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The United Society of Believers in Christ–s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers, is a religious sect originally thought to be a development of the Protestant Quakers. Founded upon the teachings of Ann Lee, the group was known for their emphasis on social equality and rejection of marriage, which led to their precipitous decline in numbers after their heavy involvement in the running of orphanages was curtailed. With few surviving members, Shakers today are mostly known for their cultural contributions (especially style of music and furniture).
The Shakers were originally located and constructed in England in 1747, by Ann Lee. Both Quaker and Shaker groups believe that everybody could find God within him or herself, rather than through clergy or rituals. Lives should be dedicated to pursuing perfection and continuously confessing their sins and attempting a cessation of sinning.
The 17th century was fraught with religious turmoil due to constant fighting between Protestants and Catholics. Religious wars led many to believe that the Millennium was at hand, and spirit possession began manifesting itself in many new forms. The 18th century saw the largest number and most diverse of these possessions, including visions, prophecy, and trances. These movements became a part of the more general religious awakening that spread through most of continental Europe north of the Alps between the late 17th century and 1740s, affecting Great Britain and the American colonies as well. Half a century later, the United States and England saw an emergence of many radical religious groups who formed Utopian societies including the Oneida community, Millerites, Rappites and of course, the Shakers.
The Shakers focus on two moments as being the most influential in the origin of their movement. The first is 1706 with the coming of five –French prophets– to London, well recorded in historical sources as camisards from the Cvennes Mountains in the south of France. The name –Camisards– was the term that French Protestant militants bestowed upon themselves when they waged a five-year insurrection against Louis XIV, who was trying to stamp out Protestantism in favor of Catholicism. The Camisards were defeated and forced to join the thousands of Huguenot exiles living in Protestant territories in France, England, South Africa, North America, and elsewhere. The five French Prophets must have been amidst these exiles. The second date that Shakers focus on is 1747, when Mother Ann Lee first made contact with James Wardley, a preacher who maintained a small group with the –possession by the spirit– reminiscent of the French prophets.
The Shakers built 500 settlements that attracted some 20,000 converts over the next century. Strict believers in celibacy, Shakers maintained their numbers through conversion and adoption of orphans. Turnover was very high; the group reached maximum size of about 6,000 full members in 1840, but as of December 2009 had only three members left. Only a few of the original Shaker buildings are still in use today.
The Shaker community north of Albany was called by Shakers "the Niskayuna community." The town they were in was then officially called Watervliet. That part of the town of Watervliet is now in the town of Colonie (since 1895), and the name Watervliet is now limited only to the city of Watervliet (1896). This has led to some confusion, but the best method is to use the name the Shakers used for their community, Niskayuna. It is also fairly common to refer to the members there as Niskayuna Shakers.
A spiritualistic revival in New Lebanon, some forty miles away, sent many penitents to Niskayuna, who accepted Mother Ann's teachings and organized in 1787 (before any formal organization in Niskayuna) the New Lebanon Society, the first Shaker Society, at New Lebanon (since 1861 called Mt. Lebanon), Columbia County, New York. The Society at Niskayuna organized immediately afterwards, and the New Lebanon Society formed a bishopric. The Niskayuna Shakers, as pacifists and non-jurors, had gotten into trouble during the American War of Independence.
The village was divided into groups or "families" that were named for points on the compass rose. Each house was divided so that men and women did everything separately. They used different staircases and doors, and sat on opposite sides of the room.
Between 1781 and 1783 the Mother, with chosen elders, visited her followers in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. She died in Niskayuna, New York on September 8, 1784. James Whittaker was head of the Believers for three years. On his death he was succeeded by Joseph Meacham (1742–1796), who had been a Baptist minister in Enfield, Connecticut, and was reputed to have, second only to Mother Ann, the spiritual gift of revelation. Under his rule and that of Lucy Wright (1760–1821), who shared the headship with him during his lifetime and then for twenty-five years ruled alone, the organization of the Shakers and, particularly, a rigid communalism (religious communism), began. By 1793 property had been made a "consecrated whole" in the different communities, but a "noncommunal order" also had been established, in which sympathizers with the principles of the Believers lived in families. The Shakers never forbade marriage, but refused to recognize it as a Christian institution since the second coming in the person of Mother Ann, and considered it less perfect than the celibate state.
