Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Shakers

This has been my summer to encounter unusual museums and odd religions.  The stop in Canterbury, New Hampshire, a few miles north of Concord,  combined the two: an entire town converted to a museum that spotlights the vanishing 'Shaking Quaker' religion.

 The Founder of the Shakers was Ann Lee of Manchester England.  In a religious revival of the 17th Century there arose the 'Shaking Quakers' or 'Shakers' in 1754.  Nine persons from Manchester emigrated in May 1774 for the purpose of founding a Shaker Church in America.

At one time there were dozens of Shaker villages throughout the U.S. with a total of over 6000 members.  Today there is one village left--Sabbathday Lake Village in Maine--with only three members.

Canterbury, NH was once a very thriving Shaker community....

Canterbury Shaker Village was formed in 1792.  In May of that year the Meeting House was raised in one day, with such solemn reverence that scarcely a word was spoken during the framing and raising of the building, except in whisper.

By November of 1793 the massive Dwelling House was occupied and from then until 1860 not a year went by without another building being constructed or enlarged.  In addition, fields were cleared, stone walls built, a water power system constructed and production of goods for sale to the world was undertaken.

By the time of the Civil War, Canterbury was a thriving Shaker village where nearly 300 people lived, worked and worshipped in 100 buildings on over 4000 acres.

So what happened to all these 'Shakers' and why were they called 'Shakers'?  

Why they are disappearing is answered in their mutually agreed upon 'Basic Principles'...

The Basic Principles of the Shaker Order: Virgin Purity, Peace, Justice, Love
All expressed in celibate life, non resistance, community of goods and universal Brotherhood

They so completely supported the celibate life that even their buildings promoted it.  Every building had two entry doors--one for women and another for men.  If the building had two or more floors then there were two staircases to every floor--one for women and a second for men--sometimes side by side.  I couldn't resist and had to ask the Docent if any member ever 'climbed the other staircase?' As far as he knew, no woman had ever produced a baby in this community.  I am surprised that it took over 200 years for the community to die out.

How they got the title of 'Shaking Quakers' or Shakers seems due to a practice that is the antithesis of their cult standards of celibacy: Line Dancing! 

"Shakers Dancing" 
Lithograph c. 1830

During their worship service they would line up in seemingly rigid formations and express their religious ecstasy in a rhythmic and exuberant manner.  (I am surprised that it did not result in an end to that 'Basic Standard of Celibacy.')

The church floor had markings to guide the Shakers in their dances. 

The Docent said there is no one left that can demonstrate the actual dances but there are a number of drawings and writings that help explain the ritual and the energy of the dance.

 And they certainly had the music to Shake the building.

 Music, both secular and religious, played an important role in Shaker life.  Musical instruments were common by the 20th century and included pianos, cornets, saxophones, violins and harmonicas.  The Shakers formed small orchestras, including a quartette and harmonica band.  

I bet this group produced some toe-tapping numbers.

There were no adornments in any of the buildings--no elaborate paintings, no statues, no chandeliers, and very little in the way of color.  The furniture was all serviceable and of classic design.

It was communal living to the extreme with emphasis on equality...

Equality of the Sexes in all Departments of life
Equality of labor, all working for each, and each for all.
Equality in property.  No rich, no poor.


No hierarchy even at the dinner table. 

Both sexes shared in the cooking, housekeeping and work in the fields.

 I think I saw one of these at the Plumbing Museum.


Stretchers for the woolen sox.

Practices they supported...
 Freedom of Speech, Toleration in thought and religion,
Abolition of all Slavery
Temperance in all things.
Justice and Kindness to all living beings.
The Golden Rule: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
Purity in thought, speech and personal habits.
Freedom from debt, worry and competition.
Simplicity in dress, speech and manner.

(Not a bad code to govern by.)

I  admired the fact that this was neither a matriarchal nor a patriarchal organization.  Over the 200 years of its existence men and women shared equally in the leadership.


In 1992 the three surviving Shakers turned the village of Canterbury over to the state to operate as a museum then moved to Sabbathday Lake, Maine to live out their days.  The youngest is 58 and the oldest is 90. 

The most well-known of all the Shaker communes is now a very prosperous community in Ohio--Shaker Heights. No Shakers live there.

The official name of the sect: The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing.


  1. Thank you for that. I really want to share how much I am learning as I travel--and it is more than I ever expected.

  2. In many ways, MILES ahead of society structure and thinking, both then and now! Very interesting. Thanks Toni!