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Who are the Shakers?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Shakers are a small religious sect that was founded in Manchester, England, in 1747. Their name came from the derogatory term, "Shaking Quakers," which they were initially called because of their tendency to shake their bodies spastically while praying. The Shakers' first leader, Ann Lee, was known as Mother Ann, and claimed to have visions of God. She was imprisoned in England for her controversial religious views; upon her release, she led a small group of eight fellow Shakers to the United States.

This group settled in a small town in upstate New York. They believed in celibacy, and attempted to raise new generations of children by adopting orphans into their community. The Shaker movement soon grew, with new communes appearing throughout New England, as well as in Kentucky and Ohio.

The Shaker communities were known for their devout Christianity, their plain clothes, and their work ethic. Many people in the community became adept at building furniture, which is highly valued today for its excellent craftsmanship. As excellent farmers, they were also responsible for many agricultural inventions, such as the clothespin and the circular saw. They were also well-known for their collection of medicinal herbs.

Today, there is only one remaining community of Shakers, located on Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine. The community has only a handful of members, and they are no longer permitted to adopt children as a religious group. They lead a quiet life, full of work and prayer. There is a Shaker Museum on the premises which is open to visitors, and visitors can also sit in on Sunday services. On the first Sunday of August, the Shakers celebrate Mother Ann Day, in honor of the group's founder. Some believe that once the group's membership has dwindled to only five members, there will be a revival.

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Discussion Comments
By Denha — On Jul 23, 2011

@mitchell14- I heard about the Oneida community when I was reading about Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President Garfield.

Apparently Guiteau, who is well known as being mentally ill, went there after he had trouble in college, and then left- supposedly because he did not get along with the others. Some sources even say that he couldn't get anyone to sleep with him, even in a community where polyamory was one of the main parts of their lifestyle.

Guiteau went on to have a strong belief in God, though, to the point where he claimed he killed Garfield because the Lord told him to.

It makes me wonder if he wouldn't have done better in a more subdued environment, like the Shakers.

By mitchell14 — On Jul 22, 2011

When we think of utopian societies -- those who think that their ideas could bring about an ideal world -- Shakers have become the most famous. And they do fit the mold, being a communal environment, strictly religious, and very committed.

However, there were many other similar groups that also started in the 18th and 19th centuries, and several others in New England. One that I find really amusing is the Oneida Community in Oneida, New York- they were almost the opposite of the Shakers.

While the Shakers practice celibacy, the Oneida community practiced something called Complex Marriage, in which everyone was basically married to one another, and could engage in sexual relations with anyone else of the opposite sex.

Sometimes I wonder if this would have worked better now than then; as it was they only lasted as a community from 1848 to 1881, and there were a few smaller groups around the country with similar practices.

By StarJo — On Jul 22, 2011

I admire the Shakers for their devotion to their beliefs. It sounds like the world is trying to snuff them out, yet they still continue in their traditions.

Though my lifestyle is totally different from theirs, I can very much respect commitment to the point of self-denial. They have it in their head what they believe that God expects of them, and they will not waver and join the masses.

Sadly, they do seemed destined to die out. I can’t believe that they are not allowed to adopt children! Legally, maybe it’s because no one or two specific people would act as the parents.

By geekish — On Jul 22, 2011

@snickerish - Yes! They have kept the tradition of Shaker boxes alive (you can even find them for sale on the internet, but I don't know how authentic they are). Just as mentioned previously the Shakers are amazing craftsmen and craftswomen, so there was a push to make sure their box craftmanship wasn't lost.

I remember when I was young (we also visited Shakertown in Kentucky), the thing to have were Shaker brooms as they were solid and beautiful.

I also never looked at candles' the same way after I saw the reenactment of hand dipping candles. Neat stuff for a kid to see, and it made me appreciate all the stuff we had growing up even more.

By Speechie — On Jul 22, 2011

@anon113991 - I bet "frugal" is an understatement for the Shaker mentality, especially in our culture now-a-days!

By snickerish — On Jul 21, 2011

@anon113991 - I find it interesting there are any Shakers left, because I grew up going to Shakertown in Kentucky and we visited it like any historic landmark; as though it (the town and Shakers themselves) were a relic of the past.

But it sounds like the Shakers which are still around are still a relic of the past. As they still dress in much the same way and live in much the same way!

And just as the article mentioned that "Shaker-towns" have mostly disappeared, the art of one of their crafts had also mostly disappeared. This craft was called shaker boxes, and they sold a few at the visitor gift shop in Kentucky when I was a kid and they talked about how few there were, but I wonder if the craft still continues.

This craft was called shaker boxes -- does anybody know if they still make Shaker boxes, or where I could find one?

By anon113991 — On Sep 27, 2010

Interesting to know that there are only Shakers left in Maine. I thought that was the Amish, up there. I am in Texas, and there are several Shaker groups down here. They don't take pains to attract attention, other than the mode of dress, which women always wear long skirts and a type of head covering that is Amish-like. They have nothing to do with outsiders, and are industrious, as far as I can tell. They are tremendous craftsmen. They are secretive and stingy, although I suppose "frugal" would be the term they would use.

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