Although we know them mainly through their furniture, boxes
and design, the Shakers are, in fact, a religious sect.
The Shakers originated in England in the 1750's with a group called the Wardley Society. This society was an offshoot of the Quakers and was an opponent of what they saw as the excesses and extravagances of England's churches. This opposition was not only vocal, but also included active resistance, such as breaking into churches and confronting the congregation.
This, along with the mystical form of worship they practiced, which included dancing, shaking and trembling and speaking in tongues, led to severe persecution.
One active member of this society, named Ann Lee Standerin, was arrested several times for her involvement in protests. During one incarceration she had a vision that led to the founding of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, better known as the Shakers.
In this vision God revealed to her that redemption could be won through denying the temptations of the flesh and embracing celibacy. She also saw the New World as the place where this vision could come to pass. She shared her vision with the society and in 1770 was recognized as their leader.
Ann Lee, as she came to be called, led a small group to America in
1774. For a decade or so she and other leaders crossed the new nation
looking for converts and in 1785 their first meeting house was built at
Mount Lebanon, NY. Her axiom “hands to work and hearts to God” was the basis of the communities belief.
At Mount Lebanon they founded a separate community and lived according to their beliefs in purity and dedication to God. They believed all were equal before God and they were actively anti-slavery as well as maintaining equality between men and women.
Since they embraced celibacy they grew their community by converting others as well as by adopting orphans, including children of color.
They were an innovative and industrious people. Many inventions can be credited to them, including the circular saw, metal chimney caps, the flat broom, the first washing machine, clothespins and other things we use to this day.
They are also, of course, known for their furniture and
. The beauty of their work lies in it's simplicity and it's utility.
Today their style remains popular and it's influence can be seen in many
While most of their communities closed 75 or more years
ago, today a few Shakers carry on the tradition in their community at
Sabbathday Lake in Maine. They continue despite their dwindling numbers and even now they remain open to new converts.