AskDefine | Define shaker

Dictionary Definition



1 a person who wields power and influence; "a shaker of traditional beliefs"; "movers and shakers in the business world" [syn: mover and shaker]
2 a member of Christian group practicing celibacy and communal living and common possession of property and separation from the world
3 a container in which something can be shaken

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. A person or thing that shakes, or by means of which something is shaken.
  2. A variety of pigeon.
  3. One who held railroad spikes while they were hammered.

Extensive Definition

The Shakers, a Protestant religious denomination officially called The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, originated in Manchester, England in 1747 in the home of Jane and James Wardley. The Shakers developed from the religious group called the Quakers which developed in the 17th century. Both groups believed that everybody could find God within him or herself, rather than through clergy or rituals, but the Shakers tended to be more emotional and demonstrative in their worship. Shakers also believed that their lives should be dedicated to pursuing perfection and continuously confessing their sins and attempting to stop sinning.
The 17th century was fraught with religious turmoil due to constant fighting between Protestants and Catholics. Religious wars led many to believe that the Millennium was at hand, and spirit possession began manifesting itself in many new forms. The 18th century saw the largest number and most diverse of these possessions, including visions, prophecy, and trances. These movements became a part of the more general religious awakening that spread through most of continental Europe north of the Alps between the late 17th century and 1740s, affecting the British Isles and the American colonies as well. Half a century later, the United States and England saw an emergence of many radical religious groups who formed Utopian societies including the Oneida community, Millerites, Rappites and of course, the Shakers. Only a few of the original Shaker buildings are still in use today.
The Shakers of New England should not be confused with the religion of the Indian Shakers of the Pacific Northwest of North America.

Origin of the name

The name "Shakers," originally pejorative, was derived from the term "Shaking Quakers" and was applied as a mocking description of their rituals of trembling, shouting, dancing, shaking, singing, and glossolalia (speaking in strange and unknown languages). In 1774 Ann Lee pulled together nine of her followers from an English sect known as the Wardleys, founded by Jane and James Wardley, which she joined in 1758. They arrived on August 6, 1774 in New York City, and in 1776 the Shakers settled in Niskayuna, New York, where a unique communal life began to develop and thrive. Lee taught her followers that it is possible to attain perfect holiness. Like her predecessors the Wardleys, she taught that the demonstrations of shaking and trembling were caused by sin being purged from the body by the power of the Holy Spirit, purifying the worshipper. Distinctively the followers of Mother Ann came to believe that she embodied all the perfections of God in female form.
(Note: The Shaker community north of Albany was called by Shakers "the Niskayuna community." The township they were in was then officially called Watervliet, although they bordered Niskayuna, the adjacent township to the northwest in Schenectady County. The township of Watervliet is now the township of Colonie (since 1895), and the name Watervliet is now limited to only the incorporated City of Watervliet (1896). This has led to some confusion, but the best method is to use the name the Shakers used for their community, Niskayuna. It is also fairly common to refer to the members there as Niskayuna Shakers.)

First Shaker society

The village was divided into groups or "families" that were named for points on the compass rose. Each house was divided so that men and women did everything separately. They used different staircases and doors, and sat on opposite sides of the room.
A spiritualistic revival in New Lebanon, some forty miles away, sent many penitents to Niskayuna, who accepted Mother Ann's teachings and organized in 1787 (before any formal organization in Niskayuna) the New Lebanon Society, the first Shaker Society, at New Lebanon (since 1861 called Mt. Lebanon), Columbia County, New York. The Society at Niskayuna organized immediately afterwards, and the New Lebanon Society formed a bishopric. The Niskayuna Shakers, as pacifists and non-jurors, had gotten into trouble during the American War of Independence.

