Richmond Preface

From Shaker Pedia


by John W. Chandler

Back to Searchable Richmond

The large collection of literature recorded and annotated in this bibliography has to do with a movement whose all-inclusive membership throughout its two centuries on American soil embraced only about 20,000 persons. The Shakers now alive, fewer than a dozen, are at the end of a movement which, at its zenith in the second third of the nineteenth century, included no more than 6,000 members. Who were these people, and why, despite their relatively small number, have they inspired such a consuming interest for so long a period?

Although the American Shaker movement dates from the migration to America by Mother Ann Lee and some of her followers in 1774, its traceable roots extend back to southeastern France in the last two decades of the seventeenth century.

With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the French Protestants lost the guarantee of tolerance and safety they had enjoyed since 1598. The ensuing years witnessed mass migrations by the Huguenots as well as armed conflict between some Protestant groups and the Catholic forces that controlled France. One of the most serious conflicts involved the Protestant peasants of Cevennes called Camisards, a millenarian group best known for their dramatic prophetic utterances and attendant vivid bodily manifestations of spirit possession.

Some of these Camisard Prophets took refuge in England in 1706 after their military defeat in France in 1705. In England they continued to proclaim the imminence of the millennium, which was to be ushered in by the destruction of organized churches and other enemies of the Lord. The Prophets became the center of great excitement in England, where they stirred brutal opposition among the defenders of the conventional faiths and inspired fierce loyalty among their new English converts. Once it had been successfully transplanted to England, however, the prophetic movement proved to be remarkably hardy and persistent.

The Prophets, both French and English, exhibited a number of identifying traits: ecstatic religious experience marked by seizures and trembling; obsession with millennial prophecies and computations; hostility to all organized ecclesiastical structures, Protestant and Catholic; and special appeal to the poor working-class people, both rural and urban.

By Shaker accounts their movement can be traced to an important link with the Prophets in the form of a religious society formed by James and Jane Wardley in 1747 in Bolton, near Manchester, England. The Wardleys had been Quakers but came to embrace the millennial teachings of the Prophets. The Wardleys and their followers combined the Prophets' forms of worship with the old Quaker forms. While in silent meditation they would begin to tremble, and the trembling often led to agitated shouts, violent shaking, singing, and fulminations against sin. The name Shakers or Shaking Quakers originated from these worship sessions led by the Wardleys.

The religious society the Wardleys began would probably have remained obscure if it had not attracted Ann Lee, who joined in September 1758, at the age of twentythree. She had endured a miserable childhood as a laborer in a Manchester cotton mill. Later, following her marriage in 1762 to Abraham Stanley, she had witnessed the deaths of her four infant children. According to Shaker sources, while serving a sentence in the Manchester jail in 1770 for profaning the Sabbath, she had a vision that was to supply the principal Shaker tenet, celibacy. The vision revealed that the sin of Adam and Eve was sexual intercourse and that sexual lust was the root cause of the various expressions of human depravity.

"Mother Ann," as she now came to be called, reported that another vision had directed her to America, where, she was promised, the millennial church would be established. She and eight of her most ardent followers landed in New York City in August 1774. A vanguard of the group proceeded to Niskayuna (Watervliet), near Albany, where they bought land. Ann Lee's husband, Abraham Stanley, abandoned her late in 1775, and she left New York City to join her followers in Watervliet the following spring.

When Mother Ann died in September 1784, three years before the formation of the communities that would institutionalize the Shaker devotion to celibacy and common ownership of property, the center of the movement shifted from Watervliet to nearby New Lebanon, where the organization of the first community got under way in September 1787. With the death of Mother Ann and the beginning of the communities, Shakerism passed from its earlier dependence on charismatic leadership to assume the institutional characteristics that were to stabilize and define the movement for the remainder of its history.

The New Lebanon settlement served as the mother church and model for subsequent Shaker communities, and the "ministries" (composed of the elders, male and female) of the various communities deferred to the authority of the New Lebanon or Central Ministry. The Shakers capitalized on the religious excitement and curiosity associated with frontier revivals. By 1826 the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, popularly known as the Shakers, encompassed nineteen communities or separate societies, each containing from one hundred to six hundred members. These communities were made up of families (Church Family, South Family, etc.), each of which was an economically independent unit. The movement reached its peak strength in the East by the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time Shaker fortunes had already begun to decline in the West and the South.

In the nineteenth century Shakerism acquired stability and regularity in its social organization, liturgical forms, and theological doctrines. The dances lost their earlier spontaneity and became formalized; spirit-inspired utterances diminished in frequency and importance as Shaker exegetes and historians developed and emphasized a corpus of literature which attempted to square the main tenets of their faith with the Bible, and which set down the life and teachings of Mother Ann Lee.

Whereas the eighteenth-century Shakers adopted the Prophets' policy of hostility to the established churches, in the nineteenth century alienation gave way initially to competition and debate and eventually to accommodation. In competing with the established Protestant bodies for the allegiance of the evangelized frontier crowds, the Shakers engaged in discussions of questions of church history and theology. Such discussions led to a greater authority for the Bible among nineteenth-century Shakers than it had enjoyed in the times of the Wardleys and Mother Ann Lee.

