Henry Leo Bolduc
During the time of the American Revolution, the Shakers gave birth to a new spiritual adventure. Through exuberant dance, hypnotic trance, and channeling, Ann Lee - founder of the Shakers - utilized her spiritual gifts to guide thousands of followers, leading them into exhilarating discovery.
They ignited spirit with such ardor that they rocked buildings and awakended whole neighborhoods. They danced, twisted, trembled, shook and gyrated. They cried out and witnessed. They were often thrown into jail. They were the Shaker channelers. This controversial religious sect came to America in 1774 and startled our nation with their strange spiritual devotion.
What were their origins, their beliefs? What inspired them to write thousands of songs and poems, create practical inventions and design fine furniture? What happended to these 19 communities? What are we still learning from these remarkable people?
Their story is the beginning of the Spiritualist movement in the U.S. The Shakers followed their ideals and lived a spiritual life, accomplishing most of the things that many people are seeking today.
For two centuries the Shakers demonstrated that people could live, learn and grow together, in harmony with vision and purpose. They were not the only group of people to have lived in planned communities, but they were exceedingly successful, and left a legacy of records attesting to the struggles and triumphs of their experiment.
Their origins go back to a group of people in France called the Prophets, also known as the Camisards, from the shirts they wore over their armor in the Crusades to distinguish them from their foes. But their spiritual origins can be traced back to the Essenes of biblical Palestine, even though the Shakers knew very little about their hisotrical predecessors.
Historians of that time, such as Philo, Pliny, Josephus, and Selonius, have all written about the Essenes. However, most of the recent knowledge of this society was rediscovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948. The Essenes were simple people who communicated spiritually with God through meditation, prayer and "channeling." Jesus was believed to have been an Essene, as was John the Baptist.
Closely related practices were those of the Sufi, or Whirling Dervishes of Persia, who used music, song and dance to create altered states of consciousness and communicate with God. The dances catapulted them into self-hypnotic trances and mystical ecstacy. The Shakers combined the passive prayer and meditation of the Essenes with the active song and dance worship of the Sufis to acheive spiritual communications with God.
The mystical trances and startling prophecies of the Camisards greatly influenced the first Shaker leaders, James and Jane Wardley, who were English tailors and originally Quakers. One day, Jane declared that she had received a call from heaven to go about the streets of her native town and testify for the truth. Her ministry was against an uncaring church, which had turned its members into fearful and frightened people. She drew dissidents from both the Anglican and Methodist churches.
Her followers were called the "Shaking Quakers," due to spontaneous dances they performed. Meetings were held that lasted into early morning hours. Believers would dance, moan, cry our and witness. Often the noise could be heard blocks away. The group splintered off from the Quakers in the mid-1700s, and while still in England became known as the Shakers. They believed in and prepared for the coming of the Savior, whom they believed would reincarnate as a woman.
The Shaker philosophy was that through hard and honest work, spiritual attunement, celibacy, good living and honesty in all things, God's purpose could be realized on Earth. They were industrious, honest, inventive and inspired in their communal living. Their motto was the same as that of the Salvation Army: "Hands to work and hearts to God."Back to the Index
In 1758, Ann Lee, a cotton factory worker who could neither read nor write, became a follower of the Wardleys. Ann, a psychic since childhood, had developed a great revulsion toward sex early in life. Even so, later she was to marry and have children, all of whom died.
Once while in prison, Ann had a vision and declared herself to be chosen by Jesus Christ as a woman who would embody the spirit of Christ in a second coming. She became the acknowledged leader of the Shakers. In that leadership, one of the first steps that she took was to warn against the "sins of the flesh," and declare celibacy as a way of life, stating that lustful gratifications of the flesh were the source and foundations of human corruption.
