Religion & Spirituality

What are the Shaker religious beliefs?

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2008-10-04 02:38:04

The Shaking religion; Quakers, or Shakers, led by Mother Ann

Lee, established one of the most successful insular religious

communities of the nineteenth century. The Shakers have several

"official" names: the United Society of Believers in Christ's

Second Appearing; the Millennial Church; the Children of Truth; the

Alethians (derived from the Greek word for truth). The sect first

appeared as an offshoot of the Society of Friends (Quakers), around

1750 in Manchester, England. The leaders of the group--which was

called the Shaking Quakers, or Shakers--were husband and wife

ministers James and Jane Wardley. The Shakers broke off from the

mainstream Quaker church and came under the influence of a group of

charismatic preachers and miracle-workers called the "French

Prophets." The Shakers were best known for the fervor of their

worship services. Like the Quakers, Shakers would sit in silent

meditation, waiting to be "moved by the Spirit," but the Shakers'

response to this spiritual power was to tremble violently (hence

"Shakers") and to spin and dance. Under the influence of the holy

Spirit they engaged in group ring dances, marches, singing and

shouting, speaking in tongues (glossolalia), prophecy,

faith-healing, miracle-working, and spiritual trances, often

accompanied by visons. The English mystic Ann Lee (1736-1784), who

was baptized and married in the Church of England, was drawn to the

Shakers in 1758, spending fifteen years with the sect before

leading a small group of followers to America. Mother Ann (as her

followers came to call her) frequently disrupted Anglican Church

services, and was finally imprisoned following one such outburst.

During her imprisonment she experienced a series of visions, which

revealed that sex was the main cause of sin and should be avoided;

that she herself was the fulfillment of Christ's Second Coming; and

that it was her duty to carry the Word, which she embodied, to the

New World. The Shakers already believed that Christ's Second Coming

would be as a woman, so the idea that Mother Ann might represent

that Second Coming was not dismissed out of hand, particularly as

her charismatic personality, enthusiasm, and mystical visions

clearly marked her as a prophet. In 1774 Mother Ann and eight of

her followers emigrated to America, where they established the

first Shaker settlement at Watervliet, near Albany, New York.

During their first two years in America, they directed their

efforts toward clearing the wooded land for planting, building

their village, and seeking new converts to their faith. Some

biographers believe that Mother Ann's original religious

conversion, her revelatory visions, and her missionary zeal all

grew out of early tragedy. She had been married to a blacksmith

named Abraham Stanley, and they had had four children, all of whom

had died in infancy. Mother Ann's rejection of the idea that God

had sanctioned sex for reproduction and her insistence on the

spiritual necessity of celibacy might well have been influenced by

such experiences. Little is known of her life before her conversion

because she avoided all discussion of it. As for as she was

concerned, her life began when she became a Shaker. Mother Ann died

in 1784, but her religious movement grew, reaching its peak between

1830 and 1850, with approximately 6,000 members. The sect was

centered in New England, and at least twenty major Shaker

communities were established in New York, Massachusetts, New

Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maine. A number of communities were

also established outside of New England, in Kentucky, Indiana,

Ohio, and Florida. Shaker beliefs appealed to many people in the

United States at that time, and the Shakers themselves were

tireless, enthusiastic missionaries. Many were particularly drawn

to the Shaker doctrine of radical equality: all human beings were

the children of God, and all should be treated equally, regardless

of sex, age, race, education, or wealth. The Shakers believed

themselves to be a manifestation of the original pentecostal church

of the Apostles, and their religious trances and glossolalia were

echoes of what the Apostles themselves had experienced when the

holy Spirit descended on them in the form of "tongues of fire,

which parted and came to rest on each of them and they were all

filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different

tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim" (Acts 2:3-4.

Revised ed. of the "New Testament of the New American Bible." Iowa

Falls: World, 1986. All references are to this edition.) From St.

Peter's speech in Acts, in which he quotes the prophet Joel, the

Shakers derived their belief in prophecies, visions, and miracles

performed through the power of the holy Spirit: "'It will come to

pass in the last days,' God says 'that I will pour out a portion of

my spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall

prophecy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall

dream dreams. Indeed upon my servants and my handmaids I will pour

out a portion of my Spirit in those days, And they shall

prophesy.'" (Acts 2:17-18) The Shaker belief that all property and

profit should be commonly held for the benefit of all grew from the

description in Acts of the communal life of the new Christian

communities: "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the

apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and

to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs

were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and

had all things in common; they would sell their property and

possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need"

(Acts 2:42-45). Shaker communities usually consisted of two

"families," of about thirty individuals each. Each family lived in

a large house, but the sexes were rigidly segregated, using

separate entrances, stairways, and sleeping quarters to avoid

intermingling. Each family had two elders and two eldresses, who

were responsible for the spiritual management of the family, and

the elders answered to the "ministry"--which consisted of two

elders and eldresses chosen from among the elders of the families.

Detailed oral confession of sin before witnesses was considered to

be necessary for salvation, and was required for admission to the

sect. Confession was to be repeated frequently, each time a member

felt that he had sinned. Because they repudiated the outside world,

the Shaker communities made a strong effort to achieve

self-sufficiency. The Shaker villages were models of nearly

complete economic self-containment, and were highly successful. The

Shakers were famous not only for their industriousness, but also

for their ingenuity, for in their quest for self-sufficiency they

invented a number of useful tools, including the circular saw (the

buzz saw), the metal pen point, the clothespin, the washing

machine, and the flat broom. Mother Ann's injunction, "Put your

hands to work and hearts to God," was at the center of Shaker life

and worship, and their high ideals were reflected in the quality of

their products. They approached work as an act of worship, and

aspired to a combination of simple yet beautiful design and fine

craftsmanship. To this day the elegant simplicity and exquisite

workmanship of Shaker furnishings and tools are highly prized.

After 1860 membership in the sect began to decline. By 1874, their

numbers had fallen from the high of 6,000 twenty years earlier to a

mere 2,400. By the mid-1890's, only about 1,000 Shakers were left

in the Shaker villages. After 1964, no new members were accepted

into the sect, and by the 1980's, only a few aged sisters remained

at the Sabbath Day Lake community in Maine. One obvious reason for

the sect's decline is that unlike other Utopian communities, it was

not marriage-based, and thus did not renew its numbers with

children born into families. Because Shakers were celibate, their

communities could grow only by constantly bringing in new converts,

but as the nineteenth century progressed, new converts were harder

to come by. The insular, communal Shaker way of life, and its

rigorous spiritual discipline--including unquestioning submission

to authority, celibacy, and strenuous manual labor--did not appeal

as much to an American people so strongly influenced by the

individualistic values of the late nineteenth century and by the

promise of material comfort and reduced labor not only for the

upper class, but for the common man as well. Although Shakerism was

one of the nineteenth century's most successful experiments in

religious communal living, it has subsided into a memory of

idealistic devotion. Once thriving Shaker villages are now only

museums, and the well-built, practical furnishings they were famous

for are collectors items and museum pieces.

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