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The Shakers Come to America

When our children were growing up we lived in western Massachusetts and within an easy drive to two Shaker Village sites: Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, MA and The Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in New Lebanon, NY. Both were among the earliest Shaker communities in America and served as models for future factions as this extreme religious sect spread from Maine to Kentucky during the mid-nineteenth century.

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, commonly known as the Shakers, was a Protestant sect founded in England in 1749 with roots in two extreme 17th-century religions: the French Camisards, a Protestant denomination originating in southern France during the 17th century, and the Quakers, or Society of Friends, founded in England in 1652 by George Fox.

Heavily persecuted for their beliefs by King Louis XIV, the Camisards fled to England between 1702 and 1706, where their preachers heavily influenced a group of Quakers in Manchester, England. Over the next several decades, Quakerism morphed and evolved, influenced by disparate ideologies. One such sect was the Camisard-influenced “Shaking Quakers” out of Manchester, known for the violent trembling and quaking that defined their process of worship in an effort to expel sin from their bodies. Among the members of this Shaking Quakers sect, led by Jane and James Wardley, was a 22-year-old Ann Lee, whose manifestation of “Divine light,” led her and a small group of her followers to emigrate to the United States in 1774 to spread the word and establish a Shaker Church in America.

Ann Lee, commonly known as Mother Ann Lee, was born in 1736 in Manchester, the daughter of a blacksmith who married a blacksmith. Lee joined the Wardley’s sect in 1758 and quickly rose to prominence by urging other believers to preach more publicly concerning the imminent second coming. In her preaching, she attacked sin boldly and unconventionally, claiming she had received in a vision from God the message that celibacy and confession of sin was the only true road to salvation and the only way in which the Kingdom of God could be established on the earth. Lee’s claims of visions and messages from God, miraculous escapes from death, and speaking in tongues led to her frequent imprisonment for breaking the Sabbath by dancing and shouting (“shaking”), and for blasphemy. Persecuted for her faith, Ann Lee, her husband and a select group of members from the Wardley sect set sail for America, arriving in New York City on August 6, 1774. Five years later, this small band of Shakers leased land in Schenectady, NY in the township of Watervliet, near Albany, and established their vision for a Shaker community in America. Now it was time for Ann Lee to spread the word and recruit new members!

Lee’s opportunity came a year later in the days following May 19, 1780, known in history as “The Dark Day,” when the sun disappeared and it was so dark that “candles had to be lit to see indoors at noon.” Some of those who observed the phenomenon believed it indicated that the end of times, or Judgment Day, had come. Clergy and religious leaders of all sects used this unexplained atmospheric phenomenon and the fear it evoked to proselytize their religious beliefs and the salvation it offered, including the Shakers and Ann Lee. In fact, it can be said that The Dark Day arguably set into motion the actions and events that transformed the Shakers in America from a small group of Believers into what became a society that included more than 6,000 members spread across 18 communal villages by the mid-1800s. Ann Lee’s public testimony on The Dark Day at a “New Light ” revival held in New Lebanon, NY, “transformed a distressing experience into a positive outcome” for the crowds and attracted a number of converts who went on to become life-long Shakers.

A simpler, self-sustaining way of life, celibacy, communal living, and regular purging of sin offered an appealing alternative lifestyle for those looking for spiritual grounding and redemption in the first half of the 19th century; however, it did not take long for external and internal societal changes and the Industrial Revolution to challenge the feasibility and long-term viability of the Shaker way of life. The second half of the 19th century saw a gradual decline in members and a thinning of Shaker communities across the country. By 1920, there were only 12 Shaker communities remaining in the United States. As of 2019, only Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine remains an active Shaker community.

The Shakers had a century-long history as a religious movement in America but leave a more lasting legacy as an aesthetic movement, a design manifestation of the religion’s commitment to leading simple lives, which included their furnishings and the objects that provided useful purpose in their homes. Although conceived as a religious order, it turns out that the Shakers were also capitalists. Recognizing an opportunity to sell the goods they made for internal use to the outside world to generate income for their communities, the Shakers began cottage industries to sell their wares, not only to village visitors but to tourists looking to pick up souvenirs of their travels.

Shaker furniture, as well as baskets, boxes, brooms, and other utilitarian home goods – “crafted by human hands intended for the divine” – are easily recognized for their simple functionality, clean lines, high-quality craftsmanship, and use of indigenous materials. These items, once displayed in Shaker living history museums and sold in their gift shops, are now finding their way to antique and primitive goods shows, antique shops, and auctions with a renewed design interest in clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic; interest fueled by the Mid-century Modern trend.

In this issue, we talk to Willis Henry, who is known for his auction house’s annual Shaker auctions and knowledge of the market, explore five Shaker Village living history museums to find out what everyday life was like, understand more about the craftsmanship that went into the making of “fancy goods,” and learn more about the founding of Shaker Museum in Mount Lebanon, among other topics of related interest.