THE SHAKERS/ ONEIDA COMMUNITY Part 1
Written by: Hillebrand, Randall Posted on: 04/29/2003
Category: Cults / Sects / Non Christian Religions and Topics
THE SHAKERS / ONEIDA COMMUNITY
by Randall Hillebrand
The Shakers and the Oneida Community were contemporaries for
approximately 31 years from 1848 to 1880. This was the approximate
length of time that the Oneida Community lasted (1848-1881). The
Shakers lasted the longest between the two groups, from approximately
1774 until the present, 1830 being their peak year for membership,
declining thereafter. I have been told that there are about seven
female Shakers still living today by a woman named Jeannie Stine who
is a history buff of the Shakers from Seattle, Washington (Stine).
Both the Shakers and the Oneida Community were striving for the
same thing: the bringing in of the millennial kingdom. But, they both
had different ways in which to do it. The Shakers felt that sexual
intercourse was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and that by
eliminating it, God would bring in the kingdom. The Oneida Community
on the other hand thought that living as if one where in the
millennial kingdom already, would bring it in. So, as a result of
that, the Oneida Community lived a life where "complex marriage"
(where all men and all woman were jointly married to each other), or
as some would call it, free sex, was practiced. This was practiced
since they believed that in the millennium this would be the norm.
What is interesting about the Shakers and the Oneida Community is
that even though they were at opposite ends of the pole from each
other, the Shakers and the Oneida Community not only knew of each
other, but on occasion the Shakers would come and visit the Oneida
Community. They had a certain amount of respect for each other (Noyes
144). John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida Community,
"declared that his approach and that of the Shakers were the only two
possible in the resurrected state." But he further stated that: "If I
believed in a Shaker heaven I would be a Shaker now." (Foster 89).
Both the Shakers and the Oneida Community profited from the
revivals that were taking place during their time. " The revivals left
many people distraught and torn by anxiety; and having tried without
success to gain a sense of assurance in their own churches, they were
in a receptive mood to listen to new prophets who offered definite
guarantees of spiritual security." (Hudson 183). So the revivals
played a key role in their success because of the ideas, attitudes,
and hopes which they fostered (Hudson 183).
Another fact about the two groups was that they both adopted
"communism," or in other words, communal living. Both groups lived in
a communal setting where large groups of people lived corporately in
mansion-size living quarters. They shared the responsibilities as a
group, where both men and women worked side by side with total
equality as their goal.
Also, both groups were persecuted for their faith. This is quite
interesting when we remember the fact that one group believed in no
sex and the other group believed in "free sex." The general
population did not agree with either extreme. They were both
extremist groups that did not fit in with the main stream of society
at that time, even though both groups went as far as isolating their
communities from the general population.
The Shakers and the Oneida Community were in some ways very
similar, but in other ways very diverse.
. The founder of the Shakers was a woman by the name of Ann Lee
Standerin who is known as Ann Lee, or Mother Ann. She was born in
Manchester, England on February 29, 1736. It is said that as a child
she did not have much of a desire to play, but that she was a serious
young girl that had a great interest in religious things. It is even
said that during this time of her life that "she was favored with
heavenly visions, and became strongly impressed with a sense of the
deep depravity of mankind." (Holloway 55).
Ann was known to have begged her mother "piteously" to be kept
from having to get married (Ferguson 321). But on January 5, 1762,
she was finally married to a blacksmith by the name of Abraham
Standerin. Over the next four years Abraham and Ann had four children
which all died in infancy. Ann looked at these deaths "as a series of
judgements on her 'concupiscence' (sexual desire; lust)." (Andrews
TPCS 7,8). So she began to stop sleeping with her husband so as not to
stir up his affections. She was even afraid to sleep at night because
she thought that she might awaken in hell. She even used to pace the
floor at night in anguish about her struggle against the flesh. It is
said that her anguish was so great that "bloody sweat passed through
the pores of her skin, tears flowed down her cheeks until the skin
cleaved off, and she wrung her hands until the blood gushed from under
her nails (Andrews TPCS 7,8).
In the summer of 1758, she joined the society of Shaking Quakers,
a sect in England under the control of Jane and James Wardley. (The
Shaking Quakers are an offshoot of the Camisards which are otherwise
known as the French Prophets.) (Ferguson 322).
