Shaker communities

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South Family Building, Harvard Shaker Village, Massachusetts
James E. Irving (1818-1901), Photograph of a group of Shakers - single image
Trustees Office, Shakertown, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

The Shakers are a sect of Christianity which practices celibacy, communal living, confession of sin, egalitarianism, and pacifism. After starting in England, it is thought that these communities spread into the cotton towns of North West England, with the football team of Bury taking on the Shaker name to acknowledge the Shaker community of Bury.The Shakers left England for the English colonies in North America in 1774. As they gained converts, the Shakers established numerous communities in the late-18th century through the entire 19th century. The first villages organized in Upstate New York and the New England states, and, through Shaker missionary efforts, Shaker communities appeared in the Midwestern states. Communities of Shakers were governed by area bishoprics and within the communities individuals were grouped into "family" units and worked together to manage daily activities. By 1836 eighteen major, long-term societies were founded, comprising some sixty families, along with a failed commune in Indiana. Many smaller, short-lived communities were established over the course of the 19th century, including two failed ventures into the Southeastern United States and an urban community in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Shakers peaked in population by the 1840s and early 1850s, with a membership between 4,000 and 9,000. Growth in membership began to stagnate by the mid 1850s. In the turmoil of the American Civil War and subsequent Industrial Revolution, Shakerism went into severe decline. As the number of living Shakers diminished, Shaker communes were disbanded or otherwise ceased to exist. Some of their buildings and sites have become museums, and many are historic districts under the National Register of Historic Places. The only active community is Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine, which is composed of at least three active members.

The first Shaker societies[edit]

The Great Stone Dwelling, Enfield Shaker Village, New Hampshire[1]

The first Shaker community was established north of Albany, and was first called "Niskayuna", a rendering of the Indian name for the land. Later the town they were in was officially named Watervliet. That part of the town of Watervliet is now in the town of Colonie (since 1895), and the name Watervliet is now limited to the city of Watervliet (1896). In addition, Niskayuna is now the name of a town to the northwest. This has led to some confusion, because many historical accounts refer to them as the Niskayuna Shakers, while others refer to them as Watervliet Shakers. The Watervliet Shaker Historic District is where Mother Ann Lee was buried.[2]

By 1780, the missionary work of the Shakers had attracted many new converts. An extensive series of trips throughout New England from 1781 through 1783 brought in followers across the entire region. Converts began appearing in New Lebanon and Canaan, New York; Hancock, Pittsfield, Richmond, Ashfield, Harvard, and Shirley, Massachusetts; and the states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine (then part of Massachusetts), among other locations.

In 1784, Ann Lee and her brother both died, leaving James Whittaker to lead the faith. By 1787, he too had died, and Joseph Meacham assumed the role as leader. Meacham appointed Lucy Wright of Pittsfield to co-lead, and under their auspices they organized a central village in New Lebanon, as well as organizing the original settlement of Watervliet. By 1790, the Hancock Village was also organized. After the formation of the New Lebanon, Watervliet, and Hancock communities, within three years nine more communities would organize in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Settlement growth[edit]

The Shakers built more than 20 settlements that attracted at least 20,000 converts over the next century.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

Village organization[edit]


Shaker communities were grouped into bishoprics, which were governing units. The leadership team, called a ministry, resided in the bishopric's primary community. This ministry consisted of two men known as Elders and two women known as Eldresses. The New Lebanon Bishopric, the primary bishopric unit, was located in New York and included the Mount Lebanon and Watervliet Shaker Villages,[6] as well as, after 1859, Groveland Shaker Village. In addition to its own member communities, the ministry of New Lebanon Bishopric oversaw all other Shaker bishoprics and communes. After New Lebanon closed in 1947, this central Ministry relocated to Hancock Shaker Village, and after the closure of that community in 1960, to Canterbury Shaker Village. When Canterbury closed in 1992, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village remained as the last extant Shaker commune.

