One of the longest running communes in America is the Shakers. At their peak they had 19 communities in the mid 1800s with over 5000 people living on these farms. They lived in huge houses, sometimes four stories high. These well meaning people had a strange view of life from the mixed up revelations their founder got, Ann Lee. They were celibate and pacifists. This is not God's way, but they were gentle people and well-meaning. Many of the communes are now museums and their furniture they made to support themselves is famous. They were excellent and honest craftsmen who made beautiful baskets and other things. There is only one surviving community left after over 200 years since the start. About a half dozen people live in Sabbathday, Maine. When they die, there will probably be no more. There are many books on this unusual bunch. Here are some pictures of the Shakers and their homes, community and things they made.
One person wrote, "The Shakers have long been a misunderstood Christian sect. At the time of their arrival in America in 1774, they were persecuted as witches who spoke in tongues and participated in wild orgies; today they are known more for their handcrafted furniture than for their beliefs or history. While their name stems from their original practice of employing frenetic dancing as a way to invoke the spirit of God, the modern Shakers work toward an inner stillness through labor, simplicity of living, and prayer."
"Though thousands joined the faith in the 19th century, today only six Shakers remain, all of them working together on a farm in Sabbathday Lake, Maine."
For those with an interested in American history, New Gloucester is home to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, the only remaining working, practicing Shaker community in the country. At it's peak, the Sabbathday Lake village was home to 150 people. Today, the Sabbathday community is comprised of seven members who are responsible for seeing that the Shaker tradition continues. The Village is open to the public from Memorial Day through Columbus Day.
One person wrote, "The new continent inevitably became a testing ground for religious or Utopian ideas which through sects or communes accompanied the revolution in the social order and the industrial revolution. Of the more than a hundred "Utopian " communities, with about 100,000 members, that grew up in America during the 19th century, the most outstanding were the perfectionists of Oneida, the Hutter Brothers, the Amana Community, the Rappites and Moravians. The Fourierist phalansteries and the Owenites in New Harmony tried to achieve a just distribution of goods on the basis of a social settlement. Charles Fourier, for example, based his argument on a criticism of the social order: "The accumulation of money in the hands of a few, the competition between workers and the misery and degradation of the working class". Of all the societies founded at that time in America on a religious or social basis, many of which only existed for a few years, the Shakers, with their integration of faith and form in their personal environment, their development of a cooperative home-industry and above all owing to the consistency of their achievement in the field of design, are of particular interest to us."
"Theirs was a religion for poor, hardworking people, in which the belief in justice in this world as in the next predominated. It was in accordance with the mentality of such people to feel that this just life should be deserved by faith, work and clean living.Personal merits or differences were just as unimportant as personal property, and even personal happiness; all these things were only important in and for the community. This very simple conception, arising from Puritanism, demanded a communistic organization accompanied, however, by clearly defined rules such as are always required in monastic communities."
"The essential difference in relation to other forms of communal life may perhaps be seen in the fact that the Shakers did not aim to change the nature of the existing society but merely built up their own community in accordance with rules they imposed on themselves. All decoration and embellishment liable to distract the mind from religion was rejected and even branded sinful. The rules, which were first handed down orally and later in written form, became the foundation-stone of the astounding prosperity of the Shakers as well as of the high quality of all their products."
"One might be tempted to regard the Shakers' development as dictatorship by the rule of a religious order, which would not concede that form could have its own life. There is no doubt that the Shakers' life centered around their religion and their community. All else: architecture, furniture, tools and equipment, was assigned its proper place in their life as a religious community and designed accordingly. Ann Lee's saying: "Hands to work and hearts to God" shows the way to a symbiosis of religion and the necessary shaping of a personal envronment: order, simplicity, purity."
"The Shakers conducted nineteenth-century America's most successful experiment in utopian living. From Maine to Kentucky, they established communal villages and worked to build a heaven on earth. Designed to accommodate hundreds of celibate believers, Shaker buildings included meeting houses, dwelling houses, barns, factories, and schools."
Canterbury Shaker Village
An advertisment for a shaker museum in Concord, New Hampshire says, "Come experience a living Shaker community - Canterbury Shaker Village. Discover the purposeful way of life practiced by the Shakers from the 1780's to today. Shakers lived apart in self-contained communities from Maine to Kentucky. Within their villages they practiced equality of the sexes and races, common ownership of goods, celibacy and pacifism. They strove to make their villages an earthly heaven. Two hundred years of devoting their "Hands to Work and Hearts to God" created a legacy of architecture, furniture, crafts, inventions and song greatly admired today. Canterbury Shaker Village was founded in the 1780's, the sixth of nineteen Shaker communities. At its peak in 1860, some 300 people lived, worked and worshipped in 100 buildings on 4,000 acres, and made their living from farming, selling seeds and herbs, manufacturing medicines, and making crafts. Experience the Shakers' "Kindly welcome." Experts on Shaker history guide you through a world of beautiful images preserved through the ongoing care of manuscripts, photographs, artifacts, and original buildings. Skilled craftsmen recreate the traditional Shaker crafts of broommaking, oval box making, woodworking, poplarware, spinning and weaving."