In the summer of 1770, Ann had been imprisoned for taking part in
a noisy religious service in Manchester England. While in jail, at
the age of thirty-four, Ann had a vision that radically transformed
her life. She had a vision of "Adam and Eve in carnal intercourse".
(Foster 21,22). She at last knew without a shadow of a doubt that the
very transgression which had resulted in the fall of man in the Garden
of Eden was sexual intercourse. After this traumatic discovery, Ann
had another vision where the Lord Jesus appeared to her in all of His
glory. Jesus then supposedly comforted her and told her that her new
mission was to spread her newfound knowledge to the world (Foster
HISTORY OF MOVEMENT:
"As lust conceived by the fall
Hath more or less infected all;
So we believe 'tis only this
That keepeth souls from perfect bliss."
As seen from this Shaker hymn, the Shakers held to the visions of
Mother Ann, and made it their purpose to spread their newfound message
to the ends of the earth. Mother Ann herself prophesied that "This
gospel will go to the end of the world, and it will not be propagated
so much by preaching, as by the good works of the people." (Morse
After Ann's release from jail, she shared her visions with the
group of Shaking Quakers to which she belonged. Because of these
visions, John Wardley, the leader of this group, saw Ann as the
fulfillment to his prophecy. His prophecy was that "Christ's spirit
would come again and that the second time it would be embodied in a
woman." (Ferguson 323). The group then "hailed her as Mother in
Christ and Bride of the Lamb; and she was known thereafter as Mother
Ann or Ann the Word." (Holloway 57).
As Ann developed her sense of overpowering conviction that lust
was the basis of all human corruption, her religious mission increased
until she finally took over leadership from Jane Wardley. Then Mother
Ann, during this time, added a distinctive element to the group which
was celibacy. This distinction was what made the Shakers different
from other revivalistÿgroups of this time. At this time there were
approximately thirty believers in her following (Foster 25,26).
For a time the group tried to live out their faith in England,
but ran into much social pressure (Gonzalez 244). Then, when Mother
Ann was examined by four scholars of the Established Church in England
on the charge of blasphemy, "whom she confounded by speaking in
seventy-two distinct and separate tongues, it was plain to her that
the Millennium had begun." (Ferguson 57). Following this, a vision
came to either Ann (Ferguson 57) or her associate James Wittaker
(Foster 26) of a tree that according to Ann talked to her, telling her
that they were to come to America to set up their church (the Church
of Christ's Second Appearing). In Wittaker's vision, the tree did not
talk to him, but he saw a tree with ever-burning leaves in America
which represented the Shakers' church. Because of this vision, the
Shakers felt it their divine call to go to America. So in the spring
of 1774, with all temporal affairs settled, arrangements were made to
go to the new world (Andrews TPCS 18). In May of 1774, Ann Lee and
eight followers sailed from Liverpool for America (Andrews/Andrews
13). The band of nine sailed on the Mariah, a ship headed for New
York. Included in the group besides Mother Ann herself were several
of her family (Neal 2): "her husband, her brother William, ..., James
Wittaker, ... John Hocknell ..., his son Richard, James Shepard, Mary
Partington, and Nancy Lee, a cousin." (Andrews/Andrews 14).
The early Shakers believed that the gospel of celibacy "could
never take hold in the old world, where the stolid, conservative minds
of the common people did not open readily to the new, strange
doctrine." They believed that in the new world, God was going to
flourish it (Sasson 4).
The story is told that while they were not yet very long out to
sea, the captain became very outraged by the Shakers' manner of
worship. He disliked it so much that he told them that if they
repeated the performance again, they would all be thrown overboard.
On the following Sunday they did repeat it. As the story goes, when
the captain attempted to put his threat into action, almost at once, a
storm of tremendous violence arose and knocked a plank lose whereby
the ship started to take on water. All hands tried to pump out the
water with no avail. When the captain announced that nothing could
save the ship and that the ship would sink by morning, to the
contrary, Mother Ann told the captain that she had seen two angels on
the ship that told her that it would not sink. It is said that
scarcely had she spoken it when a great wave arose, the last of its
size, that knocked against the ship so precisely that the loose plank
was forced back into place. After this, the captain allowed the
Shakers to worship any way they pleased (Holloway 58).
