American Socialism Travels: Lessons From the Shakers of New Lebanon. By: Mitchell K. JonesRead Now
United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, known colloquially as Shakers, arrived in North America in 1774. Their founder, Mother Ann Lee, began agitating for a renunciation of sin and celibacy in the 1760s, which landed her in prison. In 1770, while in prison, she had visions telling her to lead a spiritual movement renouncing lust and the sin that it influenced. Shaker leaders posthumously announced she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ. After the English Revolution, heretical doctrines like hers encouraged severe and violent persecution. After a series of incidents where Congregationalists attacked Shakers, who they called heretics, they fled England. The Shakers successfully built the first self-consciously communal villages in the New World. Shaker communes established a foundation for socialism in America. The Shakers practiced community of property, complete celibacy and separate but equal segregation of the genders. By the early 19th century, they chose New Lebanon in Upstate New York for their headquarters. By the mid-19th century, other religious groups, inspired by the Shakers’ success, including the Icarians, the Zoarites, the Amana Society Inspirationists and the Rappite Harmonists also fled Europe and started their own communes in the United States.
In a piece entitled “Description Of Recently Founded Communist Colonies Still in Existence,” first published in the German newspaper Deutsches Bürgerbuch für in 1845, Karl Marx’s comrade and writing partner Frederich Engels cheered these utopian experiments in America, writing, “For communism, social existence and activity based on community of goods, is not only possible but has actually already been realised in many communities in America and in one place in England, with the greatest success, as we shall see.”
Shaker Elders Daniel Offord and Brother Levi Shaw demonstrating advanced yard care technology: scythe and lawn mower, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1854 postcard
Engels went on to describe what he knew of the Shaker community at New Lebanon:
Another colony of Shakers, New Lebanon in the State of New York, was visited by a second English traveller, by the name of Pitkeithly, in the year 1842. Mr. Pitkeithly most thoroughly inspected the whole town, which numbers some eight hundred inhabitants and owns between seven and eight thousand acres of land, he examined its workshops and factories, its tanneries, sawmills and so on, and declares the whole arrangement to be perfect. He too is surprised at the wealth of these people who began with nothing and are now becoming richer with each passing year, and he says:
They are happy and gay among themselves; there is no quarrelling but on the contrary friendliness and love prevail throughout their habitation, in every part of which reigns an orderliness and regularity which have not their equal.
...As we said, they enjoy complete community of goods and have ten such communities in the United States of North America.
There is still an open-air Shaker museum at the Mount Lebanon site. My wife and I decided to make the trip up to New Lebanon on a pleasant late May day. It was about a four hour drive from our home in Rochester. We remarked at the beauty of the Hudson Valley as we glided along above it all. When we reached the Shaker Community at New Lebanon it was quiet, although there were several cars parked in various places. We explored the buildings in the self-guided tour. There are brochures available on one of the buildings that guide the visitor through the historic community. Admission to the village is free all year, although the buildings are not open.
It is now the grounds of the Darrow School, a private, college-prep, boarding school. The Darrow School campus and dormitories have been closed due to COVID-19, another example of how, like the outbreak of Typhus at the Sodus Bay Phalanx, pandemic and epidemic diseases can be extremely dangerous in congregate living settings. The idea of a private school is not entirely beyond the pale for Shaker theology. Shakers spurned the state. Engels wrote of their attitude toward the law:
In their ten towns there is not a single gendarme or police officer, no judge, lawyer or soldier, no prison or penitentiary; and yet there is proper order in all their affairs. The laws of the land are not for them and as far as they are concerned could just as well be abolished and nobody would notice any difference for they are the most peaceable citizens and have never yielded a single criminal for the prisons.
Shaker Schoolhouse, Shaker Road, New Lebanon, Historic American Buildings Survey, William F. Winter, Jr., Photographer August 1931
John 15:19 says, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” The Shakers’ experiences in Europe made this bible verse really resonate with them. They distrusted state institutions, which led them to create their own alternative institutions. The Shakers set up their own school system in New Lebanon in 1815. They based their system on the cutting-edge Lancasterian system. British educator Joseph Lancaster recommended the classroom be a…
parallelogram, the length about twice the width. The windows were to be six feet from the floor. The floor should be inclined, rising one foot in twenty from the master's desk to the upper end of the room, where the highest class is situated. The master's desk is on the middle of a platform two to three feet high, erected at the lower end of the room. Forms and desks, fixed firmly to the ground, occupy the middle of the room, a passage being left between the ends of the forms and the wall, five or six feet broad, where the children form semicircles for reading.