Communalism under Joseph Meacham

Between 1781 and 1783 the Mother, with chosen elders, visited her followers in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. She died in Niskayuna, New York on September 8, 1784. James Whittaker was head of the Believers for three years. On his death he was succeeded by Joseph Meacham (1742–1796), who had been a Baptist minister in Enfield, Connecticut, and had, second only to Mother Ann, the spiritual gift of revelation. Under his rule and that of Lucy Wright (1760–1821), who shared the headship with him during his lifetime and then for twenty-five years ruled alone, the organization of the Shakers and, particularly, a rigid communalism (religious communism), began. By 1793 property had been made a "consecrated whole" in the different communities, but a "noncommunal order" also had been established, in which sympathizers with the principles of the Believers lived in families. The Shakers never forbade marriage, but refused to recognize it as a Christian institution since the second coming in the person of Mother Ann, and considered it less perfect than the celibate state.
Shaker communities in this period were established in 1790 at Hancock, West Pittsfield, Massachusetts; in 1791 at Harvard, Massachusetts; in 1792 at East Canterbury, New Hampshire (or Shaker Village); and in 1793 at Shirley, Massachusetts; at Enfield, Connecticut (then also known as Shaker Station); at Enfield, New Hampshire (or "Chosen Vale"); at Tyringham, Massachusetts, where the Society was afterwards abandoned, its members joining the communities in Hancock and Enfield; at New Gloucester, Maine (since 1890: "Sabbathday Lake"); and at Alfred, Maine, where, more than anywhere else among the Shakers, spiritualistic healing of the sick was practiced. In Kentucky and Ohio, Shakerism entered after the Cane Ridge, Kentucky revival of 1800–1801, and in 1805–1807 Shaker societies were founded at South Union, Logan County, Kentucky, and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, Mercer County, Kentucky.

Expansion and contraction

A prominent part in this revival had been taken by Richard McNemar, a Presbyterian, who had broken with his church because of his Arminian tendencies and had established the quasi-independent Turtle Creek Church. McNemar was won by Shaker missionaries in 1805, and many of his parishioners joined him to form the Union Village community in Turtlecreek Township, Warren County, Ohio, four miles west of Lebanon. McNemar was a favorite of Lucy Wright, who gave him the spiritual name Eleazer Riotht, which he changed to Eleazer Wright; he wrote The Kentucky Revival (Cincinnati, 1807), probably the earliest defense of Shakerism, and a poem, entitled A Concise Answer to the General Inquiry Who or What are the Shakers (1808).
In 1811 a community settled at Busro on the Wabash in Indiana; but it was soon abandoned and its members went to Ohio and to Kentucky. In Ohio later communities were formed at Watervliet, Montgomery and Greene counties, and at Whitewater, Butler and Hamilton counties. In New York, the communal property at Sodus Bay was sold in 1828 and the community removed to Groveland, or Sonyea; their land here was sold to the state and the few remaining members went to Niskayuna. A short-lived community at Canaan, was merged into the communities in Mount Lebanon (in New Lebanon) and Enfield, Connecticut.
The peak decreased rapidly, probably from 4,000 in 1887 to 1,000 in 1908, and there has been little effort made to plant new communities. The Mt. Lebanon Society in 1894 established a colony at Narcoossee, Florida; the attempt of the Union Village Society in 1898 to plant a settlement at White Oak, Georgia, was unsuccessful. In 1910 the Union Village Society went into the hands of a receiver.
At various times, the Shakers had eighteen major communities in eight states and six smaller communities in Florida and Indiana. The city of Shaker Heights, Ohio, population 29,000, a suburb of Cleveland, was originally a Shaker settlement.
The lands of the Niskayuna settlement were sold off in parcels, the last 741-acre plot was purchased by Albany County in 1929 to establish a nursing home. A large portion of this property later became the site of the Albany International Airport. The Ann Lee Home museum now consists of the 1848 Shaker Meeting House, several Shaker buildings, a large 1916 barn with some animals, a heritage herb garden and the Shaker Cemetery where the society founder, Ann Lee, and other early Shakers are buried. Much of the Mt. Lebanon community is now a private boarding school, yet retains much of its original beauty. There is a small museum on the site. The Hancock Shaker Village just across the Massachusetts state line is extensive, focusing on lifeways of the Shakers and Shaker arts. The Enfield, New Hampshire site is now a Catholic convent.
Today there are but a handful of Shakers remaining, all living at Sabbathday Lake, Maine .