Shaker communities in this period were established in 1790 at Hancock, West Pittsfield, Massachusetts; in 1791 at Harvard, Massachusetts; in 1792 at East Canterbury, New Hampshire (or Shaker Village); and in 1793 at Shirley, Massachusetts; at Enfield, Connecticut (then also known as Shaker Station); at Enfield, New Hampshire (or "Chosen Vale"); at Tyringham, Massachusetts, where the Society was afterwards abandoned, its members joining the communities in Hancock and Enfield; at New Gloucester, Maine (since 1890: "Sabbathday Lake"); and at Alfred, Maine, where, more than anywhere else among the Shakers, spiritualistic healing of the sick was practiced. In Kentucky and Ohio, Shakerism entered after the Cane Ridge, Kentucky revival of 1800–1801, and in 1805–1807 Shaker societies were founded at South Union, Logan County, Kentucky, and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, Mercer County, Kentucky. In 1824, the Whitewater Shaker Settlement was established in southwestern Ohio. The westernmost Shaker community was located at West Union (also called Busro, as it sat on Busseron Creek) on the Wabash River a few miles north of Vincennes in Knox County, Indiana.
The Shakers did not practice procreation themselves. Children were included into their communal families through adoption or conversion. The Shakers were welcoming of all, often taking in orphans and the homeless. When Shaker youngsters, girls and boys, reached the age of twenty-one, they were free to leave the Shaker religion and go their own separate way or to remain with the Shaker communal family. The Shakers lived in "families" sharing a large house with separate entrances for women and men. Each family was also part of the one communal family, each sharing and working together as a single supportive group.
The nature of the Shaker religion valued women and men equally with one another in religious leadership. All authority in the church was hierarchical, with women at the top level of that hierarchy, though at each level women and men shared equal responsibility. This is especially evident in the fact that God was perceived by the Shakers as embodied in both female and male characteristics. Outside of the church, Shakers followed traditional gender work-related roles. Their homes were segregated by sex, as were women and men–s work spheres. Women worked almost exclusively indoors cooking, sewing, cleaning and washing, whereas men worked in the fields or shops. Shakers thus simultaneously valued women–s status in society and realized the importance and difficulty of women's work, not following traditional prejudices that would consider women a "weaker sex" simply to elevate the male, as it was unnecessary in their egalitarian social structure to do so. This also allowed the continuation of church leadership after all the male leaders had died and membership consisted solely of old women.
A peculiar, intense kind of spirituality began to develop under this unique arrangement. A period of spiritual manifestations among the Believers began in 1837 and lasted through 1847. Children told of visits to cities in the spirit realm and brought messages to the community which they received from Mother Ann. In 1838 the gift of tongues was manifested and sacred places were set aside in each community, with names like Holy Mount; but in 1847 the spirits, after warning, left the Believers. The theology of the denomination is based on the idea of the dualism of God: the creation of man as male and female "in our image" showing the dual sexuality of the Creator; in Jesus, born of a woman, the son of a Jewish carpenter, was the male manifestation of Christ and the first Christian Church; and in Mother Ann, daughter of an English blacksmith, was the female manifestation of Christ and the second Christian Church (which the Shakers believed themselves to be) – she was the Bride ready for the Bridegroom, and in her the promises of the Second Coming were fulfilled. Adam's sin was in sexual impurity; marriage is done away with in the body of the Believers in the Second Appearance, who must pattern after the Kingdom in which there is no marriage or giving in marriage. The four virtues are virgin purity; Christian communism; confession of sin, without which none can become Believers; and separation from the world. Their insistence on the dual sexuality of God and their reverence for Mother Ann have made them advocates of sexual equality.
The communalism of the Believers was an economic success, and their cleanliness, honesty and frugality received the highest praise. They made leather in New York for several years, but in selling herbs and garden seeds, in making apple-sauce (at Shirley), in weaving linen (at Alfred), and in knitting underwear they did better work.
Shakers were known for a style of furniture, known as Shaker furniture. It was plain in style, durable, and functional. Shaker chairs were usually mass-produced since a great number of them were needed to seat all the Shakers in a community. Around the time of the American Civil War, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon, NY, greatly increased their production and marketing of Shaker chairs. They were so successful that several furniture companies produced their own versions of "Shaker" chairs. Because of the quality of their craftsmanship, original Shaker furniture is costly.
