History and Information about the Shakers

Who are the Shakers?
The term Shakers is the commonly used name of The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.

Will I see any Shakers when I visit?
No. The Shakers left their community at Hancock in 1959.

Why are they called Shakers?
The name Shaker was given to this religious group as a derisive term by people outside the faith who had watched the Shakers whirl and tremble to “shake” off sins and evil during their ecstatic worship.

Who was Mother Ann Lee?
She was the founder of the Shaker movement. Ann Lees, later shortened to Lee, was born in England on February 29, 1736, and came to America in 1774 after being persecuted for her religious beliefs.

What are the Shakers’ basic tenets?
Celibacy, communal life, and confession of sin are the basic religious tenets of the Shakers. Other important beliefs are separation from the world, equality of the races and genders, and pacifism. Shakers believe that their founder, Mother Ann Lee, embodied the second coming of the Christ spirit as manifested on Earth.

How are the Shakers different from the Amish and the Quakers?
The Shakers, Amish, and Quakers differ theologically and in the way they live. Unlike Shakers and Amish, the Quakers do not live in their own communities. Unlike the Amish and Quakers, the Shakers are celibate and do not marry. Unlike the Amish, the Shakers believe in full gender equality. And while the Amish reject most technology, the Shakers embraced technological advances.

Since the Shakers were celibate, how did they expect to grow?
The Shakers relied on conversion to grow their ranks. The early 19th century was a time of great religious and social upheaval in America. People were questioning traditional religious beliefs and social order, creating fertile ground for the Shakers’ progressive thinking. The Shakers also took in orphaned children and raised them. When the orphans reached age 18, the Shakers gave them the option to stay within the community or leave for the outside world.

How widely did Shakerism spread?
Nineteen major Shaker communities spread from New England to Kentucky. At the height of the Shaker movement in the mid-19th century, there were an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Shakers.

How did the Shakers govern themselves?
Two Elders and two Eldresses made up the Central Ministry, located at Mt. Lebanon, New York. They oversaw the spiritual and temporal needs of all 19 major Shaker communities. Bishoprics, administrative groups consisting of several communities located relatively close to each other, had their own leadership: two Elders and two Eldresses. They divided their time and duties between the communities under their care, and maintained the important connection between the communities and the Central Ministry. Individual Shaker communities generally consisted of two to six smaller communal groups called Families, with two Elders and two Eldresses in charge of the spiritual life of each Family. Temporal leaders on the Family level were Deacons and Deaconesses, who were in charge of the wide variety of crafts, trades and agricultural work pursued by their Family; and Trustees, who were responsible for their Family’s communal business affairs and other financial and legal matters.

Did the Shakers pay taxes, vote, or serve in the military?
The Shakers did not try to avoid paying most taxes. They willingly paid the equivalent of local property taxes without seeking exemption as a religious organization. They sometimes objected to taxes that they considered unfair or morally wrong.Abstaining from politics, the Shakers did not vote, campaign, or hold office, except in rare instances.As pacifists, the Shakers sought exemption from military duty. During the Civil War, the great Shaker Elder Frederick Evans approached President Lincoln with a petition for exemption of Shakers from military draft. Lincoln granted the petition, telling Evans, “You ought to be made to fight. We need regiments of just such men as you.”

What did the Shakers invent?
The Shakers were inventive people, embracing and often improving upon technology. There are many myths about Shaker inventions. Some are exaggerated truths; others are fiction. Because the Shakers, as a show of humility, often did not patent their inventions and improvements, it is difficult to say how many things they invented.Current scholarship indicates that the Shakers most likely invented the flat broom. They were one of the first to put garden seeds in printed paper packets for sale. They may have invented an early (but perhaps not the first) version of a circular saw. Authentication of many other Shaker inventions or improvements on existing technologies and items is debated and discussed to this day.

Are there still Shakers today?
Yes. A small but active community practices the Shaker religion in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. To learn more about them, visit www.maineshakers.com.

Adapted from Introducing the Shakers: An Explanation and Directory by Diana Van Kolken