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The Shakers

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The Shakers

From Wikipedia

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers or Shaking Quakers, is a religious sect originally thought to be a development of the Protestant Quakers. Founded upon the teachings of Ann Lee, the group was known for their emphasis on social equality and rejection of sexual relations, which led to their precipitous decline in numbers after their heavy involvement in the running of orphanages was curtailed. With few surviving members, Shakers today are mostly known for their cultural contributions (especially style of music and furniture).

The Shakers were one of a few religious groups that formed in eighteenth-century England. New communities of “charismatic” Christians also took shape during this time. One of the most important of these new movements was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (USBCSA), or the Shakers. While their monastic, communitarian life has been studied extensively, little attention has been given to Shaker preaching, particularly in the early days of the order. The first members of the group were known as “Shaking Quakers” because of the ecstatic nature of their worship services. Begun in 1747, the members looked to women for leadership. Jane Wardley and Ann Lee were the most important. Jane Wardley was an articulate preacher who urged her followers to:

    Repent. For the kingdom of God is at hand. The new heaven and new earth prophesied of old is about to come. The marriage of the Lamb, the first resurrection, the new Jerusalem descended from above, these are even now at the door. And when Christ appears again, and the true church rises in full and transcendent glory, then all anti-Christian denominations—the priests, the church, the pope—will be swept away.

Ann Lee joined them by 1758 and soon assumed leadership of the small community. The loss of four children in infancy created great trauma for “Mother Ann,” as her followers later called her. She claimed numerous revelations regarding the fall of Adam and Eve and its relationship to sexual intercourse. She had become the “Mother of the new creation,” who called her followers to confess their sins, give up all their worldly goods, and take up the cross of celibacy. Her small community was soon known for its enthusiastic worship given to “singing and dancing, shaking and shouting, speaking with new tongues and prophesying, with all those various gifts of the Holy Ghost known in the primitive church.” The Shakers, as they were called, saw themselves as the avant garde of the kingdom of God, preparing the way for the new era when God’s will was done on earth. In the kingdom, as in the Shaker fellowship, there was “neither marrying nor giving in marriage.” Celibacy was a preparation for the kingdom. By 1774, Ann Lee and some eight of her followers had emigrated to America, settling in New York. There they preached their doctrines and won a surprising following. Ann herself was a powerful preacher and charismatic personality, travelling around the colonies, particularly in New England, preaching her gospel views. When confronted about a female’s right to preach, she responded that “all the children, both male and female, must be subject to their parents; and the woman, being second, must be subject to her husband, who is the first; but when the man is gone, the right of government belongs to the woman: So is the family of Christ.”

As their communities grew, women and men shared leadership of the Shaker communities. Women preached and received revelations as the Spirit fell upon them. Thriving on the religious enthusiasm of the first and second Great Awakenings, the Shakers declared their messianic, communitarian message with significant response. One early convert observed: “The wisdom of their instructions, the purity of their doctrine, their Christ-like deportment, and the simplicity of their manners, all appeared truly apostolical.” The Shakers represent a small but important Utopian response to the gospel. Preaching in their communities knew no boundaries of gender, social class, or education.

The Shakers built more than twenty settlements that attracted at least 20,000 converts over the next century. Strict believers in celibacy, Shakers acquired their members through conversion, indenturing children, and adoption of orphans. Some children, such as Isaac N. Youngs, came to the Shakers when their parents joined, then grew up to become faithful members as adults.

Many, however, did not remain Shakers. Turnover was high; the group reached maximum size of about 6,000 full members in 1840, but as of December 2009 had only five members left. Only a few of the original Shaker buildings are still in use today.

The Shakers of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing should not be confused with the Indian Shakers of the Pacific Northwest of North America.

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