On the Trail of the Shakers in New England

Down the lonely country roads of rural New Hampshire, Massachusetts or Maine are the quaint remnants of a simpler past immortalised in American imagery for generations. Gambrel roofed red barns, simple white-steepled churches, white picket fences, and classically unornamented colonial houses. Though few realise it today, much of this iconic New England Americana is inextricably linked with the enigmatic Shakers who prospered in the region throughout the 19th century.

Formally known as the Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, The Shakers were a unique religious movement that emerged in the north of England during the mid-18th century as an offshoot from the more demure and conservative Quaker movement. Initially they were called the “Shaking Quakers”, and then just Shakers, because of their fervent worship practices, which often involved dramatic body movements, jerking, twitching, and forms of dance, at a time when many Christians were turning away from such displays. Yet their practices and beliefs would diverge radically even from the most liberal congregations of the day. The breakaway Shaker communities championed radical egalitarianism, complete pacifism, communal living and complete equality of the sexes.

A Shaker congregation worshiping in a highly synchronised dance and prayer routine

Indeed, Shakers believed in dualism in which God was both male and female. Many of the Shaker leaders were women, as the congregation believed that since the first coming of Christ had been a male, inevitably the second coming of Christ would be a female. That second coming for many Shakers took the form of Mother Ann Lee, a charismatic convert to the movement who became its leader in the 1750s and laid down many of the ideas that would become tenets of the movement. Lee became an enrapturing preacher and leader for the movement, an extreme proposition in 18th century England that, along with the other radical beliefs of the Shakers, led to their sustained persecution by the English establishment.

In the 1770s, Mother Ann claimed to have a vision that the movement was destined to settle in the New World, following many other persecuted Christian denominations to America to find religious freedom. Just a handful departed with Mother Ann from Liverpool and arrived in the newly proclaimed United States in 1776. Although initially questioned by the colonial authorities due to the fact they would not swear an oath of allegiance to the United States and would not serve or help the continental armies fighting for independence, they were ultimately left alone and settled in New England. Mother Lee attracted converts and helped establish Shaker villages throughout New England, particularly Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and upstate New York.

Canterbury Shaker Village, New Hampshire

And it was here that the Shakers developed as one of the most idiosyncratic yet respected Christian communities in the United States. The Shakers devoted themselves to communal living, simplicity, hard work and self-improvement. Labour, in many regards, was as at the core of the Shaker way of life, and hard work was valued as akin to religious devotion. Mother Lee had proclaimed “Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling.” Those who joined the Shakers had to sign the Shaker Covenant and renounce many aspects of their former lives. Their property became communal, and they were reborn into newly arranged ‘families’ within the Shaker community. Former relationships, including any marriages or kinship bonds, were considered dissolved once an individual joined, and instead all congregants lived as, and referred to each other, as brothers and sisters. Their new Shaker ‘family’ was arranged around their function and work in the community with the ‘Church family’ considered the most senior and leading the community in its worship. All family and community leadership positions were arranged in pairs with one of each sex represented, and most leadership was focused around seniority, with great deference paid to the elders of the community. Despite the liberality of their beliefs on sex, property and race, believers were expected to abide by many rules on personal affairs, including dress and behaviour. Communities and families varied on how strictly these were applied, with some adopting almost Puritan mores whilst others remained more mainstream.

Life of the Diligent Shaker, Shaker Historical Society

Shaker communities aspired to creating spiritual idylls on Earth, yet their emphasis on industriousness was shared with a pragmatic sensibility that rejected unnecessary opulence and finery. Their houses, halls and churches were deliberately left sparse and unadorned, yet beautiful in their simplicity and the fine quality of their workmanship. Their homes and villages were designed along pragmatic lines to maximise efficiency, cleanliness, and productivity. This credo is captured in the most famous of song of the movement, “Simple Gifts,” whose first verse reads “’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.”

Shaker architecture on display at a residence hall in Shakertown, South Union

The Shakers also praised self-sufficiency and produced nearly all of what they consumed. In pursuit of that mission Shakers were great innovators and appreciated efficient augmentations of human productivity, and many domestic and agricultural inventions – including the circular saw, the clothespin, the flat broom and the rotary harrow – were first invested in the Shaker communities. Shakers rarely patented their inventions, instead preferring to release them into the public domain.

During the 19th century, the mystique of the Shakers began to grow, as curious outsiders began to visit their communities as tourists. They were invariably struck by the beauty, simplicity and cleanliness of Shaker villages, as well as the produce of their farms and workshops, which were of the highest quality. Shakers had a reputation for uncommon honesty and a no-nonsense attitude to business, and many Shaker businesses in this period thrived on this desirable reputation. The Shaker Seed Company was one of the largest, which developed the concept of selling seeds in paper envelopes and writing helpful instructions on those envelopes about the best planting conditions, how to store them, and occasionally recipes as well. Shaker seeds were considered the gold standard throughout the 19th century and were highly prized by farmers and horticulturalists. Yet whilst Shakers were famously friendly to outsiders and hospitable to visitors, they remained a curiosity in the nation and few outsiders well understood their beliefs or practices. The Shakers as a rule did not vote or take part in the political life of the nation, they undertook little missionary or proselytizing work and wished only for voluntary recruits to the faith. Their communities were tight knit, often fiercely so, and internal disputes periodically broke out between ‘families’ that meant turnover was often high.

