Shakerism is not, as many would claim, an anachronism; nor can it be dismissed as the final sad flowering of 19th century liberal utopian fervor. Shakerism has a message for this present age–a message as valid today as when it was first expressed. It teaches above all else that God is Love and that our most solemn duty is to show forth that God who is love in the World- Sabbathday Lake Maine -Shaker Congregation
Most Americans know Shakerism, if they are aware of it at all, as a peculiar cult that mostly existed in the nineteenth century and ultimately died out due to their celibacy doctrine. Mother Ann Lee took over the Wardley Society in the 1760s to lead the Shakers who would later be known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing by declaring herself the earthly manifestation of divine light. It was not until after her death her followers claimed her to be the second coming of Christ’s appearing. Sometime in the early 1770s, Mother Ann declared a revelation from God proscribing sexual intercourse saying, “I felt the power of God flow into my soul like a fountain of living water. From that day I have been able to take up a full cross against all the doleful works of the flesh.” Far from dying out after this revelation, the Shakers' numbers grew exponentially from a handful of followers in 1770 to around 6000 almost a century later. The Era of Manifestations, when they received elaborate gifts from heaven in trance states, was the peak of Shakerdom’s popularity. However, into the 20th century Shakers continued to have relatively stable numbers and had a great deal of commercial success in their many businesses. Many Americans may be familiar with the Shaker peg, Shaker broom and Shaker chair without realizing the historical and spiritual significance of these simple but brilliant inventions. By the mid-20th centuries they numbered in the hundreds. By the end of the 20th century only a handful remained. Today there are two practicing Shakers, Brother Arnold Hadd and Sister June Carpenter who live and worship at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine. They still hold services on Sundays and a small, but more liberal, congregation usually attends the public services. Most of the other 18 Shaker villages throughout the country are today museums.
Mother Ann said, “A strange gift never came from God.” The Shakers made a practice of welcoming strangers and the Sabbathday Lake Shakers still do today. In fact, as practicing Inspriationist Peter Hoehnle pointed out, of all the groups that transcendentalist writer Charles Nordhoff visited for his 1875 book The Communistic Societies of the United States only the Inspirationists in Amana, Iowa and the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake, Maine still have active congregations. So what does Shakerism have to teach us today? What is its enduring relevance for today’s world? How can Shakerism help heal America?
The first lesson of Shakerism is community, or, that is today, communitarianism, believing in community and living it. Friedrich Engels wrote of the Shakers, “For communism, social existence and activity based on community of goods, is not only possible but has actually already been realized in many communities in America….” The Shakers lived what they preached. They worked communally and shared everything in common. They called each smaller subset of the village a family, whether or not they were biologically related (usually not). They called each other Brother and Sister as a title, but in a sense, they were all one family. It was not unusual to see a Shaker Brother or Sister gardening the herb garden, washing the dishes after a communal lunch, shoveling manure or leading a prayer service. Because of their separate gendered spheres, it was necessary for everyone to do a little bit of everything. That meant domestic, agricultural and industrial duties on a rotating basis. The male and female elders’ co-governance of the communities meant that men and women had equal say in the overall affairs.
Although today, we may not take with us the Shakers celibacy or their gender segregation, Shakers were truly equal. They governed their communities based on love, not on sexual attraction. By giving up sex they freed themselves to truly love each other as brothers and sisters in one holy family all working for a common goal. So often even (and especially) those who espouse communitarian values, socialist economics and the correction of historical injustices fail to see others as their brothers and sisters in the human family. Che Guevara, despite leading an army that killed others, said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” How are we exhibiting universal love for humankind in our daily lives? Do we shun those with whom we disagree? Do we dehumanize and degrade our enemy. Jesus commanded his followers to “Love thy enemy.” The Shakers practiced love in everyday living as a precious example to future generations of what is possible when you let your heart be guided by love and not by division, prejudice, bitterness and hatred that clouds judgment and makes us see “through a glass darkly,” as the bible says.
They shared all things in common. One of the things I was most impressed with most about the Shaker village in Canterbury, New Hampshire is their system of numbering laundry. They numbered everything and assigned each member a corresponding number. That way they could make sure that each member had all the clothing and other necessities that they needed. The communal laundry was a large undertaking. The Shakers would collect the laundry of everyone in the village and wash it all together. Then they would sort it according to the numbering system. They even invented a washing machine to make the task easier. The job was assigned on a rotating basis to both women and men.
Today we struggle through hard times. The Shakers too lived through hard times and economic panics. However, their communist economy helped them weather the economic storms. By uniting they were able to have economic security. There was also no class division in Shaker society. Today we are divided primarily by economic class, but also by race, gender, sexuality and religion. Although we may reject the strictness of Shaker belief and discipline, we can respect that for Shakers giving of themselves to the greater community and to God was the greatest gift. They believed that God presented them with gifts from heaven as reward for their pious life. How many of us have rejected all morality and virtue because we have suffered from abuses of religious and secular authorities, only to find that sin for sin’s sake leaves us unhappy, no matter how many excuses we try to make for why our behavior is actually ethical. How many of us invent new kinds of morality and ethics to fit what we ourselves want to do? How many of us feel we have to constantly express our deepest thoughts no matter how hurtful they may be to others? How many of us narcissistically feel that the world owes it to us to cater to our every idiosyncrasy?
