Member of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, a celibate millenarian sect. Derived from a branch of the radical English Quakers (see Society of Friends), the movement was brought to the U.S. in 1774 by Ann Lee, an illiterate textile worker whose followers accepted her as the second incarnation of Christ. The Shakers spread throughout New England from their base near Albany, N.Y., and later into Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, eventually establishing 19 communities. Communities held property in common, observed celibacy, and pursued a life of productive labour. Although sometimes persecuted for their pacifism and for bizarre beliefs falsely attributed to them, Shakers won admiration for their model farms and orderly, prosperous communities. Their talent for simple, functional design led to numerous inventions and innovations (see Shaker furniture). The movement reached its height in the 1840s and thereafter gradually declined. In the early 21st century only one working Shaker village remained: Sabbathday Lake, near New Gloucester, Maine.
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The main current writer on anti-Shakerism compares allegations against them as similar to other celibate religious groups like Roman Catholic monks and nuns , although there are also similarities with hostility to Mormons or Masons. People who formerly resided in Shaker communities even wrote anti-Shaker tracts as some former, or allegedly former, nuns did.
Their millenarian views drew ire that in some respects is more understandable. Under Joseph Meachem, beliefs concerning God coming to destroy the Anti-Christ and create a better world grew more pronounced. The Shaker convert Frederick W. Evans in 1888 wrote an essay, based more on his enthusiasm than mainstream Shakerism, called a "Shaker reconstruction of the American Government." In it he exclaimed such a reconstruction event would cause poverty to disappear. Other individual Shakers proclaimed messages of joy or disaster were given to them by God or spirits. Even if none of this had official acceptance some blamed Shakerism and took these events to mean the Shakers had occult aspects that inspired domination or damnation of the lands they settled.
The Shakers were also among the first group to refer to God as Father/Mother or to alternatively refer to God as Mother sometimes while referring to God as Father at other times. They viewed God as a duality containing God the Father and a feminine Holy Spirit. This dualist and half-feminine view of God put them radically out of the mainstream. Also their tendency toward "petticoat government", a term used by a Shaker named Philemon Stewart, aroused suspicion among local men. In reality Shaker women largely conformed to nineteenth century expectations of domesticated femininity and left much of the financial aspect to Shaker men, but their official equality and leadership roles aroused suspicion. Shakers appeared for the time to be radical on women's issues and the elevation of Mother Ann Lee as a crucial part of the Second Coming outraged mainstream Christians as being blasphemous.
They also tended to believe in racial equality and harmony although in ways that sound vaguely condescending today. For example songs said to be "inspired by American Indian spirits" tended to involve stereotyped pidgin English like "Me love Mother and she love me Quille ose van da wahaw me!"(notebook from their Golden Harvest CD) Still these beliefs caused them the most violence as it encouraged them to harbor fugitive slaves or American Indians.
A strong source of literature hostile to a religion or group comes from former members or apostates. This is as true of Shakerism as it is of other groups. In the case of apostate Shakers there are strong similarities between their tracts and those written by ex-nuns or ex-Mormons.
The most significant Shaker apostate writer was likely Mary Marshall Dyer whose anti-Shaker efforts ran from 1815 to 1852. In 1813 she had joined the Shakers of Enfield, New Hampshire with her husband and family. However two years later she left blaming them for alienating her from her children. Despite that her husband and her family decided to stay. After that she did tours and wrote tracts against the Shakers. The main writings she did were A Brief Statement of the Sufferings of Mary Dyer and A Portraiture of Shakerism in 1822. She also got a mob together to storm the Enfield Shaker Community to take her children back, but this effort failed. For one her husband Joseph remained devout to the community and criticized her in strong terms. Only one of her five children ever left the Shakers and he never became close to her. By the 1850s her anti-Shaker views seemed extreme, in New England at least, and she died as a largely forgotten figure in 1867.
This decline led even ex-Shakers to view them in relatively positive terms. This began in the 1860s as toward the end of her life Mary Dyer had difficulty making friends among apostate Shakers. They viewed her as too harsh and her son never reconnected with her furthering the discomfort with her. As the group declined further most viewed them as being, at worst, as sexually repressed eccentrics who at least made nice furniture. A more common view saw them as quaint or even idyllic.
There remain small elements of the Christian counter cult movement that still use the Shakers as an example of a cult. Robert S. Liichow links it more to real or perceived New-Age cults. Lastly some indicate the term "Shaker" itself is an abusive one and that the proper term is "The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing," although as with the Quakers, that issue has largely ebbed.
Shaker ways won't be forgotten ; Sabbathday Lake Shaker Library will make it easier for outsiders, now and in the future, to learn about the shrinking sect.
Dec 18, 2003; VICTORIA GANNON News Clerk Portland Press Herald (Maine) 12-18-2003 Shaker ways won't be forgotten ; Sabbathday Lake...