NewEnglandTravelPlanner.com Logo   The Shakers of New England
Shakers were members of a Protestant religious sect noted for quiet, simple living, hard work, mutual support, and quality handicrafts.

 

"The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing" or "The Millennial Church," more readily known as the Shakers, was a movement begun in 1747 in England as an offshoot of Quakerism.

Ann Lee (1736-1784), a mill worker and cook from Manchester, England, had a vision (about 1770) that she was the manifestation of the Second Coming. "Mother Ann," proclaimed that she had received the "mother element" of the spirit of Jesus Christ.

After being imprisoned for her unorthodox beliefs, Mother Ann and eight followers left England, immigrated to the American colony of New York in 1775 and established a small religious community in Watervliet, New York, near Albany.

Nicknamed "Shakers" because of the trembling that came upon them during worship from their religious zeal, believed that God has both a male and female nature. The male was embodied in Jesus, the female in Mother Ann.

Though Mother Ann died within a decade in 1784 at age 48, her followers founded other Shaker communities based on the principles of communal possessions, celibacy, pacifism, open confession of sins, and equality of the sexes. Shakerism took hold.

In eighteen Shaker communities over 6,000 devotees put their "hands to work" and their "hearts to God." Four of the six surviving Shaker communities are in New England, at Hancock and Harvard, Massachusetts; Sabbathday Lake, Maine; and Canterbury, New Hampshire.

Shakers believed in a closed community, separate from the world, where men and women lived without mutual physical contact, but worked, prayed and dined in common.

Without procreation a sect depends mightily upon proselytization, and the Shakers didn't proselytize much, so the communities had no way to grow except by attracting people to their good example.

The purity and goodness of their lives and their ideals brought adherents in sufficient numbers until the 20th century, when the temptations of modern life led to the slow twilight of the sect.

To relive a bit of Shaker history, visit Hancock Shaker Village, in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts; Canterbury Shaker Village near Concord NH; and the Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake ME.

Skaker communities were organized into "families" of 30 to 90 people. Work was a holy, consecrated act, a belief reflected in the high quality of workmanship and design in Shaker furniture and crafts: In effect, every product was a prayer.

Though converts devoted themselves and all their possessions to the community, they were free to leave at any time.

Celibacy and the onslaught of the 20th century's complex lifestyle put an end to Shakerism after more than two centuries. There are only a handful of the faithful left now, living at the Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake ME.

Shaker designs are still admired and copied, because these good people treated even daily tasks as an art and an offering to the divine.

One cannot help but admire a body of beliefs and a lifestyle based on kindliness, mutual support and hard work.

And yet, as exhibits at Hancock Shaker Village demonstrate, a life of willful denial can lead to privation for some—especially the several children who came to live in Shaker communities with their parents.

A life too simple and basic can be as unfulfilling as a life too rich and elaborate.


Hancock MA Shaker Village

Canterbury NH Shaker Village

Sabbathday Lake ME Shaker Village

Transcendentalism

Unitarianism

Religion in New England

 

Round barn, Hancock Shaker Village MA

Above, the harmonious and efficient Shaker round barn at Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield MA.

Below, the round barn at Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich MA on Cape Cod.

Shaker round barn, Sandwich MA on Cape Cod