The Shakers were separatist. They took seriously Jesus’ command to be in the world, but no part of the world. To follow Jesus, they made their own heaven on earth to prepare the way for the end of the world, when all of earth would be restored to a paradise like the Garden of Eden.
Although we may find it necessary to engage with society and fight for what is right, we can also be in the world but no part of it in our own way. We can refuse to accept the terms of the debate the way the rulers frame it. Instead of Democrat vs Republican, left vs right, individualist vs collectivist, black vs white, North vs South, West vs East, we should see it as humanity struggling to survive by any means it can. The rulers who are destroying the planet are destroying their own and their own children’s futures.
Shakers were simple. Shakers believed that simplicity was the closest thing to divinity. Despite some Americans’ misconception, the Shakers were not against technology. Shaker villages were in fact some of the first to have electric generators. As I mentioned earlier, they even invented an electric washing machine. However, the beauty of Shaker innovation was in its simplicity. Shaker meetinghouses, with their simple design, offer as much transcendence and grace as a massive Gothic Cathedral. Shaker pegs have a little button on the end so that you can put things on them and they do not fall off. A very simple invention, but imagine how much easier it made peoples’ lives? Can you imagine trying to hang your coat on just a straight dowel peg? It would just fall off!
How many of us justify our overuse of toxic, mind poisoning social media and garbage entertainment as being for some greater purpose? How many of us feel like if we do not post then we have not done our part for the issue of the day? How many of us know consciously that the algorithms are purposefully designed to manipulate our thinking, but remain addicted to the manipulation nonetheless? The internet has revolutionized communication, and in many ways, for the good. It has made archival documents and scholarly research available to millions that would have never had access to such information in the past. At the same time, the capitalist nature of technological development has led to some extremely destructive trends in human communication. Verbal abuse and reprehensible behavior have become the norm. It is not just online anymore, it has bled into everyday life. We have merged our consciousness with the consciousness of the cold, calculating, bean counting machine. We need to remember to turn off and enjoy simplicity. We need to turn off the computer and go for a walk. Get some fresh air. Literally hug a tree and literally touch some grass. Nature grounds us in creation. It reminds us of our belonging and oneness with the universe. It reminds us that our lives literally depend on the lives of others - other people, plants, animals and other living beings.
Shakers were peaceful. They sought in all their affairs to have peace and tranquility. This included their neighbors. Where Shaker settlements ended up in the way of land disputes between natives and settlers, Shakers maintained friendly relations with both. They revered the indigenous as holy peoples close to God and communicated with the spirits of dead chiefs in trances during the Era of Manifestations. They lived both outside of governmental authority and nonresistant to outside governmental authority. Even though they opposed slavery and mostly were supportive of the Union, they refused military service during the Civil War. They did act as medics, but felt they must provide care to both the Confederate and Union sides. Lincoln ended up exempting them from the draft, making them some of the first conscientious objectors in American history.
Today we must remember peace is a better solution than war. Our disagreements with our neighbors may be strong, but it is virtuous to settle disagreements with diplomacy and negotiation rather than violence and coercive force. We must oppose wars between nations, we must seek peace rather than escalation of conflict, we must avoid nuclear war. Those of us who are already anti-war must remember to be patient with those whose eyes are clouded by the fog of war. We must remember to talk to each other as human beings rather than lash out at every chance we get. We must also remember that, as the bible says, there is a time to speak and a time to listen. There is a right time for everything. Be patient, forgiving and kind. It does not mean we do not boldly speak truth to power and decry injustice when we see it, but we must not misdirect our anger at those who, like us, are just trying to survive. We must see that the only way to change our society is to get the majority of the people to understand the universal experience of mystery that an illogical, unjust system based on greed, not love, offers and then offer a beautiful, glorious, yes! utopian alternative.
Let us finally take it upon ourselves, each and every one of us, to shine brightly as bold examples showing that God is Still Love and to bring forth into the world that God that is love.
Mitchell K. Jones is a historian and activist from Rochester, NY. He has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in history from the College at Brockport, State University of New York. He has written on utopian socialism in the antebellum United States. His research interests include early America, communal societies, antebellum reform movements, religious sects, working class institutions, labor history, abolitionism and the American Civil War. His master’s thesis, entitled “Hunting for Harmony: The Skaneateles Community and Communitism in Upstate New York: 1825-1853” examines the radical abolitionist John Anderson Collins and his utopian project in Upstate New York. Jones is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.