05 January 2013

The Shakers

The Shakers were an offshoot from the Quakers in the UK. They settled in New England and built villages in various parts of the USA. Their extraordinary  lifestyle and beliefs contain both lessons and warnings for the church today.

Shaker cowbarn at the Hancock Village
In September 2009, Donna and I visited the Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. This post is based on some notes I made at the time.

We enjoyed a wonderful holiday travelling from Boston up the coast as far as Kennebunkport, then south through the Appalachians, back up to Cape Cod, and flew home again from Boston.

Origins - The Shakers had their origin in England where they were founded in 1747 by Mother Ann Lee in the rapidly growing industrial city of Manchester. They originated as an offshoot of the Quakers, both groups being named by the public because of their sometimes ecstatic movements during worship. The early Shakers moved to the New England colonies, initially New Lebanon and Watervliet (the 'Niskayuna Shakers'). By the final years of the 18th century the Shakers were living in village communities.

Their rules included celibacy, equality of men and women, community living (men and women separately but often in the same building), and joint ownership of all property and possessions.

In 1790 the Hancock community was established and this is the village we visited. We'd recommend this open-air, living museum to anyone finding themselves near Pittsfield with a day to spare. It was a fascinating experience. The land and buildings are owned and managed by a preservation trust as a working farm and museum managed as it would have been 100 years ago. It's a beautiful museum and all the buildings and equipment are maintained to a high standard.

Shaker beliefs - The Shakers had diverged considerably from the Quakers and other followers of Jesus. For one thing, they held Ann Lee to be the female Christ, a view that is easily dismissed by studying the Bible. They also had some strange views about spiritual guidance, did a lot of shaking, and were very fond of music and dance.

One of their melodies remains well known today - 'Lord of the Dance'. You can listen to one of their other songs, 'The River of Love', on YouTube along with more photos of the Hancock Village.

Some commendable points - Despite some oddities they held to much that was good. To accept women as equal to men was extraordinary in their day. They also believed in the equality of all races, on one occasion they bought a slave simply in order to rescue him. They took him in and treated him as any other brother.

The Shakers understood that everything should be done as well as humanly possible, so as to recreate Heaven on Earth in some sense. As a result they were careful and thorough workers and their furniture, boxes, seeds, and many other products were much valued and sought after.

Unlike the Amish, they had no qualms about using modern methods. They used water power in their workshops, adopted electricity, photography, motor vehicles, and other technologies.

A warning - The Shakers are a challenge and a warning to us. They were commendably serious about their lifestyle, their morality, and their thoroughness. We might learn a lot from them in that regard. But they came off-track in terms of their theology and seeking after spiritual experiences. We need to be careful to seek only Jesus, not experiences of Jesus; we should look for spiritual fruit more than for spiritual gifts.

There's nothing wrong with spiritual experiences or spiritual gifts. But if they become the thing we put first we are in a very dangerous place indeed. The lesson is clear. Seek first his kingdom and righteousness and all the other things you need will be given to you (Matthew 6:33).

So the question then becomes, what are the things in our spiritual lives that we accept as normal, even essential, that get in the way of kingdom living? Some of them are being discussed quite widely these days. A major problem may be that we are very busy with meetings and writing blogs and reading our Bibles and living good lives so that we forget our prime directive which is, perhaps, 'Go and make disciples'. That is, after all, one part of 'seeking his kingdom'.

Note: There's a good book on Mother Ann and the Shakers by Richard Francis. It's called 'Ann the Word' gives a lot of background and history, and is very readable.


  • Are you doing everything to the highest possible standard, like the Shakers did?
  • Are you seeking the kingdom and righteousness ahead of everything else?
  • How do you see the connection between what we believe and how we live?

See also:

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate you sharing this, Chris, especially for sharing in a balanced way. I like how you picked through the Shakers to expose the unscriptural yet hold on to the scriptural (instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water). Jesus is calling us to Him and Him alone. All other things that are in Scripture are to be a bonus to contribute to the Kingdom, not distract.



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