This NEH Landmark Workshop examines the history, culture and legacy of American Shakerism.
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known as Shakers, arrived in America in 1774. Under the able leadership of the charismatic Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784), the Shakers established their first separatist Christian communal society outside of Albany, New York. The settlement was intended as a refuge from the extremes of wealth and poverty that these immigrants had known in Manchester, England, the heartland of the Industrial Revolution.
In 1780 New York authorities arrested Mother Lee and several of her followers for “pacifist agitation.” The experience jolted the Shakers out of seclusion. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, Shaker preachers (men and women) took to the road to share the radical tenets of their faith including celibacy, gender equality, and communitarianism. They attracted converts in quick succession and founded new communities at New Lebanon, New York (1787) and Hancock, Massachusetts (1790).
American Shakerism was vital, growing and expansive by the 1830s when approximately six thousand Shakers lived in nineteen communities that stretched from Kentucky to Maine. Sweeping changes to the American economy and society facilitated the growth of the movement. Commercialization, industrialization, urbanization, and migration brought new economic opportunities but also challenged how antebellum Americans understood themselves and their world. Convinced that the nation had lost its moral compass, some sought refuge in separatist utopian communities.
Other Americans found a new direction in the Second Great Awakening and the doctrine of Perfectionism espoused by Charles Grandison Finney. Perfectionism directed Christians to conquer sin – the sins of individuals, of communities, and of the nation. The preponderance of reform movements for temperance, abolition and Sabbatarianism, among other causes, prompted Alexis de Tocqueville to comment that reform, philanthropy, and the perfection of society had become a “kind of profession” in antebellum America.
American Shakerism thrived in this context of economic and social tumult. Shakers strived to create a distinct culture and to reform society. They lived by and advocated for the values commonly associated with the religious and social reformers of the antebellum era: pacifism, racial and gender equality, communitarianism, and spiritualism.
This NEH Landmark Workshop invites participants to view the history of the Shaker movement in the larger context of early American history. Workshop participants will learn about Shaker spirituality and theology in the context of the Second Great Awakening. They will understand the Shaker model of equality of the sexes in the context of changing ideas about the family and gender roles. Participants will appreciate the Shaker model of communalism and Shaker entrepreneurialism as reactions to the commercialization of the American economy. Finally, participants will recognize the influence of the Shaker movement on American culture then and now.