Communal spiritual family

The Shakers did not believe in procreation so therefore had to adopt a child if they wanted one. Another way they could expand their community's population was to allow converts into the Shaker society to live and function as one. When Shaker boys reached the age of twenty-one, they were given the choice to leave the Shaker religion and go their own separate way or to continue on as a Shaker. The Shakers lived in "families" sharing a large house with separate entrances for each family within the "family"; thus the families were exclusively male or female — the sexes were segregated into separate living areas.
The nature of the Shaker religion set men and women equal to one another in religious leadership, as celibacy left women free to participate fully in the religious system without having to be distracted by childbearing. All authority in the church was hierarchal, but at each level men and women shared equal responsibility in equal numbers. This is especially evident in the fact that women have served as supreme head of the Shaker society throughout its existence, and in the fact that God was perceived by the Shakers to express both male and female characteristics. However, outside of the church, Shakers strictly adhered to traditional gender roles. As their homes were segregated by sex, so were men and women’s work spheres. Women worked almost exclusively indoors cooking, sewing, cleaning and washing, whereas men worked in the fields or shops. Shakers thus simultaneously elevated women’s status in society and reinforced the stereotypical vision of the weaker sex whose job lay in the home. Some have also argued that the very roots of celibacy are themselves misogynistic, in that men were abstaining from sex in order to dissociate themselves from woman’s original sin.

Revelations and visions

A peculiar, intense kind of spirituality began to develop under this unique arrangement. A period of spiritual manifestations among the Believers began in 1837 and lasted through 1847. Children told of visits to cities in the spirit realm and brought messages to the community which they received from Mother Ann. In 1838 the gift of tongues was manifested and sacred places were set aside in each community, with names like Holy Mount; but in 1847 the spirits, after warning, left the Believers. The theology of the denomination is based on the idea of the dualism of God: the creation of man as male and female "in our image" showing the dual sexuality of the Creator; in Jesus, born of a woman, the son of a Jewish carpenter, were the male manifestation of Christ and the first Christian Church; and in Mother Ann, daughter of an English blacksmith, were the female manifestation of Christ and the second Christian Church — she was the Bride ready for the Bridegroom, and in her the promises of the Second Coming were fulfilled. Adam's sin was in sexual impurity; marriage is done away with in the body of the Believers in the Second Appearance, who must pattern after the Kingdom in which there is no marriage or giving in marriage. The four virtues are virgin purity; Christian communism; confession of sin, without which none can become Believers; and separation from the world. Their insistence on the dual sexuality of God and their reverence for Mother Ann have made them advocates of sex equality. Their spiritual directors are elders and "eldresses", and their temporal guides are deacons and deaconesses in equal numbers.

Culture of work and further extremities

The prescribed uniform costume with woman's neckerchief and cap, and the custom of men wearing their hair long on the neck and cut in a straight bang on the forehead, still persist; but the women wear different colors. The communism of the Believers was an economic success, and their cleanliness, honesty and frugality received the highest praise. They made leather in New York for several years, but in selling herbs and garden seeds, in making apple-sauce (at Shirley), in weaving linen (at Alfred), and in knitting underwear they did better work.
"Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow."
"Put your hands to work, and your heart to God."
Shakers were known for a style of furniture, known as Shaker furniture. It was plain in style, durable, and functional. Shaker chairs were usually mass-produced since a great number of them were needed to seat all the Shakers in a community. Around the time of the American Civil War, the Shakers at Mount Lebanon, NY, greatly increased their production and marketing of Shaker chairs. They were so successful that several furniture companies produced their own versions of "Shaker" chairs. Because of the quality of their craftsmanship, original Shaker furniture is costly. One Shaker chair, actually a tall stool, sold recently for just under US$100,000.
Shakers worshipped in plain meetinghouses where they marched, sang songs, danced, twitched and shouted. Many outsiders who witnessed Shaker worship services considered them heretics and protested in front of their places of worship. Mother Ann was arrested several times for disturbing the peace. Early Shaker worship services were unstructured, loud, chaotic and emotional. However, later on, Shakers developed precision dances and orderly rituals. The Shakers have also written thousands of religious songs.
The meeting-houses were painted white and unadorned, with shutters and carvings eschewed as worldly things. The Shakers believed in the value of hard work and kept comfortably busy. Each member learned a craft and did chores. Mother Ann said, "Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling."

