Atlantic History Shakers
by
Lionel Laborie
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0319

Introduction

The Shakers, officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, are a millenarian religious movement still active today in the United States, whose roots can be traced back to the English evangelical Awakening. According to their oral history, Shakerism started when two Quaker tailors from Manchester, James and Jane Wardley, began their own religious society in Bolton in 1747. Because of their charismatic worship, these enthusiasts became known locally as the “Shaking Quakers.” By their own account, the Shakers were an offshoot of both the Quakers and the Camisards, or French Prophets, who had arrived in England from France in 1706, even though no hard evidence exists of any direct link with the latter. In 1758, the Wardleys welcomed along their followers the young Ann Lee, who soon rose to prominence within the group as “Mother Ann.” Lee married Abraham Stanley in 1761 and all four of their offspring died in infancy. She became convinced as a result that marriage and sexual intercourse were intrinsically sinful, paving the way for the Shakers’ belief in celibacy. Increasing persecution forced the Shakers to leave England for America in 1774. Lee and her followers settled in Watervliet, New York, and other communities were rapidly established in New England. Early believers in pacificism, the Shakers remained neutral during the American Revolution. In the early 19th century, they sent missionaries across the Appalachians and founded important communities in Kentucky and Ohio. Their movement peaked in the mid-1800s, with an estimated 5,000 followers nationwide, but it declined sharply after the American Civil War. Most of their villages died out in the 20th century. The Shakers are generally known to the wider public for their celibate and communal lifestyle, but they are celebrated today mainly for the quality and distinctive, yet simple design of their furniture. Sabbathday Lake, Maine, remains the last active Shaker community today, with only two members left.

General Overviews

Thousands of titles have been published about the Shakers and nearly each one of them includes a more or less extensive general introduction. The works cited here offer the most comprehensive accounts of the rise and fall of one of America’s most famous religious movements. Ironically, Shaker scholarship began only as the movement rapidly declined in the early 20th century. Andrews 1953 and Desroche 1971 pioneered the field at a time when sociological studies of early modern religious movements were popular. Garrett 1987 and Stein 1992 briefly revived this academic interest as the Shakers approached extinction. Stein 1992 remains the definitive reference on the subject.

  • Andrews, Edward Deming. People Called Shakers: A Search for the Perfect Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

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    A classic social history of the Shaker movement based on several decades of research. Andrews places the Shakers within a broader context of flourishing religious heterodoxy in 18th-century America. The book spans from the origins of the Shakers to their modern decline, while offering insight into their ideology, their proto-communist lifestyle, their internal organization, and their missionary work. It also includes many useful illustrations, appendixes, and statistics. Reprinted several times.

  • Brewer, Priscilla J. Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986.

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    Another sociohistorical study of the Shaker’s utopian communal lifestyle in the eastern colonies. Written by a former research assistant at the Hancock Shaker Village historical museum, the book includes statistics and reproduces many revealing photographs, letters, and diary excerpts that offer a deeper insight into the rise and decline of the Shaker movement over the course of the long 19th century.

  • Desroche, Henri. The American Shakers: From Neo-Christianity to Presocialism. Translated by John K. Savakool. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.

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    A French sociological analysis of the Shakers’ communal lifestyle, written by a former priest turned sociologist of utopian religions. It is largely influenced by Andrews 1953. Supported with many graphs, statistics, and maps, it shows how the Shakers evolved by the mid-19th century into a classless religious society, one that Friedrich Engels praised as a model of successful communal ownership. Originally published as Les Shakers américains: D’un néo-christianisme à un pré-socialisme? (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1955).

  • Garrett, Clarke. Spirit Possession and Popular Religion from the Camisards to the Shakers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

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    The most detailed study of the origins of the Shakers. Spanning from the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France in 1685 to the death of Ann Lee in 1784 via the English evangelical Awakening and the German Pietist revival, the book is based on extensive primary source research and arguably offers the best analysis of transatlantic spiritualist movements in the long 18th century.

  • Garrett, Clarke. Origins of the Shakers: From the Old World to the New World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

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    Paperback reprint of Garrett 1987. The text was not revised and regrettably does not offer an updated preface. It is worth noting, however, that only the title was changed, presumably for marketing purposes (the reference to the Camisards is dropped). Although constituting a part of their early oral history, the Shakers’ spiritual descent from the Camisards has been likewise erased from the scholarship in recent years.

  • Stein, Stephen J. The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

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    The most comprehensive general history of the Shakers. This classic study covers two centuries of Shaker history, from their origins to their decline in the 20th century. Stein’s revisionist approach challenges the Shakers’ somewhat romanticized image as a peaceful, egalitarian community. Rather, he reappraises the complex personalities of some key members, revisits their political activism, and sheds light on the persisting tensions between the last surviving communities.

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