Mother Ann was a consummate organizer, who had psychic abilities that gave her insight into peoples' past and future, She taught a new way of life in which men and women were like children, as innocent in their relations as brothers and sisters. Members of her new society would live more like angels than like people, free from human abuse. Unlike other religions of the time, there would be no discrimination. Everyone would be equal, regardless of gender, race, or age.Back to the Index
In 1774, when the Revolutionary War was fermenting, Ann brought her eight followers to New York. By 1776, they had taken up residence in Watervliet, near Albany, New York. In 1781, they set out on a missionary journey to Harvard, Mass. The trip would take two years and three months, with stops in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Maine and New Hampshire send delegations to the group during the journey. The seeds were being planted for the New England communities that the Shakers would organize. From 1793 to 1824, the Shakers would found 19 societies.
Not only did their dancing attain spectacular noteriety, but their communalism and the vow of celibacy threatened the status quo. Husbands or wives would depart for a Shaker community, leaving spouses and children behind. Mother Ann was a relentless proselytizer. Her psychic abilities, coupled with her angelic appearance and attitude of divine strength, appealed to seeking men and women everywhere.
The Shakers created altered states of consciousness through which their most intense spirit communication occured. Eyewitness accounts by local residents indicated that the Shakers would go into altered states at any time. People living near a Shaker society reported seeing frenzied Shaker women "whirling" along the roads for great distances, and dancing with rhythmic shaking of heads, hands, and arms.
Shaker men had been seen going into trance states while plowing, cutting timber, or traveling. Their heads would turn from side to side, with eyes close or raised upward. They would sigh deeply, like people suddenly relived of anxiety.Back to the Index
Sunday was the day on which the Shakers set aside their work for worship and celebrtion of the spirit. The regular Sabbath day meetings were open to the "World", and were often attended by large numbers of interested an respectful visitor. Many of these were distinguished and famous people, such as the 27-year-old French hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. He visited the Niskayuna community on September 26, 1784, shortly after Mother Ann's death.
Lafayette was particularly interested in the Shakers because of his interest in "animal magnetism," since the Shakers healed disease by the laying on of hands.
Lafayette had been a student of Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, the father of hypnosis. In Paris, Dr. Mesmer was achieving healings by channeling "animal magnetism," the magnetic energy which permeates the universe, through his own body to that of the patient. This was done either directly, by applying his hands to the affected part of the body, or indirectly, by requiring the patient to grasp an iron bar, or other object, which he had previously magnetized by direct contact.
A friendship soon developed between Lafayette and the Shakers that was to last his entire lifetime. After his death, he came in spirit to bid farewell to the Shakers, long before the news of his passing had arrived by ship from Europe.
In addition to Lafayette, other visitors were writers Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was said to have half-seriously considered joining them. Charles Dickens was also received by a Shaker village, but he was not impressed.Back to the Index
Almost a decade before "parlor spiritualism" became commonplace in America, the Shakers were already in full communication with "the other world." They had received word of the coming wave of table rapping and voices from beyond so popular in the mid-1800s.
The Shakers were the first religious organization in America to publicly aknowledge channeling. When one reads about the lives of great psychics, saints and mystics, they describe a channeling experience, even though the word itself was not known in their time.
Not all channeling is verbal. With the Shakers, it also came with the composition of music, lyrics and dance. Their inventions, exquisite furniture designs, architecture and other creative endeavors were probably further manifestations of channeling. No spiritual message was refused. Unlike other religions where only the founders channeled, any Shaker man or woman who was moved by the spirit could channel.
The Shakers of New York, Massachusetts, Ohio talked with such notable spirits as George Washington, Christopher Columbus, William Penn, Jesus Christ, the Marquis de Lafayette and their leader, Mother Ann Lee. They also recorded that they talked with hundreds of angels.
The gift of spirit communication came through many Shaker channelers, who were called "visionists." or "inspired." These were the ones who could actually see the spirit forms of souls who had passed into the spirit realm. They received messages from what they called "primitive spirits." These were American Indians, spirits of departed chiefs or their tribal members. They also spoke with Africans and Arabs.