Culture and artifacts

Shaker beliefs have generated a unique culture and ways of life that have enriched the cultural history of the United States as well as subsequently inspired many modern fields.
Membership in the Shakers dwindled in the late 1800s for several reasons. People were attracted to cities and away from the farms. Shaker products could not compete with mass-produced products that became available at a much lower cost. Shakers could not have children, and although they did adopt up until the states gained control of adoption homes, this was not a major source of new members. Some Shaker settlements, such as Pleasant Hill community in Kentucky, and Canterbury, New Hampshire, the latter of which died with its last member, Ethel Hudson, in September 1992, have become museums.
Believers have continually looked at the story of Ann Lee as a cornerstone of the theological architecture that has distinguished their church from other American religious groups. Shaker theology, its manifestation in material artifacts such as furniture and oval boxes, and the Ann Lee story have continually drawn the attention of outsiders either fascinated or repulsed by them. The Shaker practices of Brandon Handelman have also become the standard for the modern day Shaker.
Although there were six thousand believers at the peak of the Shaker movement, there were only twelve Shakers left by 1920. In the United States there is one remaining active Shaker community, at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, which as of 2006 has four members. The Sabbathday Lake community still accepts new recruits, as it has since its founding. Shakers are no longer allowed to adopt orphan children after new laws were passed in 1960 denying control of adoption to religious groups, but adults who wish to embrace Shaker life are welcome. This community, founded in 1783, was one of the smaller and more isolated Shaker communities during the sect's heyday. They farm and practice a variety of handicrafts; a Shaker Museum, and Sunday services are open to visitors. Now Mother Ann Day is celebrated on the first Sunday of August. The people sing and dance and a Mother Ann cake is presented. There is a legend that one of Mother Ann's predictions states that there will be a revival when there are only five Shakers left. However, there is no evidence to suggest Mother Ann stated this. The daily schedule of a Shaker in Sabbathday Lake Village is as follows:
  • The day will begin for many at 7:30 a.m., the Great Bell on Dwelling House rings calling every one to breakfast.
  • At 8:00 a.m. Morning Prayers will start. They may read two Psalms and then read from the Bible. This will be followed by Prayer and silent prayer, concluded with the singing of a Shaker hymn.
  • Work for the Shakers begins at 8:30.
  • Work is interrupted at 11:30 for Mid-day prayers.
  • Dinner begins at 12:00. This is the main meal for the Shakers.
  • Work will continue at 1:00 p.m.
  • At 6:00 it is supper time, the last meal of the day.
  • On Wednesdays at 5:00 p.m. they hold a prayer meeting which is followed by a Shakers Studies class.

Shaker Trust

To preserve their legacy as well as their idyllic, lakeside property at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, the Shakers announced in October 2005 that they had entered into a trust with the state of Maine and several conservation groups. Under the agreement, the Shakers will sell conservation easements to the trust, allowing the village to ward off development and continue operating as long as there are Shakers to live there.
The agreement does not specify whether the property will become a park, museum or other public space should the Shakers die out. That decision would be made by a nonprofit corporation—the United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake Inc.—whose board members are largely non-Shakers. The $3.7 million conservation plan relies on grants, donations and public funds.

Works of art derived from the Shaker experience

A number of contemporary and modern artists have drawn inspiration from the Shakers' history and practice.
Shaker lifestyle and tradition is celebrated in Arlene Hutton's play "As It Is in Heaven," which is a re-creation of a decisive time in the history of the Shakers. The play is written by Arlene Hutton, the pen name of actor/director Beth Lincks. Born in Louisiana and raised in Florida, Lincks was inspired to write the play after visiting the Pleasant Hills Shaker village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, a restored community that the Shakers occupied for more than a century, before abandoning it in 1927 because of the inability of the sect to attract new converts.
In 2004 the Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen and Boston Camerata music director Joel Cohen created a live performance work with dance and music entitled "Borrowed Light." While all the music is Shaker song performed in a largely tradition manner, the dance intermingles only certain elements of Shaker practice and belief with Saarinen's original choreographic ideas, and with distinctive costumes and lighting. "Borrowed Light" has been given almost forty performances since 2004 in seven countries, most recently (early 2008) in Australia and New Zealand.



