Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Originally known as the "Shaking Quakers," the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing are more commonly called "Shakers." The name comes from the uncontrolled ecstatic motions of the Shaking Quakers, which, in turn, became ritualized, stylized movements bringing the believer into union with one another and an ambisexual God, in whom paradise was foretold.

Already a member of an ecstatic breakaway group of Quakers, the illiterate British founder of the Shakers was "Mother" Ann Lee. Marriage and the death of her four children in infancy convinced Mother Ann that the root of evil was in sexual intercourse. After receiving a vision in 1770 depicting the Original Sin in Eden, Mother Ann preached celibacy. She ultimately led her followers to America in 1774.

After Mother Ann's death in 1784, the Shakers became a communitarian body, living celibately as a family. All property was shared in common; male and female living quarters were maintained separately. Given that humans existed in male and female images of God's being, God must therefore be ambisexual, or the equivalent of both genders. On earth, Jesus Christ embodied the fullest male expression of God; Mother Ann the fullest expression of the female.

The Shaker ritual, the organized reenactment of the sacred story of community and the dawn of the new millennium in God, was perfected in the nineteenth century. Shakers danced separately, male and female, but in harmony as parts of a whole. Their stylized movements became uncontrolled ecstasy.

Ambisexual God and celibacy aside, by the mid-nineteenth century the Shakers were prosperous farmers, craftspeople, and artisans. Shaker creations in furniture, art, woodwork, and household items depicted the perfect, simple harmony and functional efficiency of Shaker belief. Austere, communal living in pastoral and agricultural settings created businesses in seeds and pharmaceuticals. Neighbors recognized the Shakers for their pragmatic farming know-how.

More than 6,000 people flocked to the 18 Shaker communities in New York and New England, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. Men and women were equal among the Shakers; in the community (unlike in much of the outside world of the nineteenth century), women held leadership positions. Entire families with parents and multiple children joined, the children becoming responsibilities of the community. The menfolk often left soon after, leaving behind the rest of the family. Widows and abandoned women with families also joined, and the Shakers (even though declining in recruits and total numbers by this time) took in hundreds of orphans after the Civil War. With no procreation to bring about their own "replacement" members, conversion and the rearing of others' children in the community were the only means of new membership.

Today one community remains at Sabbath Day Lake, Maine, with less than a dozen adherents. Their faith remains. In a documentary made several years ago, one survivor put it thus: Mother Ann arrived in America with nine followers; we could once again number in the thousands.

Barbara J. Denison


E. Andrews, The People Called Shakers (New York: Dover, 1963)

P. Brewer, Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986)

H. Desroche, American Shakers (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974 [1955]).

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