Diaries of these channelers recorded soul messages of Swedes, Spaniards and Italians entering and channeling through both Shaker brethren and sisters. Channeling was done in many languages, and in meetings songs were sung not only by the Shakers, but also by attending spirits, these diaries are still available in most Shaker museums.Back to the Index
The Shakers savored the "gifts," as they called them, which were brought from the spirit world. Singing and movement were the most common. There were also gifts of tongues, when inspired ones spoke or sang in unknown languages.
Sometimes there were gifts of imaginary bskets of fruit and flowers, globes of light, blessings and bushes of thankfulness. It was common to see Shaker hands uplifted to receive these spiritual gifts. This pose is often present in drawings and paintings of Shaker events.
Not all gifts were illusory. Some were active gifts such as the dance. Others were joy, inspiration, creativity and harmonious design, which later manifested itself in many ways in everyday living. The "gift of dance" was described as a rocking and shaking to remove the "carnal and evil." This was hard work, and they would even use the words "labor for love," or "let us labor." The dance, called the "whirling gift," was a devotion in itself.
The gift of song and music was another of the Gifts of God decreed by the Shakers. They created over 24,000 songs, some of which were composed slowly and carefully, while others were channeled, or inspired. The latter usually had a different beat and tune almost impossible to describe, and even harder to write in musical notation. It has been likened to "a chorus of angels."
The "gift of art" was also channeled. These pieces of art, called "spirit drawings," are beautiful, intricate and haunting, unlike standard art styles of today.
A gift all Shakers shared equally was the "gift of work." They believed this was the greatest gift, and strove for excellence in all work that they performed. They lived dedicated lives, the men as farmers and craftsmen, the women performing usual household duties of cooking, cleaning, sewing and care of children left at their doorsteps, as well as creating their own items of craftmanship.Back to the Index
Many mystical occurances were reported in Shaker diaries or by word of mouth. A Pleasant Hill, KY., diarist wrote of a deceased brother who appeared at his own funeral, greeted everyone, then walked to his coffin and slighty turned the head of the corpse to a more suitable position. He then went along with the living Shakers to the graveyard, where he was joined by other deceased Shakers. When the living Shakers returned to their homes, the spirits remained, reportedly "having a good time together."
One diary entry was about a young Shaker sister seen floating over fences and above gates. Another entry tells of a visitor at a Shaker society who was sitting with a Shaker sister when she informed him that "the room was full of spirits."
In reading diaries of individual Shakers, several points emerge: first, recently departed Shaker spirits would often manifest themselves soon after their passing, usually communicatinig messages.
Second, the "visionists" were known only through their initials, for they belived that their personal identities were not important. This practice was even carried out in Shaker cemeteries, where early grave markers in some communities had only initails carved on them to identify the deceased. They believed they were but channels, and not the originators of the information they obtained.
Occasionally a well-known spirit would come through to speak. Mother Ann often came through bringing "gifts" to share with the believers.Back to the Index
Shaker products are famous for their quality and endurance. A piece of furniture that sold for just a few dollars when new may now sell for $500, and often will go for as much as $1,000. At a recent auction, a cherry wood candle stand sold for $14,000.
They made chairs, tables, beds and other pieces. Some pieces were architectural, in that they were attached as permanent fixtures to a building. They invented the Murphy Bed, a bed which folded into the wall. They invented the flat broom, wall pegs, the washing machine, the clothes pin, a metal ink pen, transoms over doors and other ingenious devices. Their inventions were not patented, as they considered them gifts to everyone. Many made life easier and better. Some were tried and abandoned, such as a rocking cradle for the elderly, which had only mediocre success.
The Shakers were the first to package garden seeds, which were known for their quality, and these eagerly bought by farmers near and far. The cloth and wool woven by Shakers was also of the highest quality. These, and other products, including medicinal and cooking herbs, brought public respect from the "World's People," as the Shakers called nonmembers.
