The Shaker story provides fascinating insight into early American history, religion and culture.
The Shakers trace their beginnings to Manchester, England, in 1747. They called themselves The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing and soon became known as Shakers because of the trembling, whirling, and shaking they engaged in during ecstatic worship services. As Millennialists, they believed that Christ’s second coming was realized in their leader, Ann Lee, whom they called Mother Ann. Misunderstood and often persecuted in their native England, the Shakers nonetheless gathered a small group of enthusiastic followers.
In 1774, Mother Ann Lee made the monumental decision to lead eight Shaker converts on a journey to America, seeking the freedom to live, work, and worship according to their main religious tenets: celibacy, communal life, and confession of sin. The Shakers also believed in racial and gender equality, simplicity, and pacifism. They dedicated their lives to creating a working “Heaven on Earth” amid the boundless opportunities presented by the New World.
The Shakers left England on the ship Mariah, arriving in New York harbor in 1774. Mother Ann and her small group of converts soon purchased land near Watervliet, New York, a frontier wilderness northwest of Albany, where they made their first settlement. While establishing a place to live in communal brotherhood and sisterhood (and also at nearby New Lebanon, New York), Mother Ann embarked on a series of missionary journeys throughout New York and New England, gathering many converts to the new Christian movement.
When Mother Ann passed away in 1784, one of her early English disciples, Father James Whittaker, assumed the leadership of the fledgling society. After Father James’ death in 1787, Elder Joseph Meacham succeeded as the first American-born leader of the Shaker movement. Elder Joseph soon appointed another American-born convert, Mother Lucy Wright, as his co-leader, and together they worked to gather the scattered groups of Brethren and Sisters into an expanding network of communal villages of Believers. Hancock was the third community among the eventual nineteen major Shaker communities established between 1783 and 1836 in New York, New England, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.
The Shaker population reached its peak in the mid-19th century, with an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Shakers. More than 300 Shakers lived at Hancock during the height of the community here. Today, the Shaker community remains active at Sabbathday Lake in Maine, with three Believers.
The Shakers are one of the most intriguing social and religious movements in American history. They are also one of the longest lived, and are considered by many to be the most successful of the hundreds of communal groups and utopian societies in this country since before the Revolutionary War.
As the Shakers grew in influence and numbers in the 19th century, they challenged the existing social and religious structure and economic order of the new nation and eventually developing an alternative lifestyle based on their religious beliefs. The Shakers have made important contributions to American culture in the areas of art and design, science, architecture, craftsmanship, business, music, education, government, medicine, agriculture, and commerce.