The Shaker story offers a fascinating insight into the early years of 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. They soon became known as Shakers because of the trembling, whirling, and shaking that affected them during their spiritually 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 persecuted in their native England, the Shakers nonetheless gathered a small group of enthusiastic followers to their new Christian lifestyle and beliefs.
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 amidst the boundless opportunities presented by settlement of the New World.
The small group of Shaker converts who left England on the ship Mariah seeking religious freedom in America arrived in New York harbor in 1774. Ann Lee and her eight Shaker followers soon purchased land and settled near Watervliet, New York, in the frontier wilderness northwest of Albany. While establishing a place to live in communal brotherhood and sisterhood at Watervliet (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 this new Christian movement.
Mother Ann passed away in 1784, and 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. Elder Joseph soon appointed another American-born convert, Mother Lucy Wright, to be 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 of what would eventually number 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. Today, the Shaker community remains active at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.
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 that have flourished in this country since before the Revolutionary War. As the Shakers grew in influence and in numbers in the 19th century, they challenged the existing social and religious structure and economic order of the new nation. Eventually developing an alternative lifestyle based on their religious beliefs, the Shakers have made important contributions to American culture including art, science, architecture, craftsmanship, business, music, education, government, medicine, agriculture, and commerce.