The Shakers had their own government, composed of elders and trustees. The elders, both men and women, supervised internal affairs, while the trustees went in to the cities to develop markets for their products. At one time, their products were in great demand and money flowed inte the Shaker coffers in abundance, allowing them to purchase valuable properties and open new ground for conversions.
One well-known trustee, David Parker, entered the Shaker society at the age of ten. He was seen everywhere: looking over Shaker wood lots in New York, at a hasty supper at the Eagle Hotel in Concord, NH, meeting with businessment in Buffalo, Washington, Philadelphia, or New York, always with an eye to business, whether he happened to be making a call on the President of the U.S. or the proprietor of a wholesale drug company.
Besides his business duties to find outlets for Shaker products, he was active politically. He intervened in Washington to clarify the Shaker pacifist attitudes towards war. He also defendend the Shakers in the New Hampshire legislature against false charges of improper and immoral conduct which cropped up from time to time.Back to the Index
Of all the gifts the Shakers gave to humanity, in my opinion, the greatest were these:
The joys of a simple life. As the world becomes increasingly more complicated and more technological, people everywhere long to return to a simpler, wiser way of life. Technology, which is supposed to make life easier, often causes more work, as well as a drain on scarce resources. Though the Shakers were receptive to innovations, they realized that a happy life is based on human values and not material possessions.
The sense of community. Except for a relatively few individuals who crave solitude, humans are social beings. The Shakers lived in extended families with a large number of people sharing one large home. They lived and worked together in unity. Work was considered a form of prayer and a blessing. They varied their jobs from time to time so that each person could develop new skills.
Self-sufficient, income-producing communities. As they worked to produce household goods, furniture, food, seeds and the like, some members ventured out to sell their goods to the world. With this income, they were able to acquire more property, and when there was abundance, the Shaker communities were noted for their willingness to help everyone in need who came to them.
Their connection with the spiritual worlds. Although they lived simple lives of hard work and dedication to their community, they were inventors and pioneers at the same time. Perhaps their greatest gift to humanity is also the least known and understood: their exploration of spiritual dimensions.Back to the Index
The practice of celibacy was controversial for many people who questioned Shaker beliefs. Men and women worked, ate and slept in separate areas. They often had different doors, stairs and walkways in and around the community space. It was thought by many that Shaker celibacy should have been one of moderation, not total abstinence. It split converted family members apart, and caused defiant persecution from the outside world.
In its early years, the Shaker movement resounded to the call of spiritual adventure. Membership crested in 1845 at 4,000 members, and eventually 22 communities. In later years the adventure settled into a routine of comfort and security. Even the spontaneous dance became orderly and controlled. Following a wave of religious revivalism in 1837 and the Civil War in the 1860s, Shakerism began to wane.
The restrictions of the Industrial Revolution, the increased rules of the Shaker movement and other influences heralded a decline of enthusiasm for the Shaker ideals. Eventually this led to their demise. Today, only a handful of Shakers remain to preserve and carry on their beliefs, and to serve as trustees of former Shaker properties.
There are presently 11 major Shaker landmarks and restored villages, plus several museums, open to the public. Public libraries carry books on the history, spiritual activities and craftmanship of these industrious people. The two Shaker communities still intact have fewer than a dozen residents.
Many people think the Shaker movement failed. But the Shakers did accomplish their unified vision quest, and reached their goals. They came to help bring in a new age of spirituality and wonderment. They taught methods and safe procedures for communicating with the spirit realms. They experienced the natual cycle of birth, building, decline and completion.
Shakerism may have ended, but the Shaker spirit lives on in their craftsmanship, their spiritual vision for humanity and their legacy of gifts.
A prediction made by Ann Lee stated that the Shakers would suffer a demise or ending, but that when the number of living Shakers was fewer than you could count on one hand, there would be a great revival of interest in them.Back to the Index