  • Lawrence Foster. "Shakers." Encyclopedia of Religion 1987. Volume 13, pages 200–201.
  • Rob Portman and Cheryl Bauer. Wisdom's Paradise: The Forgotten Shakers of Union Village. Wilmington, Ohio: Orange Frazer Press, 2004. ISBN 1–882203–40–2. (About the Warren County, Ohio settlement.)

Further reading

  • Andrews, Edward D. and Andrews, Faith. Work & Worship Among the Shakers. Dover Publications, NY. 1982
  • Andrews, Edward D. The People Called Shakers. Dover Publications, NY. 1963.
  • Andrews, Edward D. The Gift to Be Simple: Songs, Dances & Rituals of the American Shakers. Dover Publications, NY. 1940.
  • Andrews, Edward Deming and Faith Andrews. Shaker Furniture: The Craftsmanship of an American Communal Sect Dover Publications. 1964. online version
  • Brewer, Priscilla. "The Shakers of Mother Ann Lee," in America's Communal Utopias ed by Donald E. Pitzer. (1997) pp 37–56.
  • Burns, Deborah E. Shaker Cities of Peace, Love, and Union: A History of the Hancock Bishopric. U. Press of New England, 1993. 246 pp.
  • Campbell, D'Ann. "men's Life in Utopia: The Shaker Experiment in Sexual Equality Reappraised, 1810–1860." New England Quarterly 51 (March, 1978): pp. 23–38. in JSTOR
  • Elizabeth De Wolfe. Shaking the Faith: Women, Family, and Mary Marshall Dyer's Anti-Shaker Campaign, 1815–1867 (Palgrave 2002),
  • Duffield, Holley Gene. Historical Dictionary of the Shakers. Scarecrow Press, 2000
  • Lawrence Foster. Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons (1991). online version
  • Francis, Richard. Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee Female Messiah Mother of the Shakers The Woman Clothed with the Sun." The Fourth Estate, London 2000. Where Stein provides the standard scholarly work on the Shakers in general and Rieman provides well researched work on Shaker craftsmanship, Francis provides the most comprehensive study on Mother Ann's life and work.
  • Gopnik, Adam. "Shining Tree of Life: What the Shakers did." New Yorker, Feb. 13 & 20, 2006. pp 162-168.
  • Gutek, Gerald and Gutek, Patricia. Visiting Utopian Communities: A Guide to the Shakers, Moravians, and Others. U. of South Carolina Press, 1998. 230 pp.
  • Hall, Roger L. A Guide to Shaker Music—With Music Supplement 2006.
  • Hall, Roger L. The Story of Simple Gifts: Joseph Brackett's Shaker Dance Song 2006.
  • McKinstry, E. Richard. The Edward Deming Andrews Memorial Shaker Collection. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1987.
  • Rebecca Jackson. Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress. ed by Jean McMahon Humez; (1981) online version
  • Rieman, Timothy D & Muller, Charles R. ''The Shaker Chair"; Line Drawings by Stephen Metzger,1984, The Canal Press. First paperback edition, 1992, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. This is the definitive work describing this important facet of Shaker history.
  • Rieman, Timothy D & Buck, Susan L, The Art of Craftsmanship : The Mount Lebanon Collection,Art Services International, and Chrysler Museum (Paperback—Feb 1995)
  • Patterson, Daniel W. The Shaker Spiritual 2000.
  • Promey, Sally M. Spiritual Spectacles, Vision and Image in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Shakerism, 1993, Indiana University Press.
  • Sprigg, June and Larkin, David. Shaker: Life, Work, & Art. 1987.
  • Stein, Stephen. The Shaker Experience in America. Yale University, Press 1992, the standard scholarly study
  • Thurman, Suzanne R. "O Sisters Ain't You Happy?": Gender, Family, and Community among the Harvard and Shirley Shakers, 1781–1918. 2002. 262 pp.
  • The Four Seasons of Shaker Life: An Intimate Portrait of the Community at Sabbathday Lake. Photographs by Ann Chwasky. Simon & Schuster, 1986. 189 pp.
shaker in Czech: Shakeři
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