Boys attended school in the winter, while girls attended in the summer after Father Meacham and Mother Wright’s direction for gender segregation. In 1817, the Shaker school at New Lebanon was declared a public school by the state of New York. Despite the cutting edge vision of the Darrow School’s educational system and the Shakers' reluctance to work with the state, Shakers still would have spurned education for pay. The fact that they agreed to cooperate with New York State in making the New Lebanon school a public school indicates that Shakers of the past might have questioned the operation of a private prep school on their domain.
Shakers were known for their herbal home remedies and selling seeds to grow medicinal herbs
My wife and I were both thoroughly impressed by the Shaker architecture. Many of the buildings have additions that appear as though a hole was cut in the wall and an appendage grafted onto the opening. It is as though the Shaker council met and determined they needed more space, engineered the best way to create more indoor space out of what they had and then collectively worked together to make it happen.
The stone barn at New Lebanon is one of the most awe inspiring achievements of Shaker engineering and collective construction on display. It is thoroughly impressive to stand inside. It is also inspiring to know that people worked in this barn for the collective good of the whole group.
Engels hailed the Shakers as founders of modern communism, writing, “The first people to set up a society on the basis of community of goods in America, indeed in the whole world, were the so-called Shakers. These people are a distinct sect who have the strangest religious beliefs, do not marry and allow no intercourse between the sexes, and these are not their only peculiarities of this kind.” He explained the defiant history of the Shakers and their triumph in the United States:
The sect of the Shakers originated some seventy years ago. Its founders were poor people who united in order to live together in brotherly love and community of goods and to worship their God in their own way. Although their religious views and particularly the prohibition on marriage deterred many, they nevertheless attracted support and now have ten large communities, each of which is between three and eight hundred members strong. Each of these communities is a fine, well laid-out town, with dwelling houses, factories, ÷4 workshops, assembly buildings and barns; they have flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees, woods, vineyards, meadows and arable land in abundance; then, livestock of all kinds, horses and beef-cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, in excess of their needs, and of the very best breeds. Their granaries are always full of corn, their store-rooms full of clothing materials, so that an English traveller who visited them said he could not understand why these people still worked, when after all they possessed an abundance of everything; unless it was that they worked simply as a pastime, having nothing else to do. Amongst these people no one is obliged to work against his will, and no one seeks work in vain. They have no poor-houses and infirmaries, having not a single person poor and destitute, nor any abandoned widows and orphans; all their needs are met and they need fear no want…. They enjoy, as we said, the most absolute community of goods and have no trade and no money among themselves.
The Shakers were celibate separatists with peculiar religious views, according to Engels, but they had somehow achieved something remarkable. They were able to establish successful communism in living, something that no other sect before them had done.
The Shakers built their first meetinghouse on Mount Lebanon, also known as New Lebanon, in the town of Canaan, NY in 1785. The biblical land of Canaan was the promised land to the Israelites after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. Today, the idea that God promised the land of Canaan at Mount Zion to the Israelites is the basis for Zionism, a religious ideology that justifies oppression of Palestinian Arabs. However, for Shakers, it represented their escape from slavery to orthodox religion. For them, Canaan, NY was the promised land. Ironically, there is an obvious analogy in relation to settler colonialism between the Palestinian situation today and the situation of the people of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the late 18th century.
Shaker gift drawing by Sister Sarah Bates of Mount Lebanon, NY, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Spiritual visions or "gifts" inspired Shaker art.
Even before communitarian immigrants like the Shakers and the Amana Society came from Europe, the native peoples of upstate New York were living in a form of primary communism. Pioneer anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, based in Rochester, NY, was the first to identify the way of life of the indigenous Haudenosaunee people of Western New York as “primitive communism.” Later, Socialists such as Sam Marcy, Buffalo, NY based founder of the Communist Workers’ World Party would use the less pejorative term “primary communism.” Marcy wrote in 1992, “Lewis Henry Morgan's writings on the communal life of the Iroquois in North America confirmed what the socialist movement in Europe had deduced about early societies elsewhere before written history: that there was a universal period when property was communal, there was no state, and the products of human labor were shared equitably.” The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of what is now Western New York were some of the first communists in North America. Although their way of life was crushed by European settlement, they inspired settler communities that would come later.
"Siege on the Iroquois Village" by Samuel de Champlain from his book Les voyages du Sieur de Champlain Xaintongeois, capitain ordinaire pour le Roy en la marine… circa 1615-1618 and The city of passageways and housing units of Charles Fourier’s ‘garantiste’ city by André.
