The mention of the term, “Shaker,” to any modern American today has little meaning beyond the classic design style called “Shaker furniture.” Yet the American Shakers were not in the business of selling furniture. They were a religious movement of 18 societies scattered over 7 states that became significant in early America. They were, however, innovators and inventors. It was a Shaker community at Alfred, Maine that invented the circular saw, and the Shaker community at Enfield, Connecticut was one of the first in the country to establish a seed-selling business in 1792. They were one of a handful of religious societies thriving in the first half of the 19th century that had quite a number of cultic key practices in common, and were all distinctively American religious movements. These newly formed sects included the Mormons, Christian Science, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular. The thousands of members of these new movements were taken almost entirely from mainstream Protestant church denominations, including Baptists (especially “Free-Will” variety), Methodists, Presbyterians, and others. This period is sometimes referred to as the American Great Awakening, but it was a shaking of the foundations of mainstream Christian denominations.
Last summer our family got away for a week’s holiday in beautiful New Hampshire and Vermont, and we took the opportunity to spend an afternoon touring the historic Shaker community in Canterbury, New Hampshire. One of the largest Shaker villages, it was founded in 1792 and after being abandoned a few years ago is now run by a private foundation as a historic site.
The Shaker movement, officially named the “United Society of Believers” or the “Millennial Church,” was founded by Ann Lee, the daughter of an English Quaker family, who claimed to have had a Divine vision to create a new purified church while in prison in 1770. She was known as “Mother Ann,” although all four of her children died as infants. Her theology was formed, not from the Bible, but from her own sad life experiences. The tragic deaths of her children and an unhappy marriage with an unfaithful husband led her to dictate the two main beliefs of the Shaker religion: oral confession of sins (similar to Roman Catholic tradition), and celibacy.
Ann Lee, who worked in England as a cook in an infirmary and could neither read nor write, moved to America in 1774 to found her new religion. Just ten years later she was dead at age 49, having attracted few followers. Her disciples, however, began promoting her as “the Second Coming of Christ” and attributing to her a Divine nature. It is interesting that Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of another 19th century religious phenomenon, Mormonism, was convicted and jailed as a con artist, and whose followers after his death also assumed for him the role of godhood.
One might ask, why would so many people convert to such strange and convoluted religions? New converts are never given the full story of what these cults believe until they are well indoctrinated into the religion. The only question the Shakers asked a potential convert was, “Are you sick of sin and want salvation?” This was a question that could be asked by any religious denomination.
One of the enticing hallmarks of many false cults is a reputation for being polite, honest, nice people. The Shakers too were said to have “a reputation of being honest and fair, polite, patient, noiseless, scrupulously neat…” This is a very attractive attribute that has led many to join such religious groups.
Like Christian Science, the practitioners of Shakerism claimed for themselves the power over disease, yet Ann Lee could not save her children’s lives nor her own. Like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Shakers printed for themselves a special extra-biblical “holy book.” A Shaker historian wrote, “They do not regularly read the Bible,” but used their own religious books and “depend much upon their own revelations.” Other 19th century cults also felt the need to rewrite or reinterpret the Bible with their own revelations, such as the Mormon “Joseph Smith Translation” of the Bible, the Jehovah’s Witnesses “New World” Bible translation, and “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.”
The Shakers had a reputation for being wealthy, which was true for many of their societies, but not for the individual members who were required to turn over all of their assets to the cult leaders. The Shaker societies put most of their wealth into the purchase of land; so much so, that in the New York legislature a law was nearly passed to limit the amount of Shaker land-holdings. Similarly in 1890, the U.S. Congress nearly passed a law to confiscate the vast Mormon land holdings in Utah; today the Mormon Church has a reported net worth of over $100 billion (not million!) dollars, much of it invested nationwide in land, shopping centers, and other properties. It is a hallmark of most cults that only a very small percentage of their wealth ever goes to charity.
A good source of information on the Shakers is found in the book, “The Communist Societies of the United States,” by Charles Nordhoff, published in 1875, from which most of my quotations here are taken. Mr. Nordhoff personally visited and toured nearly all of the 18 Shaker communities in the mid-19th century at the height of their prosperity. His research is a valuable source-book with first-hand accounts of life in these “millennial societies.”
The Bible speaks of a future time we call the millennium, when “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa. 11:6-9)
Amillennial theology assumes that this prophetic holy kingdom has been spiritually fulfilled already in the church age (i.e. in Roman Catholicism), and it was only an easy mental step for church offshoots to posit an actual present physical millennium. The 19th century millennial societies were an attempt to physically establish Christ’s kingdom of peace and righteousness without Christ’s physical presence. It was man’s own attempts to begin the rule of Christ before the Divinely-set time when He comes to establish His rule, and none of them were successful. Similarly, secular communism philosophically is but an attempt to institute a godless form of millenarianism, an oxymoron of a holy kingdom without God.
A quaint first-hand description of life in a Shaker millennial community was given by Mr. Nordhoff: “The members here have been long-lived; the register proves this: it shows deaths at ninety-seven, ninety-four, ninety-three, ninety, and so on. They are careful to have thorough drainage and ventilation; and pay attention to sanitary questions. They were formerly subject to bilious fevers; but since rejecting the use of pork, these fevers have disappeared.” (ibid. p.197) Take note of this, for something good can be learned from experience!
The Shaker communities all died out because they did not allow marriages or births, and only one out of ten children who were brought in by their parents remained in the Shaker religion. Yet some of the other religious denominational oddities of the period are still with us today, shaking the foundations of Christian belief with their disparate and extra-biblical teachings.