Spiritual History of the Shakers
Talk at First Presbyterian Church Skaneateles Nov. 15, 2015


Central New York has been the home of a wide variety of religious schismatic groups, and social utopian experiments. We’ve had so much evangelical activity that after the Second Great Awakening the whole western part of New York State was designated the “Burned-Over District.”  This is just to the west of us – from the west shore of Lake Cayuga all the way to Lake Erie. It was called Burned-Over because there was presumably no more fuel left – fuel, of course, being unconverted souls.

In a sense, this area was a spiritual alchemist’s cauldron. We produced Mormons, Spiritualism, Seventh Day Adventism, the utopian Oneida Society, and right here in Mottville in 1843, our very own utopian Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform, or the Skaneateles Community, aka the “No God” Society. The local “No Gods” imploded after a few years, presumably due to human nature conflicting with utopian ideals. All that’s left is a few buildings.

Today we’ll take a look at The Shakers, 2*

another spiritual group that found its home in central New York. The root of the Shakers really begins in France in the late 1600’s. Knowing the background will help us understand the Shakers better. Gustav is working on a real study of the Shakers. Today I want to follow just one theme that fascinates me.

Luther, Calvin and Hus invented Protestantism in the early 1500s. It met with aggressive “resistance” from the established Catholic Church. Very Catholic France gave them some rights, but even the little tolerance shown to the French Protestants - the Huguenots, was withdrawn under Louis Quatorze.  A charismatic group of Huguenots called Camisards were known as the “French Prophets” since they often experienced the movement of the Spirit in worship.

Things got pretty rough on Protestants in France. *3

Protestants were arrested, turned into galley slaves, massacred by the village-load and even deported to America. Sounds pretty much like parts of the world today. The Camisards thought the persecutions they were going through were divine judgment, punishment for an ungodly people. How often the victim blames himself. Finally fed up, the Camisards took off for England.

The Camisards were popular speakers in England – maybe because of their anti-French attitude. *4

Around this time, the early 1700’s, the European Great Awakening began. Protestantism -The Church of England, Presbyterians and the like, had gotten themselves all wrapped up in politics, hierarchy and rituals. This revival movement was “pushback” against the way Protestants had bound religion up in ceremony and rules. Evangelical preaching shook up the traditional Protestant Churches. These revivalist preachers woke people up to the authentic experience of feeling the movement of the Spirit and the power of faith. Sort of like today’s evangelicals. This Revival was aimed directly at Christians sleeping in the pews, not the un-churched. The European Great Awakening reshaped the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches and it fanned the flame for the upstarting Methodists and Baptists.

This is all background for the Shakers.  The Shakers started as a sect of the Quakers. *5

The Society of Friends was founded in England in the mid-1650’s. Quakers were dissenters from the Church of England. They believed the individual could directly know Jesus without need of a Church or priest. And they experienced the mystery and movement of the Spirit. The name “Quaker” actually comes from a worship practice that began in the 1740’s, a movement of the Spirit that led to worshippers physical trembling, or quaking.

Some French Camisards, the French Prophets, joined up with these Quakers.*6

The charismatic Camisards added to the Quakers a new level of Spirit in worship. Bango! *7

A volatile mix. Quaking and trembling becomes complete physicality. The Charismatic Quakers split off from the mainstream Quakers. Their leaders were Jane Wardley and her husband, John. They did silent meditations as did mainstream Quakers, but, silent meditation was broken by “Mother Jane” speaking out in prophetic revelations and trembling and dancing in the Spirit. Charisma broke out all over.

A woman named Ann Lee joined this group of ex-Quakers, then known as the Wardley Society. * 8

Ann had been pressured by her blacksmith father into marrying his apprentice, and she was not a happy woman. Four children died in infancy. Echoing the concerns of the Camisards about possible divine judgment, she felt she had received judgment for her sinful, human nature.  Ann Lee vowed a life of sexual abstinence and self- abasement, shame. We’re not sure how her husband took this. Ann Lee fasted, went sleepless, and finally feeling cleansed of her humanity, had a spiritual rebirth. And thus were the Shakers born. We do not know whether her husband joined the movement.

The Shaker meetings in England started in silent contemplation, and with the moving of the Spirit, often became a bit wild. That wasn’t enough. Shakers would barge into traditional Protestant services to let them know about their sexual sinfulness – and other spiritual crimes. No surprise, Ann Lee was jailed for disturbing the peace.  One time, while sitting in a cell, she received an important revelation.  She was the female manifestation of Jesus. She was the Second Coming. Ann Lee now became… Mother Ann.

In 1772 Mother Ann received a further revelation to go to America, which she and eight other believers did. Thus, the Shakers came to New York City, and like immigrants since, they worked, saved and finally moved upstate, near Albany .*9

They called themselves The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or for short, “The Believers.” But, they became known as the “Shaking Quakers,” or just Shakers.

The Shakers were celibate. *10

Without family or home, they had considerable energy to pour into their work. The mix of energy and the belief that God was in the details, led them to work not only with great energy, but precision and great skill. This grace led the Shakers to be not only skillful, but to be innovative. The Shakers were innovative even in governance. Their leadership was sexually egalitarian. Each Shaker community was governed by two Shaker men and two Shaker women. The Shakers were highly inventive and brought many useful innovations into the American culture, some patented, some not. *11

They essentially invented the packaged seed business. They are credited with inventing, among many other things, the circular saw, an innovative metal for bushings, the clothespin, chair rails, a washing machine, a cheese press *12 and even the flat broom. *13 

Their seeds-in-envelopes became a big industry we enjoy today. Their architecture was plain, simple, without gee-gaws and extremely functional – as were the Shakers themselves.*14

Their now-classic furniture style probably influenced the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the Stickley factory owes the Shakers at least a nod.