The Shakers Harvesting Their Famous Herbs, Shaker Historical Society

In this time, the Shakers would also become best known for their furniture, which became highly prized in mainstream society. Shakers believed that making something well was the equivalent of an ‘act of prayer’, and so the production process was meticulous and careful. The Shakers flouted the furniture fashions of their day, avoiding ‘decadent’ features such as inlays, veneers, ornamental carving or superstructure, which they believed encouraged the sin of pride and vanity. Instead they focused on simple designs, quality workmanship and beautiful natural American timbers such as cherry and maple. Visual interest in designs was maintained through creative means, such as asymmetry and staining. Fixtures such as handles or railings were almost always carved of wood as well, rather than metals. Color schemes for furniture were highly regulated by community laws, and most makers preferred to use stains to bring out natural colors rather than use paint to finish their work. Shaker furniture designs, such as the ladder-backed chair, became highly popular in the region and continue to be popular in the United States. The same principles are also to found in Shaker architecture, which was much prized and copied around rural New England. Shaker staircases, doors, and windows, in particular, were usually focal points for their craftsman, with communities priding themselves on producing simple and functional, yet elegant architectural features.

Shaker furniture is much praised for its simplicity, craftsmanship and materials

Shaker design principles would be rediscovered in the 20th century by the modernists, particularly in Denmark and Sweden where they would serve as a direct inspiration for Mid-Century Modern furniture. Kaare Klint and Borge Mogensen, two of the most influential industrial designers of Danish Modernism, both studied and were deeply influenced by Shaker furniture, which can be readily appreciated when studying their groundbreaking designs. The clean lines and surfaces, unadorned simplicity, and pragmatic design principles of the Shakers live on today and Shaker-style furniture has been subject to many commercial revivals.

From left to right: a Shaker ladder-back rocker is the first exhibit at the Danish Museum of Art and Design; a handmade Shaker sewing table from New Lebanon, New York ; a Shaker hand-made staircase showcasing the craftsmanship of its carpenters and builders

The Shakers themselves did not long live to see their enduring influence on modern design. A core tenet of their beliefs was that sexual intercourse constituted the original sin of Adam and Eve, and as such, all Shakers took a vow of celibacy. Couples who joined had to agree to dissolve their marriages and forgo intimacy. This belief led Mother Ann Lee and other early leaders to prophesy that the Shakers’ time on the Earth would be limited in nature. Yet their communities endured for over 150 years primarily through voluntary converts joining the villages. Conversions reached their peak in the first half of the 19th century. Known as the ‘Era of Manifestations’, it was a period of enthusiastic worship and widespread claims of holy visions and spiritual revelation. It coincided with the Second Great Awakening in the United States, a period of incredible religious revivalism in which large sections of the country turned away from rationalism and the principles of the Enlightenment, embracing instead the emotional, spiritual, divine and supernatural. The Baptist and Methodist movements in particular spread rapidly across the South and Midwest, yet many smaller charismatic Christian denominations saw their numbers swell as well. The Shakers reached their peak in the 1850s, with thousands eschewing their former lives in the pursuit of spiritual self-perfection, righteous labor, and fervent expressions of their faith. The Shakers also adopted many thousands of orphans and abandoned children. With little support available for single mothers, it was common practice for unwanted children in rural 19th-century New England to be left at Shaker churches.

Shaker artist Hannah Cohoon depicts the “Tree of Life” in 1854, a common symbol of the movement

But the American Civil War of the 1860s would trigger profound change in society through mass industrialisation and urbanisation. The Shaker way of a life became increasingly isolated, and like the Amish communities of Pennsylvania, many young Shakers left the villages to seek work and individual opportunity in the cities. With village leadership concentrated around elders, many communities were slow to adapt and resistant to the changing views of younger congregants. The Shaker Seed Company, for example, faced fierce competition in the late 19th century from mass-produced seed packets. The Shakers refused to compete on price and maintained their traditional business practices, but over time found themselves squeezed out of the market by large agricultural conglomerates and a market that came to expect cheap prices.

And as the welfare state expanded in the early 20th century, Federal and state laws around children and adoption became stricter, eventually prohibiting religious groups or collectives from adopting children. Numbers dwindled thereafter. With only a dozen communities left in 1957, the eldresses of Canterbury Shaker Village voted to close the Shaker Covenant – the document that all new Shakers signed to join – effectively ending new membership and signaling the end of the movement. Today, only two Shakers remain.

Yet for a denomination that never numbered more than ten thousand adherents, the Shakers had a remarkably enduring influence on the culture and design of New England, where today many of its principles of simplicity and craftsmanship can be found in the churches, barns, and houses of its farms and towns. Shaker furniture is highly prized and frequently copied even by modern furniture-makers. Some of their communities like Hancock Village, now preserved as a living museum, offer a window into the utopian religious movements which spurred some of North America’s earliest settlement. Just drive the rural highways of New Hampshire or Massachusetts and you’ll not help but see their quiet legacy in abundance.

The famous round barn at the Hancock Shaker Village

Dr Matthew Laing

Dr Matthew Laing is a historian and political scientist at Monash University who has led tours to the Americas and Europe with Academy Travel for five years. He has a strong personal interest in architecture, cultural history and modern art, with a particular expertise in the United States. Matthew holds a BA and PhD from the Australian National University, and wrote his doctorate on the history of the United States presidency.


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