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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

History Of The Shaker Movement

Dallas Bogan on 6 September 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

The writer has described in other articles the happenings of The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, or the Shakers, as they are customarily called, but at this time I shall put another twist on the subject.

Beginnings of the Shaker religion were started in a Quaker revival in England in 1747. From this revival came a religious denomination known as the Mellennial Church, or the Alethians. It was a minor religious group led by James and Jane Wardley, until Ann Lee headed up the movement.

Ann Lee, born in 1736, was an illiterate cotton mill worker, and afterward a cook in Manchester, England, her birthplace.
At the age of 22 she became acquainted with the Quakers, officially known as the Society of Friends. This religious denomination displayed fits of trembling in its early period of formation, and it is assumed that Lee acquired this practice from the Friends.
Ann Lee was married in 1762 to a blacksmith. Eight years later she attested to having a revelation that was endowed by the powers of the Almighty. In accordance to her views of self-restraint, she separated herself from her husband two years later.
Aside from the peculiar physical mannerisms that she practiced, her doctrine included alleged visions and the pretense of working miracles. For these religious abnormalities she was imprisoned several times.
She was much beloved by her people who resigned themselves to her influence and called her Mother Ann.
Because of continual persecutions Mother Ann and eight followers came to America in 1774. Just two years later they formed the first Shaker community at Watervliet, N.Y.
Ann Lee died in 1784 during the Revolutionary War after many imprisonments, her crusade being simply that the right to bear firearms was ungodly.
Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright afterward led the Society. They established a Shaker community at New Lebanon, N.Y., and by 1826 there were 18 such communities. The movement reached its highest strength in the 1840's with about 6,000 members in eight states.
Shakers from the New Lebanon fellowship sent several thousand dollars to Union Village to help the community get started. All monetary payment was reimbursed to the parent Society within ten years.
Shaker theology regards God as both male and female, with Christ representing the incarnation of the male object, while the female was portrayed as Ann Lee. Her physical being had been proclaimed as the second incarnation of Jesus Christ, this belief having fulfilled the philosophy of this denomination for His second coming.
Have you ever heard of the Millerites? This was an extremist religious sect that had mobilized in Cincinnati between 1846 and 1848. Their belief was that they could set a date and time for the reappearance of Christ. Several dates were set for this impending prophecy, but all attempts failed.
One event was recorded that an ex-mayor of Lebanon, who had given himself to the Millerite faith, traveled to Cincinnati to acclaim the highest reward of them all. He took his ascension robe highly expecting to experience translation to heaven in a given instant.
Certainly the event never occurred, but the man was most steadfast in his belief.
The Millerites faith was shaken because of their many failures. While still in this state of mind, they were visited by some Shaker community representatives. The Shakers therefore revealed their affiliation with God and persuaded the Millerites that Christ's second coming had already occurred in the person of Ann Lee.
Many Millerites accepted this explanation and, as a result, an increase of two hundred people was added to the Shaker community, the largest single addition the Shakers of Ohio ever encountered.
The Shaker sect and its beliefs were peculiar in many ways. One such doctrine was that of an Adamic order of birth and a spiritual order of humanity. The former allows marriage and the latter rejects it.
Shaker practices relied upon birth and rearing of children, but because of the religious element, community engagement in these practices was not approved; celibacy, or non-marriage, was their chief doctrine. The Society was dependent entirely upon its increase from the outside, thus the Adamic order.
As the husband and wife joined the Shakers, they could not practice as so, the rules stating that the couple were to live unrelated lives.
Although social customs were approved at Union Village, persons of the opposite sex lived in separate quarters on separate sides of a large hallway in the residence building.
Upon joining the Shaker community, all property of the newcomers was automatically transferred to the Society. Personal withdrawals were unrestricted, but, according to the rules, all lands were to be withheld. Due to this practice, the Shakers prospered extensively.
Many lawsuits were brought against the Society concerning land ownership, but to no avail, as all land the Ohio Supreme Court in favor of the Shakers upheld matters.

Dancing was the most curious of all Shaker customs. The Telescope, published September 1, 1909, describes a Shaker dance in detail. It reads:

"The dancing custom of the Shakers is one of the most interesting. A number of singers, probably a dozen or so, both sexes, would take their position in the middle of the room, half of them facing the other half, and begin a kind of song or chant.
"While doing so they would step back and forth in a fashion resembling a double shuffle. If the spirit seemed to move the watchers, they would rise and, two abreast, would begin marching round the singers in the center.
"Soon the march would turn into a dancing step, the faces would be uplifted, and the hands outstretched, palms upward, with a gesticulation as if the worshipers were grasping for blessing falling down from heaven.
"This would be continued indefinitely, sometimes the marchers and dancers falling from sheer exhaustion."

The sect was ruled in a communistic order, their leaders being quite respected businessmen. Aside from the automatic transferal of lands from new members, they purchased large tracts from the common fund, and appropriate buildings were erected. All monetary capital was in the hands of an overseer who deposited it into a general treasury.
Union Village encompassed several groups of buildings. They were so named as directional buildings, such as the South, the East, the North, the West and the Center, each containing several family groups.
The assemblage of buildings known as the North Village was the home of the gathering order. It was here that the young people, who openly advocated the Shaker religious traits, lived until their credentials were properly approved.
Both sexes engaged in a confession of sins in the presence of witnesses. They did not believe in a physical resurrection; their belief was in salvation through living the Christ life; their doctrine of repentance was most unclear.

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This page created 6 September 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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