. Uncontrollable shaking and spinning, speaking in tongues, visions, and claims of contact with and possession by the spirit world are some examples of how the Shaker faith was now expressed. Spiritual names were created for all the major villages, apart from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. And special holy sites, usually a few miles from the main Shaker communities, were cleared and stone markers, or “fountain stones,” erected. In these clearings, elaborate rituals were carried out a few times a year: Worshipers might eat imagined “spiritual food” and wear colorful “spiritual clothing,” and meet with the spirits of the deceased faithful: Paul, Moses, Jesus, Ann Lee, Lucy Wright, and others.
Worship services became so chaotic that they were closed to outside viewing. Tensions started to stress the cohesion of Shaker communities, as elders tried to make sense of the rapid outpouring of spiritual gifts and the young resisted what they felt were restrictions on their faith. By 1844, the period of revival ended, and many Shakers abandoned their faith. While the overall number of Shakers held steady into the 1850s, perhaps even continued to increase, the communities would never again encounter such a vibrant period of faith.
The Civil War and its aftermath marks the beginning of Shaker decline. A delegation of Shakers met with Lincoln in person and managed to extract a status as conscientious objectors, but the war still ravaged the Kentucky communities and sapped energy from the remaining villages. And after the war, American society had changed: The Industrial Revolution fully began, making it easier for individuals to survive on their own without communal support. Americans were less concerned about religion and personal holiness. And material wealth and romantic love were proving more attractive than communal life and celibate devotion. Men in particular were less inclined to join the Shakers, and many men already in Shaker communities opted to leave.
Nevertheless, Shaker communities were still quite profitable, mass producing furniture and household items and growing herbal remedies, food, and dairy products. With the progressive era in full swing with ideas such as women’s suffrage, temperance, and racial equality, the Shakers found ready audiences for their ideas of egalitarian leadership and a disciplined life of sobriety and self-control (even if outsiders found celibacy unpalatable). Victorian aesthetics even crept into the Shaker’s previously unadorned, stripped-down style of furniture and architecture – ornate facades were built onto their sales offices and doors and trimmings of their dwellings, and their furniture took on more decorative features. Among the Shakers, many grew discontent at the “worldly” direction that they felt their communities were taking.
The closing of the Tyringham village in 1875 signaled the problem facing the Shakers: Despite the continuing profits brought in by the various industries, Shaker villages were no longer bringing in large numbers of converts. The rest of the major Shaker communities managed to stagger on until at least the dawn of the 20th century. Attempts were made to establish new communities in the more leisurely climate of the Deep South – at Narcoossee, Florida and White Oak, Georgia, but these efforts failed, and the early decades of the 20th century saw village after village close. In 1938, Watervliet, the first Shaker community and the home of Ann Lee, was closed, to the great sadness of the remaining Shakers. In 1947, New Lebanon disbanded, leaving Hancock Village in charge of the two other remaining villages: Canterbury, New Hampshire and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Hancock soldiered on until 1960, when it was purchased by a museum organization. Canterbury continued for decades, holding on until 1992, but closed its doors to new members shortly after the Hancock Village was sold. Sabbathday Lake continues to this day – it experienced a revival during the 1960s and 70s, bringing in new members and launching a journal, The Shaker Quarterly. Since the early 1990s, it has been in steep decline, yet continues to remain open to new converts.
While some or even many of their beliefs may seem odd and unorthodox, the Shakers have proven quite resilient as a small religious sect. Their beliefs in egalitarianism, communalism, and pacifism presaged many of the subsequent utopian experiments, and they have managed to outlast most of them. While many other communes and socialist societies have faded away, the Shakers continue.
- Training and research as a staff member at Hancock Shaker Village
- Numerous books and web research – I can provide a detailed bibliography if requested