The organization of Shakers into classes or orders facilitated intellectual and economic commerce with the outside world. The church order, consisting of carefully screened adults who had forever renounced title to all personal property, constituted the spiritual elite, and from their ranks the elders were selected. The junior order consisted of those who still held title to their property, even though they lived celibate lives in the religious community and permitted the community the use of their property. The novitiate order consisted of members who continued to live in families and to own and use private property, but who accepted the spiritual guidance of the Shakers. The latter two orders served as a link with the outside world and helped to buffer members of the church order against communication with the larger society.

Following the Civil War the Shakers, whose pacifism had created many problems for them during that conflict (as well as during the American Revolution), developed more and more interest in the burgeoning technology and intellectual ferment of the larger society. Shaker artisans, for example, began to read books and pamphlets that related to their crafts.

It was above all Elder Frederick W. Evans who granted a kind of legitimacy to the non-Shaker world which earlier Shakers had been unwilling to concede. To Mother Ann Lee and her early successors, James Whittaker and Joseph Meacham, the redeemed society of Shakers would coexist with a much larger society whose organization and behavior were based on a fundamental acceptance of lust and its progency of vices—greed, violence, deceit, and the like. But Evans, who dominated the Shaker scene from 1861 to 1892, perceived many of the forces and movements in the larger society as intimations and adumbrations of the same spirit and truth whose most pristine expression was Shakerism. And the purpose of Evans's extensive correspondence, writings, and lectures was to establish rapport between Shakerism and kindred movements.

The softening of Shaker sectarian opposition to the dominant culture was symptomatic of the incipient demise of the movement. In one of the most thoughtful and original interpretations of Shakerism (The American Shakers: From Neo-Christianity to Presocialism, translated from the French and edited by John K. Savacool, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971), Henri Desroche contends that the movement lost its historical thrust and direction because of failure to resolve its ambivalent character as both a late expression of Protestant left-wing sectarianism and an early expression of socialism. According to Desroche, neither expression gained dominance.

It is pertinent to point out, however, that English Shakerism was spawned among urban industrial workers who knew the devastating effects on family life of the new conditions imposed by factory labor, but with its relocation to America, Shakerism became a religion of farmers and artisans from small-town and frontier areas. In this new setting its doctrines did not develop the social criticism that might have emerged if it had remained in the industrial centers of England. Shaped by agrarian and frontier conditions, American Shakerism, in fact, went into rapid eclipse as the forces of industrialization following the'Civil War began to influence it. Its economic base was severely affected by the inability of its craftsmen to compete with the mass-produced commodities of the factories.

How then does one explain the current revival of popular and scholarly interest in the Shakers? Part of the answer has to do with longevity. The movement has lasted longer than any similar venture and has proved to be more durable and stable than most national societies.

The alienated character of so much of modern work has stimulated a special interest in Shaker industries and craftsmanship. An incredible number of articles on Shaker furniture have appeared; many are replete with photographs and even do-ityourself diagrams. Several prosperous businesses are responding to the growing demand for kits and finished reproductions of Shaker furniture.

The Shakers attract interest chiefly, however, because they were concerned with issues that are once again the focal points of a vast amount of social unrest and private questioning. Just as industrialization weakened the family by curtailing its economic function, so today the nuclear family has come under new questioning because of a multiplicity of developments, many of which dispute the traditional belief that sexual activity, procreation, the family structure, and child-rearing are indissolubly bound together. Those who perceive the extended family as superior to the nuclear family as a locus for emotional and moral development and fulfillment are understandably curious about the communal family organization of the Shakers. Similarly, the Shaker denial of private ownership in favor of communal property attracts those who believe individual ownership to be a root cause of social injustice.

Another feature of Shaker theology and social organization which is attuned to a central theme of current social reform is the role of women as equals of men. To her followers Mother Ann Lee was the female incarnation of the Christ, just as Jesus of Nazareth was the male incarnation. Consistent with this central theological tenet, the Shakers maintained a careful balance of the sexes in the composition of the boards of Elders and Eldresses who ruled the communal families.

Because the issues that concerned the Shakers and to which they developed institutional answers are fundamental questions that will continue to trouble and challenge mankind, the place of the Shakers in history is secure and important. The bibliographic references recorded and described here will make access to these fascinating and sturdy people immeasurably easier.

The invaluable work of scholarship represented by this collection of bibliographic data is the product of five years, of devoted and thorough work by.. Mary L. Richmond. Her sleuthing for remote and obscure materials has been imaginative, and painstaking. Her lucid and concise annotations are informed by extensive first-hand acquaintance with the materials, sympathetic interest in Shaker people, and mature scholarly judgment. The flood of new publications about the Shakers will almost certainly continue, but Mrs. Richmond's bibliography should serve as a basic, indispensable work.

John W. Chandler
Williams College
Williams town, Massachusetts