On August 6, 1774, Mother Ann and her followers of eight arrived
in New York (Andrews/Andrews 14). The group split up into smaller
groups in order to earn money (Sasson 6). Ann took in work doing
washing and ironing while her husband was working as a journeyman in
the blacksmith trade (Neal 3,4). But soon after arriving, Abraham
became very sick. Ann had to support the two of them as she nursed
him back to health. After this, Shaker history reports that Abraham
got involved in wickedness and refused to do anything for Ann unless
she would decide to "live in the flesh with him, and bear children."
(Sasson 6). She totally refused his proposition which is what caused
their final separation. Then in September of 1776, the group
reassembled in Niskeyuna, New York, on some land purchased by John
Hocknell (Sasson 6).
Over the next four years, very little progress was made in
spreading Ann's gospel. But finally, in 1780, because of a New Light
Baptist revival in New Lebanon, New York, the Shakers received a
number of new converts who felt that the Shakers had a definite way to
salvation which they themselves were seeking. "There they found a
fellowship literally following the example of the primitive apostolic
church: men and women living together in celibate purity, holding all
goods in common, working industriously with their hands, speaking and
singing in unknown tongues, worshiping joyfully, preaching that Christ
had actually come to lead believers to a perfect, sinless, everlasting
life - the life of the spirit."(Andrews TGTBS 4). It was even
believed by the early Shaker converts that the Revolutionary War was
the beginning of a new age. And then on May 19, 1780 came the day
that Mother Ann knew that the time had come to proclaim the gospel to
the New World, because on that day, New England turned black. This
was due to a solar eclipse which Mother Ann knew was a sign from God
to proclaim her gospel (Sasson 7,8). Shortly after, Ann and her
elders were imprisoned on the charge of pacifism and treason. After
their release, they left on a two-year mission through many parts of
Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, trying to convert people to
their faith (Andrews TGTBS 4). They returned to Niskeyuna in August
of 1783. The following July, Mother Ann's closest companion died, her
brother William. Not long after that, Mother Ann's health started to
decline, and on September 8, 1784, at the age of forty-eight, Mother
At the time of her death there were approximately 1000 converts
to Shakerism who were scattered throughout New England (Sasson 8). It
is said that "at the time of her death, one of the elders who was
greatly 'gifted in vision' testified that when the breath left her
body he saw in vision 'a golden chariot drawn by four white horses
which received and wafted her soul out of sight.'"(Neal 5).
After Ann's death, James Wittaker "saved Ann's faith from passing
with her." (Sprigg 7). For the next three years Wittaker propagated
the faith until his death in 1787. Then leadership was assumed by the
first American, Joseph Meacham from Enfield, Connecticut. He then
picked Lucy Wright from a town in Massachusetts called Pittsfield as
the leader over the women (Sprigg 7). This step of putting Lucy
Wright in leadership was something that was just not done at this time
period in history. Even many Shakers did not like this move (Foster
37). At this time in the Shakers' history, Joseph Meacham brought
together and organized the scattered and disorganized members into an
ordered union (Andrews/Andrews 23). "He drafted the constitution of
the United Society, and elaborated and systematized Shaker doctrine."
(Hudson 185,186). Meacham regulated everything, even the Shakers'
violence of the physical manifestations was subdued to dance and song
(Hudson 185,186). He made the move from a primarily charismatic
organization to a more stable and routine fellowship. During this
year, Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright (who were known as the parents of
the church) decided that it was now time for the true Shakers to
separate themselves from the world (Andrews TPCS 56). This separation
was due to two things: the first was that of "persecution and
religious conviction," and the second reason was that only with
separation from a sinful world could one "realize the hope of
salvation and perfection, complete freedom to obey the laws of God."
(Andrews/Andrews 24). So Meacham decided "to make New Lebanon the
first 'gathered' Shaker community, the model upon which all subsequent
communities would be patterned." It was also made the first
headquarters of the English Shakers (Foster 36).
Under Meacham's leadership, the Shakers experienced a surge in
membership with the onset of the Second Great Awakening (Hudson 186).
Within seven years, eleven communities with over 2000 members had been
formed. These communities were in Watervliet (Niskeyuna), New York
(1787); Mount Lebanon, New York (1787); Hancock, Massachusetts (1790);
Harvard, Massachusetts (1791); Enfield, Connecticut (1790); Tyringham,
Massachusetts (1792); Alfred, Maine (1793); Canterbury, New Hampshire
(1792); Enfield, New Hampshire (1793); Shirley, Massachusetts (1793);
and Sabbathday Lake, Maine (1794) (Morse xvii). A second period of
growth started in 1805 when Shaker missionaries were sent out to the
West to reap converts from the Kentucky revivals. Throughout the
Shaker history, twenty-four communities were established. Of the
twenty-four communities, twenty-one of them were established by 1826
(Morse xvii), which was the peak of Shaker membership totaling around
5000 people (Sasson 10). The last Shaker community to go out of
existence was the third one, (Hancock, Massachusetts) which went out
of existence in 1960. Mount Lebanon, New York (1947) and Watervliet,
New York (1938) were the first two colonies established, and two of
the last three to close (Morse xvii).