The indigenous Haudenosaunee or Iroquois nation organized their society on a kinship-based form of socialism. According to Morgan, the Iroquois practiced “communism in living” for centuries. Iroquois society planned for and met the needs of each individual. Extended families lived communally in large longhouses and shared everything. They organized inter-communal trade networks based on reciprocity. In 1881, Morgan wrote, “Among the Iroquois hospitality was an established usage. If a man entered an Indian house in any of their villages, whether a villager, a tribesman, or a stranger, it was the duty of the women therein to set food before him. An omission to do this would have been a discourtesy amounting to an affront. If hungry, he ate; if not hungry, courtesy required that he should taste the food and thank the giver. This would be repeated at every house he entered, and at whatever hour in the day.” Hospitality and harmony were key values in Iroquois society. By the 18th century, their primary communist system inspired settlers from Europe who came to the New World seeking refuge from religious persecution.
Groups like the Shakers saw the Haudenosaunee as fellow travelers. Throughout the early 19th century, Shakers had visions of native spirits. While their possession rituals often amounted to what some today might consider racist stereotypes and melodramatic pageantry, they were remarkable as reflections of the Shaker’s aspirations. They admired and wanted to live like native people. Historian Erik Seeman argues, “[N]ative spirits offered Shakers a sense of group identity through ‘collective responsibility’ for past injustices and the ‘possibility of redemption’ by acknowledging such historical misdeeds.” They attempted to atone for the original American sin of settler colonialism by building a social order they hoped was in harmony with that of the Iroquois. The Shakers were among the first white Americans to aspire to live up to the communitarian call of the Haudenosaunee region.
This fir tree and carriage house in New Lebanon have looked much the same for hundreds of years
The biblical Canaan was located in the fertile valley below Mount Lebanon. Lebanon means white in Hebrew and, according to the bible, the mountain was named that because it was covered in snow. In the bible, Lebanon was known for its cedar and cypress trees. Cedar wood from Mount Lebanon was used in the building of the second temple in Jerusalem. The beauty of the region reminded the Shakers of the biblical promised land of Canaan and their own exodus from persecution in Europe, so they decided to settle there.
Shakers were not the only religious people that found inspiration in the hills and valleys surrounding New Lebanon, NY. According to a sign posted in the inspirational grotto next to the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in New Lebanon:
In 1858, in the grotto of Massabielle, near Lourdes in southern France, Our Lady appeared eighteen times to Bernadette Soubirous, a young peasant girl. She revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception, asked that a chapel be built on the site of the vision, and told the girl to drink from a fountain in the grotto. No fountain was to be seen, but when Bernadette dug at a spot designated by the apparition, a spring began to flow. The water from this still flowing spring has shown remarkable healing power, though it contains no curative property that science can identify. Lourdes has become the most famous modern shrine of Our Lady.
The church also runs a food pantry, known as Charlie’s Pantry, for the poor and needy on the grounds. According to the church’s website:
We are a community of believers who are grateful for our diversity and mindful of our unity in Christ. Our lives are based on faith, hope and charity through the outpouring of the Spirit, nourished by the Eucharist.
Catholics, as the religion of Italian, Irish, Spanish and Latino immigrants, have long been the victims of discrimination. It is good to know that in this place where historically so much material good has been done in the name of Jesus Christ, even the Catholics are inspired to communitarian call.
The Mount Lebanon Shaker Society was home to Shaker pioneers Father Joseph Meacham and Mother Lucy Wright. Mother Ann Lee died in 1784, leaving Fr. Meacham in charge. He called Sister Wright to Lebanon from a community in Pittsfield, MA. Shaker historian Sister Flo Morse describes the arrangement, “Father Joseph chose a woman, Sister Lucy Wright of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to be the ‘leading character in the female line’ and set the pattern for a dual order of government with equality of the sexes far in advance of the times.” New Lebanon became a center of leadership for the Shaker religion. Morse continues, “Father Joseph and Mother Lucy made their headquarters at New Lebanon, and the New York community became the mother church. It was the first to collect its members into the way of life the Shakers called ‘society-order.’” From there the Shakers put out the call to build communal dwellings and prepare for converts to arrive. Mount Lebanon was the model for communism in living not only for other Shakers, but for religious sects and radicals throughout the antebellum era. For a time the Shakers’ increased their membership dramatically, riding on the crest of the Second Great Awakening revival movement in mid-19 century Upstate New York. However, ultimately their prohibition on sex discouraged new members and prevented current members from having children of their own. The communal way of life became less attractive to pious Americans as the economy shifted post-industrial revolution.