The Shakers exchanged Spirit Gifts, some of which remain as lovely artifacts *15, *16

Dance was a major part of Shaker Worship. Their worship dancing was social and group, not paired; as formal in its construction as American square dancing or European court dances. *17

The Square Order Shuffle, for example, which could be danced to “Simple Gifts,” might feature singers standing to the side, and the dancers following a “Traveling Gender Gap” formation. *18

This featured lines of men and lines of women moving counterclockwise, and maintaining constant distance between them. The singers were instructed to keep pace with the dancers. And that is important, as the pace of the dance intentionally changed as it went on. The simple, repetitive music was important. And precision of steps was important. Feet were placed heel-to-toe, and there was even a specific foot movement called a “tip-tap.” *19

We are used to Lord of the Dance sung as a slow hymn, but “Simple Gifts” was sung and danced at a different pace than the stately hymn we are used to. *20

They would start slow, with formalized steps, then, as the words, the steps, the movements were repeated, move at a faster and faster march pace, accompanied by the correct but increasingly fast and more vigorous body gestures and hand movements. Hand shaking with hands and body bending up and down, shaking away the carnal sins. “Shake, shake, shake away the carnal.” *21

And then with palms upraised,  gather in, gathering in, the “gathering of the blessings.” *22

As the dance progressed, the speed of the words, the music and the steps increased, until towards the end, there was an ecstatic jumble of motion and sound as body and mind yielded to the movement of the Spirit. Sort of a mix of an Assembly of God charismatic prayer service, and the wild conclusion of the Hora at a Jewish wedding reception. *23

The Shakers seem unique. They certainly look different from any religious group we are familiar with. But, haven’t we seen similar reactions to traditional religions before? Let’s see. The Shakers were distinguished by the pursuit of ideal purity rather than by any special code of doctrines. There were isolated communities of believers which were regulated by strict rules, sort of like monasteries. All things were held in common, without distinction of property; special provision was made for the relief of the poor. Self-denial, celibacy, temperance and labor --especially agriculture-- were the outward life of the group; purity and divine communion were their goals. Slavery and war were forbidden. 

Shakers? Yes. Who else? Essenes.


  Essene Agriculture  

Yes, the pious group alive in community at the time of Jesus. The Essenes probably took more ritual baths rather than ritual dances, and engaged in writing things like the Dead Sea Scrolls rather than marketing seeds in envelope packets, but aside from that, the Essenes, two thousand years earlier had much in common with the Shakers. The Shakers, like the Essenes, were ordinary people who, in faith, chose to give up their families, property, and worldly goods, and in whom the Spirit was encouraged to move unquenched. *24

The name Shaker comes from their ecstatic and ritualized dancing and symbolic shaking off of sins. The name Essenes is likely from the Greek 'aciya', "healers," which Josephus tells us the Essenes specialized in using herbs and incantations. Both groups were probably regarded as “beyond the fringe” by their contemporaries, Each was millennialist. Each believed the time of great tribulation and the end times were near. As millennialists, the Shakers were unified in the belief that Christ had come again in the person of Mother Ann Lee. But, Shakers spoke of yet a second Messiah. They believe this second Messiah is each individual believer. They feel we are in the millennium and it is the duty of each believer to live purely in “the kingdom come” and strive for perfection in everything he or she does.

As I looked at the history of the Shakers, it brought to mind the central drama of our times: Politics and Certainty vs. Faith and Mystery. We treat these as “either-or” tradeoffs; either one or the other. You can feel this conflict in your own life in the way, for example, while going about our practical routines at work, we can get caught up in a moment of the transcendent. Or, when we try to pray, we often find ourselves thinking, “I wonder what’s for dinner?”

 Jesus often points to a child as the example of how to enter the kingdom. I think that’s because the child has an equal need for rules and certainty on the one hand, and need for faith and mystery on the other hand. Children are hungry for mystery and wonder. If a child is lucky, this capacity for faith and mystery survives our structured childhood plus the rigid socialization process of sixteen to twenty years of schooling, often followed by corporate life. Too often we try to eliminate fantasy and mystery so we can live in the “real world.” We’re all born with the capacity for awe and astonishment. Do you remember the moment when involvement in politics, practical economics and need for certainty crowded out your child-like hunger for the invisible, the mysterious and spiritual?

The Shakers were not a moderate group, but in their own way, they were an interesting balance of mysticism and practicality. The Shakers obviously didn’t populate their ranks through procreation. Membership was by adoption of foundlings or through proselytizing. But, the obvious dwindling of numbers was not seen as a problem. In fact, they believed that when the number of Shakers gets small enough, this will be the end time. Crazy? I don’t know. There is an ancient Jewish tradition of the Lamed Vov. There are thirty-six Lamed Vovniks, thirty-six righteous persons alive in every generation, on the strength of whose faith and righteousness the whole world is kept from total destruction. The thirty-six are hidden; even they themselves do not know who they are. Maybe some were Shakers.

At the turn of the 19th Century, a Second Great Awakening hit America. This one, though, was aimed at converting the un-churched. This was the revival which produced the Burned-Over District in New York. The impact of this Second Great Awakening is still felt in our area. Skaneateles is surrounded by revivalist, evangelical churches. Even a healthy mainline church like our own loses members to Revivalist Churches. Like the Shakers, these Evangelical Churches preach revival and forgiveness, release from the power of sin, and an openness to the moving of the Spirit. Although the Shakers have dwindled away to a few women living in Maine, the same spark is still glowing in the Burned-Over district - and elsewhere.


25,26,27 At its peak in the mid-19th century, there were 6,000 Shaker believers. By 1920, there were only twelve communities left in the United States. Today, there is only one active Shaker village, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine. Other Shaker settlements are now essentially museums, like Hancock Shaker village in Massachusetts.