Shakers worshipped in plain meetinghouses where they marched, sang songs, danced, twitched and shouted. Many outsiders who witnessed Shaker worship services considered them heretics and protested in front of their places of worship. Mother Ann was arrested several times for disturbing the peace. Early Shaker worship services were unstructured, loud, chaotic and emotional. However, later on, Shakers developed precision dances and orderly rituals. The Shakers have also written thousands of religious songs.
The meeting-houses were painted white and unadorned, with shutters and carvings eschewed as worldly things. The Shakers believed in the value of hard work and kept comfortably busy. Each member learned a craft and did chores. Mother Ann said, "Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling."
Shaker beliefs have generated a unique culture and ways of life that have enriched the cultural history of the United States as well as subsequently inspiring many modern fields.
The Shakers' dedication to hard work and perfection has resulted in a unique range of architecture, furniture and handicraft styles. They relied on their own skills and natural resources for all these as well as for providing for their family. Shakers designed their furniture with care, believing that making something well was in itself, "an act of prayer." They never fashioned items with elaborate details or extra decorations, but only made things for their intended uses. The ladder-back chair was a popular piece of furniture. Shaker craftsmen made most things out of pine or other inexpensive woods and hence their furniture was light in color and weight. Shaker interior spaces are characterized by an austerity and simplicity. For example, they had a continuous wooden device like a pelmet with hooks running all along the lintel level from which they hung the very light furniture pieces such as chairs when not in use. The simple architecture of their homes, meeting houses, and barns have had a lasting influence on American architecture and design. There is a collection of furniture and utensils at Hancock Shaker Village outside of Pittsfield, Massachusetts that is famous for its elegance and practicality.
Shakers won respect and admiration for their productive farms and orderly communities. Their industry brought about many inventions like Babbitt metal, the rotary harrow, the circular saw, the clothespin, the Shaker peg, the flat broom, and the wheel-driven washing machine. They were once the largest producers of medicinal herbs in the United States, and pioneers in the sale of seeds in paper packets. Shaker dances and songs are a main, but largely unrecognized, aspect of folk art.
Shaker ways influenced many people to write books and adopt ways of life from Shakers. By the middle of the twentieth century, as the Shaker communities themselves were disappearing, some American collectors whose visual tastes were formed by the stark aspects of the modernist movement found themselves drawn to the spare artifacts of Shaker culture, in which "form follows function" was also clearly expressed. Kaare Klint, an architect and famous furniture designer, used styles from Shaker furniture in his work. Another example is Doris Humphrey, an innovator in technique, choreography, and theory of dance movement. She made a full theatrical art with her dance entitled Dance of The Chosen Ones in which the nature of the Shakers' religious fervor was depicted.
The Shakers considered music to be an essential component of the religious experience. The Shakers composed thousands of songs, and also created many dances; both were an important part of the Shaker worship services. In Shaker society, a spiritual "gift" could also be a musical revelation, and they considered it to be important to record musical inspirations as they occurred. Scribes, many of whom had no formal musical training, used a form of music notation called the letteral system. This method used letters of the alphabet, often not positioned on a staff, along with a simple notation of conventional rhythmic values, and has a curious, and coincidental, similarity to some ancient Greek music notation.
Many of the lyrics to Shaker tunes consist of syllables and words from unknown tongues, the musical equivalent of glossolalia. It has been surmised that many of them were imitated from the sounds of Native American languages, as well as from the songs of African slaves, especially in the southernmost of the Shaker communities, but in fact the melodic material is derived from European scales and modes.
Most early Shaker music is monodic, that is to say, composed of a single melodic line with no harmonization. The tunes and scales recall the folksongs of the British Isles, but since the music was written down and carefully preserved, it is "art" music of a special kind rather than folklore. Many melodies are of extraordinary grace and beauty, and the Shaker song repertoire, though still relatively little known, is an important part of the American cultural heritage and of world religious music in general.
Several hymnbooks with more conventional four-part harmonization were published by the Shakers in the late nineteenth century. These works are less strikingly original than the earlier, monodic repertoire.
The surviving Shakers sing songs drawn from both the earlier repertoire and the four part songbooks. They perform all of these unaccompanied, in single-line unison singing. The many recent, harmonized arrangements of older Shaker songs for choirs and instrumental groups mark a departure from traditional Shaker practice.
The most famous Shaker song is "Simple Gifts", which Aaron Copland used as a theme for variations in Appalachian Spring. The tune was composed by Elder Joseph Brackett and originated in the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine in 1848. Many contemporary Christian denominations incorporate this tune into hymnals, under various names, including "Lord of the Dance", adapted in 1963 by English poet and songwriter Sydney Carter.
