By Davies, Philip
Contemporary Review , Vol. 277, No. 1615
AS early as 1797 one US newspaper reported the Shakers as a religious community that was 'dead and dying'. The end of the Shakers has been reported since in various media and on numerous occasions, leading many to believe that Shaker dwells only in museums, theme parks and art galleries, or in the homes of wealthy celebrities who can afford to buy a piece of the heritage for themselves. The media does not always get it right. More than two hundred years after this report the small, but continuing, United Society of Shakers lives, works and witnesses its faith together in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
The Sabbathday Lake village was only three years old when that newspaper article made its morbid prediction. Established in 1794, the Maine community came on the heels of earlier Shaker villages founded from 1787 onwards, starting in Watervliet, and New Lebanon, New York, and extending to Hancock, Massachusetts, and Enfield, Connecticut by 1790.
Ann Lee, Mother to the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, as this spiritual group was earlier known, did not live to see the founding of any of these, and many later, Shaker communities. Born in 1736, the daughter of an English blacksmith, Ann was christened in Manchester's Collegiate Church in 1742, and lived most of her life in that town.
Manchester, in the north-west of England, was a hub of change through the Industrial Revolution. With a population of fewer than 20,000 at the time of Ann Lee's birth, it rapidly drew in capital, industry, and workers. It brought together people with ideas, and provided a forum in which exchange and distribution of those ideas was possible. Religion was a vital and central part of social, moral and civic life, and religious debate was bound to be vigorous in this context of rapid and accelerating development on all fronts.
The eighteenth-century town of Manchester lay at the centre of a region of towns and villages that was close knit economically and socially. There was something of an evangelical awakening going on at this time, and the people of this region were ready to participate fully in the debates. Quakers had earlier challenged the orthodox approaches of the established Church of England. Camisard influences were felt from French emigres. These may have had particular impact, but in the evangelical fervour of the times very many religious ideas were about, being articulated, and being contended. Splinter groups of many varieties formed, and Ann Lee, a woman of spirit, and apparently searching for a spiritual home, joined a group led by Jane and James Wardley.
The Wardleys were tailors from Bolton, just a few miles north of Manchester's centre, and one of many towns with a textiles-based economy that circled Manchester like planets around a sun. This group was already known as the 'Shakers', or sometimes as the 'Shaking Quakers', in response to its adherents' ecstatic movements during worship.
These Shakers were convinced of the unique and overpowering rightness of their religion. They accepted the role and guidance of visions that were received by members of the community. They took their visions, and their unorthodox practices of dancing and singing praise, to the broader Manchester community, and used them to disrupt proceedings in the churches of established congregations. Increasingly seen as an offensive sect of troublemakers, their behaviour attracted public approbation, fines, and jail sentences. Ann Lee emerged from one period in jail having received a vision that the Shakers should go to America.
Ann, her husband Abraham Standerin, and seven followers landed in New York in 1774. Standerin did not stay long with the Shaker party. He and Ann had married in January 1762. Ann bore four children by October 1766, all of whom died. This experience may in part have influenced her commitment to making celibacy a central pillar of Shaker religious practice. …