Early 1900s postcard from New Lebanon, NY
Engels concluded his review of the religious communists in America by remarking on their influence on the socialist movement that was developing at the time:
The success enjoyed by the Shakers, Harmonists and Separatists, and also the general urge for a new order in human society and the efforts of the Socialists and Communists that this has given rise to, have caused many other people in America to undertake similar experiments in recent years. Thus Herr Ginal, a German minister in Philadelphia, has founded a society which has bought 37,000 acres of forest in the State of Philadelphia, built more than 80 houses there and already settled some five hundred people, mostly Germans, there. They have a large tannery and pottery, many workshops and storehouses, and they are really thriving. It goes without saying that they live in community of goods, as is the case with all the following examples. A Mr. Hizby, an ironmaster of Pittsburg (Ohio) has set up in his native town a similar society which last year bought some 4,000 acres of land in the vicinity of the town and is planning to establish a settlement there based on community of goods —In addition there is a similar settlement in the State of New York at Skaneateles which was founded by J. A. Collins, an English Socialist, in the spring of 1843* with thirty members; then at Minden in the State of Massachusetts, where about a hundred people have been settled since 1842; then two in Pike County in the State of Pennsylvania, which were also recently set up; then one at Brook Farm, Massachusetts, where fifty members and thirty pupils live on about two hundred acres and have set up an excellent school under the leadership of the Unitarian minister G. Ripley ; and then one at Northampton in the same State, which has been in existence since 1842 and provides work for one hundred and twenty members on five hundred acres of land, in arable and livestock farming as well as in sawmills, silk-mills and dyeing, and finally a colony of emigrant English Socialists at Equality near Milwaukee in the State of Wisconsin, which was started last year by Thomas Hunt and is making rapid progress. Apart from these, several other communities are said to have been founded recently, but there is as yet no news of them .-This much is however certain: the Americans, and particularly the poor workers in the large towns of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, etc., have taken the matter to their hearts and founded a large number of societies for the establishment of such colonies, and all the time new communities are being set up. The Americans are tired of continuing as the slaves of the few rich men who feed on the labour of the people; and it is obvious that with the great energy and endurance of this nation, community of goods will soon be introduced over a significant part of their country.
As I stood in awe of the triumph of collective architectural, engineering and constructive endeavors that is the stone barn at New Lebanon, I could not help but say a silent prayer of thanks to the Shakers for their example of communism in living and gender equality that was so ahead of its time. Many Americans today erroneously believe that socialism and communism are ideas wholly foreign to Americanism. They believe that the basis of communism was formed by European philosophers who were out of touch with the American creed. The truth, however, is that socialism in America is not only as old, but older than the American nation itself. In no other region is this more clearly demonstrated than in Upstate New York.
 Flo Morse, The Story of the Shakers, (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 1986), 17.
 Friedrich Engels and Nelly Rumyantseva, Marx and Engels on the United States, (Moscow: Progress, 1979), 33.
 Engels, Marx and Engels on the United States, 36.
 Engels, Marx and Engels on the United States, 34.
 Isaac N. Youngs, “Concise View of the Church of God,” Winterthur Museum Library, Andrews Shaker Collection ms. 861, 355, 366–74.
 Engels, Marx and Engels on the United States, 34.
 Engels, Marx and Engels on the United States, 34.
 Picture source: “From a Spirit Communication, an Iconic Logo Emerges: How a Shaker Gift Drawing Inspired CBS,” Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon, May 9, 2018, https://shakerml.org/from-a-spirit-communication-an-iconic-logo-emerges-how-a-shaker-gift-drawing-inspired-cbs/.
 Sam Marcy, “Utopian Socialist Experiments.” Soviet Socialism: Utopian or Scientific - Utopian socialist experiments, Accessed October 30, 2019, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/marcy/sovietsocialism/sovsoc1.html.
 Samuel de Champlain, “Siege of the Iroquois Village. - Cornell University Library Digital Collections,” Cornell University Library Digital Collections: Images from the Rare Book and Manuscript Collections, Accessed November 19, 2019, https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:574092.
 Hubert-Jan Henley and Hilde Heynen, Back from Utopia: the Challenge of the Modern Movement, (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2002), 281.
 Morgan, Houses and House-Life of the American Aborigines, 44.
 Lewis Henry Morgan, Houses and House-Life of the American Aborigines, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1881), 45.
 Erik R. Seeman, “Native Spirits, Shaker Visions,” Journal of the Early Republic 35 no. 3 (2015): 347.
 Seeman, “Native Spirits, Shaker Visions,” 350.
 Jer 18:14
 Judg 9:15
 1 Ki 5:6; 7:2
 “Immaculate Conception Church; Saint Joseph's Church,” Immaculate Conception; Saint Joseph's: New Lebanon, Accessed May 23, 2021, https://parishes.rcda.org/ImmaculateConception&StJosephs/shrine.php.
 “Immaculate Conception Church; Saint Joseph's Church.” Immaculate Conception; Saint Joseph's: New Lebanon, Accessed May 23, 2021, https://parishes.rcda.org/ImmaculateConception&StJosephs/
 Morse, Story of the Shakers, 17.
 Morse, Story of the Shakers, 18.
 Engels, Marx and Engels on the United States, 41
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.
5/25/2021 07:13:55 am
I did not know this, I’d heard of the shakers in high school, but never like this. Really cool!
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