The Shaking Quakers or Shakers were one of a wide variety of religious sects which propagated during the early history of our country. The United States of America quickly became a haven for some serious oddballs, even in the years of being colonies. I imagine an adviser going to King George and The Archbishop of Canterbury (who is in charge of the Church of England) saying,
Advisor: Your Majesty, Your Grace, we aren't quite sure what to do with this group. Shakers they call them.
Archbishop of Canterbury: They are a threat to our state-endorsed religion and our holy sacraments. What do you recommend?
Advisor: Your Majesty, Your Grace, with your mandate we can send them to the colonies.
King George: Right-e-o. We can still tax them.
Archbishop of Canterbury: And don't have to worry about their strange religion?
Together: Bonus! Let's do it!
The Quakers and the Shakers didn't believe in having human mediators (priests or archbishops). No one is quite sure, but it's believed that the Shakers came from the Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends). (The Shakers were also called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.)
The Shakers believed in the good ol' Protestant work ethic before it was called that. You could say they invented it. They believed that their hard work was an act of prayer unto the Lord.
They sang with gusto, danced during services (called turning), wrote their own songs, and made furniture. They spoke in tongues, too. Mother Ann Lee traveled around the Colonies preaching that people should repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who was coming soon.
And they were CELIBATE. Forever.
Celibacy was believed to be preparation for the Kingdom and Christ's return. It wasn't celibacy until marriage, it was celibacy forever. Sex was the source of sin, going all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden. If you were married, your marriage was dissolved. If you owned property, you surrendered it. If you had children, they were absorbed into the collective.
If you were not married, you weren't ever supposed to marry. (ever) And you certainly weren't supposed to have sex. (Never ever.) They believed in channeling their sexual energy into creativity. They worked and slept completely segregated from the opposite sex. (Sounds nice sometimes!) But they all worshiped together.
Incidentally, they were extremely productive and invented the Shaker chair, the clothespin, the flat broom, the wheel-driven washing machine, sold seeds in paper packets, made people aware of healing herbs, wrote many songs, and made additional folk art and artifacts. They also invented choralography by creating symbolic dances to their songs. You might recognize "Simple Gifts" or "Lord of the Dance." Recently REM and Weezer both used references to Shaker hymns or teachings. I can guarantee the song wasn't sung the way Jewel sings it, but it's still quite lovely.
The Shaker community was positive for women who were considered spiritual equals and held positions of leadership. Women also preached and taught since they were single and were free to serve only God rather than a husband. (Circa 1749. Wow!)
Since they didn't procreate children, they added to their numbers by adopting orphaned children. Many of those children took off as soon as they hit 21. Some notables did stay, including Isaac Newton Youngs who wrote books including one on music theory and music notation, and another on the history of the Shakers. He learned multiple trades, invented a few key things, and wrote poetry. (Maybe there's something to this.)
At their height, there were 6,000 members in multiple communities. Today there are a few Shakers left who reside at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine. I'm sure you're like, "Wait, there are still Shakers?" Yep. 3.
What slowly killed them off? The industrial revolution meant others could make cheaper goods and many people who might be otherwise inclined toward celibate life moved to cities for work. Our society is generally less religious. In the 1960s new laws prevented religious communities from adopting children. They now have to hire employees to keep their last community running. It's basically a museum.
Adults who wish to embrace Shaker life are most welcome to join...
The thing is, I think we have. But we've joined by default. And we aren't living in a community. If the church continues to preach in the manner that it does, it will shoot itself in the foot. Society at large already deals with the graying of the populace and an overextended social security system. The church tells us it's all OK, that God may have called us to singleness, that our work should be an act of prayer, that being single and celibate is BETTER. We are told to only seek worship and holiness at church. Or maybe that's just one of my pastors to me and apostate thoughts passes between singles. Or maybe the feminist cry of "you don't need a man."
Do they even know what they are saying? We are treading in shark-infested waters. And we've heard it before. We know where it leads. It leads to 3 Shakers left.
The unfortunate aspect of our modern Shakerism is that we shall not be identified as a group, or known for our collective contributions, nor do we have a sense of a community as these farming, creative, and religious communities did. There will be no equivalent of Shaker folk art, Shakers chairs, and Shaker hymns to be studied and collected. We are too divided. We don't have a self-sufficient community with its own farms.
Our singleness is a byproduct. An accident. A mistake. Most of us want to be married and in relationships. At least the Shakers were/are intentional. With the exception of the legendary celibate Morrissey, we will be remembered as an end note and a sad comment. And even Morrissey tried to find love. We certainly won't be remembered as a slightly looney sexless sect with a rich history and culture.
Please visit my Nun Wedding articles from when one of my friends became a nun.
Some music for you...
It's in the the piano part at the beginning...
Hang up your chairs to better sweep/ Clear the floor to dance/ Shake the rug into the fireplace...Mother Ann Lee
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