The Shakers

The Shakers, or the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearance, represent one of the most successful utopian communities in American history. Although their last remaining community currently numbers less than ten members, the Shakers have maintained a utopian presence in the United States for over two hundred years. One of the secrets of their success seems to be the fact that while they have lived since the 18th century by a set of basic tenets, they have always believed in constant re velation from the spirit world, and they never operated under the elaborate sets of rules that some less successful utopian communities imposed upon their members.

The Shakers were founded in England in 1770 by Ann Lee. In the 1760's, Lee joined a sect of Quakers called "Shaking Quakers". The Quakers were said to "shake" because they danced and spoke in tongues. Lee had become dissatisfied with the Anglican church , and this dissatisfaction was coupled with the fact that Lee and her husband had had four children, all of whom died in infancy. Following the death of her fourth child, Lee claimed to have had a vision from God in which it was explained to her that sex ual intercourse was the root of all sin, and that to truly serve God, one must be celibate. She came to believed that God was bisexual because both man and woman were made in His image, and that this was duplicated throughout nature. Every living thing, animal or vegetable, had both a male and female component. Her followers began to call her "Mother" Ann because they believed her to be the female component of Christ's spirit and that she represented the second appearance of Christ on earth. In 1772, Ann received another vision from God, in the form of a tree, in which it was communicated to her that "a place had been prepared" for the Shakers in America.

Nine Shakers emigrated to America in 1774, and lived in New York until they could raise enough money to buy a tract of wilderness for themselves in Western New York State, which they called Niskeyuna. There they built the first of the Shaker communities in America, which eventually numbered eighteen and stretched from Kentucky to Maine.

According to Lee's visions, the Shakers were to live by four basic tenets. First, they must live communally. Second, they must be celibate. Third, they must regularly confess their sins. And fourth, they must separate themselves from the outside world . They believed that if they rigorously followed these tenets, they would be able to achieve perfection. The communities were revolutionary because they offered both spiritual and physical equality, an equality which also extended to non-Christians and individuals of different races who joined the communities. Although within the community men and women ha d separate spheres of activity and responsibilities which were sharply divided, they were fundamentally equal. Following Ann Lee's death, she was succeeded over time by both men and women.

Mother Ann believed that each member of the community had an obligation to work. Each member of the community had specific jobs that they were trained to do, many of which contributed to the great surplus of agricultural and material commodities that the Shakers produced for sale in order to support themselves. Mother Ann taught them that they should work: "As if you had 1000 years to live, and as if you were going to die tomorrow". Their beautiful crafts, buildings and grounds have therefore always re flected both the pride and care that they took in their work, and the simplicity and utility that their lives demanded.

The Shakers, like the Puritans fit the utopian model. Through Ann Lee and other leader's continuing visions, the Covenant of the Shaker's with God is established. And, through their righteous living and works, the Shakers felt that they could uphold thi s covenant and achieve perfection. One of their founding tenets was their communal life, and they maintained this tenet through their rigorous labor. They believed that by separating themselves from the population in general, they could establish a mode l that would lead others to the redemption that they hoped to attain - in fact their survival depended on it - because one of their tenets is celibacy, they must attract new members to join. Finally, one of Ann Lee's original visions from God told her th at the Shaker's place was to the West in the New World, where they will find the ideal place to found their utopian communities.

With less than a dozen members left remaining, it is hard to believe that the Shakers once peopled eighteen thriving communities in several states. In 1850, they numbered almost 4,000 members, and, over the 200 years that they have been established in th e United States, more than 20,000 Americans have lived a least some of their life as a Shaker.

Before her death, Mother Ann had a vision that the community would be renewed once its membership had dropped to five members. The last of the Shakers are awaiting the renewal and continuing to live their utopian lives according to the visions that Ann L ee received over 225 years ago.