Some scholars, such as Daniel W. Patterson and Roger L. Hall, have compiled books of these songs, and groups have been formed to sing the songs and perform the dances. There are recordings available of Shaker songs, both documentation of singing by the Shakers themselves, as well as songs recorded by other groups (see external links). Two widely distributed commercial recordings by The Boston Camerata, "Simple Gifts" (1995) and "The Golden Harvest" (2000), were recorded at the Shaker community of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, with active cooperation from the surviving Shakers, whose singing can be heard at several points on both recordings.
Membership in the Shakers dwindled in the late 1800s for several reasons. People were attracted to cities and away from the farms. Shaker products could not compete with mass-produced products that became available at a much lower cost. Shakers could not have children, so adoption was a major source of new members. This continued until the states gained control of adoption homes. Some Shaker settlements, such as Pleasant Hill community in Kentucky, and Canterbury, New Hampshire, the latter of which died with its last member, Ethel Hudson, in September 1992, have become museums.
Believers have continually looked at the story of Ann Lee as a cornerstone of the theological architecture that has distinguished their church from other American religious groups. Shaker theology, its manifestation in material artifacts such as furniture and oval boxes, and the Ann Lee story have continually drawn the attention of outsiders either fascinated or repulsed by them.
Although there were six thousand believers at the peak of the Shaker movement, there were only twelve Shaker communities left by 1920. In the United States there is one remaining active Shaker community, at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, which as of December 2009 has only three members left. The Sabbathday Lake community still accepts new recruits, as it has since its founding. Shakers are no longer allowed to adopt orphan children after new laws were passed in 1960 denying control of adoption to religious groups, but adults who wish to embrace Shaker life were welcome. This community, founded in 1782, was one of the smaller and more isolated Shaker communities during the sect's heyday. They farm and practice a variety of handicrafts; a Shaker Museum, and Sunday services are open to visitors. Mother Ann Day is celebrated on the first Sunday of August. The people sing and dance and a Mother Ann cake is presented.
The daily schedule of a Shaker in Sabbathday Lake Village is as follows:
To preserve their legacy as well as their idyllic, lakeside property at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, Maine, the Shakers announced in October 2005 that they had entered into a trust with the state of Maine and several conservation groups. Under the agreement, the Shakers will sell conservation easements to the trust, allowing the village to ward off development and continue operating as long as there are Shakers to live there.
The agreement does not specify whether the property will become a park, museum or other public space should the Shakers die out. That decision would be made by a nonprofit corporation–the United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake Inc.–whose board members are largely non-Shakers. The $3.7 million conservation plan relies on grants, donations and public funds.
A number of contemporary and modern artists have drawn inspiration from the Shakers' history and practice.
Shaker lifestyle and tradition is celebrated in Arlene Hutton's play "As It Is in Heaven," which is a re-creation of a decisive time in the history of the Shakers. The play is written by Arlene Hutton, the pen name of actor/director Beth Lincks. Born in Louisiana and raised in Florida, Lincks was inspired to write the play after visiting the Pleasant Hills Shaker village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, a restored community that the Shakers occupied for more than a century, before abandoning it in 1927 because of the inability of the sect to attract new converts.
The American rock band REM included a song called "Fireplace" on its 1987 album "Document." The lyrics of the song ("Hang up your chairs to better sweep/ Clear the floor to dance/ Shake the rug into the fireplace") are adapted from a speech by Mother Ann Lee.
In 2004 the Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen and Boston Camerata music director Joel Cohen created a live performance work with dance and music entitled "Borrowed Light." While all the music is Shaker song performed in a largely tradition manner, the dance intermingles only certain elements of Shaker practice and belief with Saarinen's original choreographic ideas, and with distinctive costumes and lighting. "Borrowed Light" has been given almost forty performances since 2004 in seven countries, most recently (early 2008) in Australia and New Zealand.
In 2008, the rock band Weezer released its "Red Album" which includes a song entitled "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" with the subtitle "(Variations On a Shaker Hymn)" as it uses the melody of a Shaker song.
In 2009, Toronto-based, American-born poet Damian Rogers released her first volume of poetry, Paper Radio. The lifestyle and philosophy of the Shakers and their matriarch Ann Lee are recurring themes in her work.
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