Another museum writes, "The Shaker sect was founded in England by Mother Ann Lee. In 1774 Mother Ann and eight followers came to America seeking religious freedom and established their first permanent settlement near Albany, New York. During the 19th century Shaker membership grew to about 6000 converts living in 19 settlements throughout New England and the Midwest. The Shaker movement in America was characterized by communal living, celibacy, public confession of sins, pacifism, belief in equality of all people, and daily living designed to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Shakers were known for their inventiveness, their outstanding craftsmanship, their industriousness, and their spirituality, as epitomized by their motto: "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God." Today, Shaker life and crafts are preserved in several museums at former Shaker sites, including the North Union settlement."
One person wrote, "In England critics of their zealous worship practices--they shook and trembled to rid themselves of evil--referred to them as Shaking Quakers and then simply as Shakers. They believed that Ann Lee embodied the Christ spirit in a woman and called her Mother Ann. A duality emerged in the Society, as men and women shared equally positions of authority--both spiritual and temporal, responsibilities and respect. Men and women lived and worked separately as Brothers and Sisters, a practice reflected in the mirrorlike architecture of many of their buildings. As they sought to create their vision of heaven on earth, they applied the virtues of simplicity, purity and perfection to their work and to themselves."
"The Shakers were an evangelistic religious group that fled to the American colonies in 1774 to escape persecution in England, and to establish a utopian society. The group's leader was Ann Lee. Origin of the Shakers The founder of the Shakers, Ann Lee, was a blacksmith's daughter and a mill hand in Manchester, England. Looking for a more personal and emotional religion than the official Church of England, in 1758 she joined a group called the Wardley Society that had left the Quakers. Because the Wardley's version of religious worship including shakings of the body and motions of the head and arms, they came to be called "Shaking Quakers" and this in time was shortened to Shakers. The group's official name, which they used after emigrating to America, was the "United Society of Believer's in the Second Coming of Christ." In their earlier years they usually referred to themselves as "Believers."
Ann Lee was not very active in the group until she experienced several unhappy events -- her father arranged a marriage for her with another blacksmith, Abraham Standley, and her four children all died either at birth or in early infancy. She also began to have visions; these, and her innate leadership ability and charisma, led to her becoming leader of the group. However, their untraditional mode of worship also brought the group much persecution. Finally one of Ann Lee's visions directed her to take her followers to America.
They arrived in New York City on August 6, 1774 (a date later celebrated by the Shakers) and set about to find a place to settle, while taking jobs in the city to earn their living. There were eight others in the group including Ann's brother, William. These early Shakers found a suitable site -- land eight miles northwest of Albany and, accompanied by four others who had come from England, settled there in 1776. Early Years in Albany In the first years, the area the Shakers were in was called "Niskayuna" (later Watervliet). The first years were difficult, and the small band lived in primitive conditions.
The land proved to be both swampy and covered with dense brush. From the beginning the small group worked hard at draining the land, redirecting and straightening the small stream that flowed through it, and filling in low spots. They also accepted converts, with the first new members recorded as joining by 1778. Growth was slow, however, until after 1780.
The group persevered, although a Shaker brother, Jonathan Clark, later told that in 1778 they had little and sometimes no bread, butter or cheese during the spring and summer. Their principal food was rice and milk and sometimes they went to the river to get fish. Joseph Preston and another brother went fishing one day, and Joseph was so hungry he ate two herring raw. In order to provide for the needs of the group, they worked at planting, sowing grain, and harvesting. This hard work resulting in loss of weight and fainting. Their group now numbered fifteen, but they had to lay on the floor of their log house to sleep. There were no pillows and only some had blankets. In the fall, when crops began to ripen, things were better.
Nevertheless, through hard work and Ann Lee's missionary zeal, the group prospered and gained large numbers of converts in the 1780s and 1790s. Several other communities had been founded and in 1793 there were 12 settlements across New York and New England. By 1800 the Watervliet community numbered 87. The Beginnings of Communal Settlements and the Shaker "Families" Initially, most Shakers at each site lived in one communal settlement, but a few members who joined stayed on their own farms. In 1787, the Lead Ministry, then at Mt. Lebanon, directed all members to join the communal settlements, which were known as "Families.
The first communal dwelling house at Watervliet, probably of logs, was built in 1779. It was soon replaced by a good-sized dwelling built in 1783; this was used until a larger one was built in 1816, when the original became the "second house" and was used as a kind of infirmary.
The Shaker "families" would range in size from 50 to 150 people.
One writer said, "Soon Ann began to see visions, to hear Christ speak to her. Revelations convinced her that the only true road to salvation was celibacy and confession of sin. As a part of their continuous persecution, the Shakers were cast into prison. While there, Ann received a vision of Christ appearing to her in person. She told followers that Christ had made his first appearance following his resurrection to a woman, which "showed that his second coming would be as a woman."
"The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing was born and Mother Ann became its leader. Scholars differ as to whether her followers believed she was the female reincarnation or whether she was a prophet predicting a second coming in female form. Mother Ann's vision, "that God had chosen people in America," brought them here. Their first year was discouraging battle for survival. Yet by the fall of 1776, they had a permanent settlement or "gathering" in Niskeyuna, New York outside Albany. Their first conflict with the "outside world" was not over doctrine, but was aroused by suspicions they were Tory spies."