The Shakers can be classified as charismatic in nature. The
earlier Shakers, up until the leadership was taken over by Joseph
Meacham, were a wild, unorderly, unorganized free-for-all. An average
worship service was described as such:
"When they meet together for their worship, they fall a groaning
and trembling, and everyone acts alone for himself; one will fall
prostrate on the floor, another on his knees and his head in his
hands; another will be muttering inarticulate sounds, which neither
they or any body else can understand. Some will be singing, each one
his own tune; some without words, in an Indian tune, some sing jig
tunes, some tunes of their own making, in an unknown mutter which they
call new tongues; some will be dancing, and others stand laughing,
heartily and loudly; others will be drumming on the floor with their
feet, as though a pair of drum sticks were beating the ruff on a drum-
head; others will be agonizing, as though they were in great pain;
others jumping up and down; others fluttering over somebody, and
talking to them; others will be shooing and hissing evil spirits out
of the house, till the different tunes, groaning, jumping, dancing,
drumming, laughing, talking and fluttering, shooing and hissing, makes
a perfect bedlam; this they call the worship of God." (Andrews TPCS
In such worship it is said that the participants were not in
control of themselves, but were under spirit control. The Shakers
felt that as they shook, sin would be shaken right out of their
After Meacham's takeover of leadership, he changed the worship
from what is mentioned above to an orderly, organized type of dance
with song. The dances were symbolic; upturned palms represented the
receiving of divine blessings through the hands, where the shaking of
downturned hands represented the shaking out of sin and evil through
the finger tips (Ferguson 335,336).
(1) CELIBACY - Celibacy was to be followed since sexual intercourse
was the root of all evil. As Ann saw in her vision in prison, the
forbidden fruit in the garden was carnal sexual intercourse between
Adam and Eve. This is what corrupted all of mankind, and until it is
stopped, there can be no triumph over sin. They used Luke 20:34-36 to
justify this (Foster 16).
(2) CONFESSION - The first step toward spiritual progress was the
confession of sins which was done to either an Elder or Eldress. This
was an oral confession, the very first one of which was done before
the leadership. This was a very serious matter and confessions could
take days or even weeks to finish (Sasson 11), and in some cases years
(3) REGENERATION - Regeneration was obtained by works (Andrews TPCS
(4) SEPARATION - Only through separation could one "realize the hope
of salvation and perfection, complete freedom to obey the laws of
God." (Andrews/Andrews 24).
(5) REVELATION - Believed in continuous revelation to members (Andrews
(6) DUAL DEITY - That there is a Father-Mother God, or male and female
sides of God of equal deity (Andrews TPCS 158).
(7) DUAL MESSIAHSHIP - That "Christ became the second Adam and Ann
became the second Eve, thus restoring the race, both male and female,
to perfect purity." (Ferguson 324). She was Christ in female form.
"She was the one in whom dwelt the Divine Mother." (Ferguson 324).
Mother Ann called herself "Ann the Word" and said that she was married
to the Lord Jesus Christ (Andrews TPCS 12).
(8) EQUALITY OF THE SEXES - A logical attribute of male and female
(9) MILLENNIAL KINGDOM - They believed that the millennium was
imminent and that their good works could further the kingdom (Sasson
(10) MEMBERSHIP - New members had to follow the Millennial Laws.
People seeking entrance were put into one of two groups, either the
Novitiate Order for those who had been married and the Junior Order
for those who had not been married. A one year waiting period or
trial period was required to sever all matrimonial ties by common
consent, and to settle all debts. Families were then separated from
each other and parents of the children could only see them privately
once a year for a brief time in the presence of an elder (Holloway
(NOTE: The foregoing doctrines are the more important ones of many.
These doctrines were called by the Shakers "Millennial Laws" by which
they were to live since they were in the millennial kingdom. These
Millennial Laws covered things from how to treat animals up to their
gospel of celibacy.)
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