Family groups[edit]

A Shaker village was divided into groups or "families." The leading group in each village was the Church Family, and it was surrounded by satellite families that were often named for points on the compass rose. Managing each family was a leadership team consisting of two Elders and two Eldresses. Shakers lived together as brothers and sisters. Each house was divided so that men and women did most things separately. They used different staircases and doors. They sat on opposite sides of the room in worship, at meals, and in "union meetings" held to provide supervised socialization between the sexes. However, the daily business of a Shaker village required the brethren and sisters to interact, as did the dancing and other vigorous activity of their worship services. Though there was a division of labor between men and women, they also cooperated in carrying out many tasks, such as harvesting apples, food production, laundry, and gathering firewood.[7] Every family was designed to be self-supporting with its own farm and businesses, but in times of hardship, other parts of the village, or even other Shaker villages, pitched in to help the afflicted.


Image Site Spiritual name[8] Bishopric[9] City State Dates Historic designation
Alfred Shaker Village Holy Land Alfred[nb 1] Alfred Maine 1793–1931[10] NRHP[11]
Canterbury Shaker Village Holy Ground Canterbury Canterbury New Hampshire 1792–1992[12] NRHP[11]
New Enfield Shaker Village Chosen Vale Canterbury Enfield New Hampshire 1793–1923[13] NRHP[11]
Old Enfield Shaker Village City of Union Hancock Enfield Connecticut 1792–1917[14] NRHP[11]
Gorham Shaker Village Union Branch Alfred Gorham Maine 1808–1819[15]
Groveland Shaker Village Union Branch Groveland[nb 2] Groveland New York 1836–1892[16]
Hancock Shaker Village City of Peace Hancock Hancock and Pittsfield[nb 3] Massachusetts 1790–1960[17] NRHP[11]
Harvard Shaker Village Lovely Vineyard Harvard Harvard Massachusetts 1792–1918[18] NRHP[11]
Mount Lebanon Shaker Village Holy Mount New Lebanon New Lebanon New York 1785–1917[19] NRHP[11]
Narcoosee Shaker Village Olive Branch Union Village Narcoosee Florida 1895–1924[20][nb 4]
New Canaan Shaker Village None New Lebanon New Canaan Connecticut 1810–1812[21]
North Union Shaker Village Holy Grove North Union[nb 5] Cleveland Ohio 1822–1899[22] NRHP[11]
Philadelphia Shakers None Watervliet[nb 6] Philadelphia[nb 7] Pennsylvania 1858–c.1910[23]
Pleasant Hill Shaker Village None Pleasant Hill[nb 5] Harrodsburg Kentucky 1806–1910[24] NRHP[11]
Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village Chosen Land Alfred[nb 1] New Gloucester Maine 1794–present[25] NRHP[11]
Savoy Shaker Village None New Lebanon Savoy Massachusetts 1817–1821[nb 8][26]
Shirley Shaker Village Pleasant Garden Harvard Shirley Massachusetts 1793–1908[27] NRHP[11]
Sodus Bay Shaker Village None New Lebanon Sodus and Huron New York 1826–1836[28]
South Union Shaker Village Jasper Valley South Union[nb 5] South Union Kentucky 1807–1922[29] NRHP[11]
Tyringham Shaker Village City of Love Hancock Tyringham Massachusetts 1792–1875[30] NRHP[11]
Union Village Shaker Village Wisdom's Paradise Union Village[nb 5] Turtlecreek Township Ohio 1805–1912[31]
Watervliet Shaker Village Wisdom's Valley New Lebanon Albany New York 1776–1926[32] NRHP[11]
Watervliet Shaker Village (Ohio) Vale of Peace Union Village[nb 5] Kettering Ohio 1806–1900[33] Marker #6-57[34]
West Union Shaker Village (Busro) None Union Village Busro Indiana 1807–1827[9]
White Oak Shaker Village None Union Village White Oak Georgia 1898–1902[35]
Whitewater Shaker Village Lonely Plain of Tribulation Whitewater[nb 5] New Haven Ohio 1822–1916[36] NRHP[11]

Out-families, short-lived settlements, and missions[edit]

Some organized In addition to the organized communities, other small and very short-lived communities emerged during the history of the Shakers, as well as various missions. These included:

Shaker village tourism[edit]

In the 19th century, hundreds of tourists visited Shaker villages, and many of them later wrote about their experiences there. Outsiders were invariably impressed by Shaker cleanliness, prosperity, and agriculture. Shaker food was delicious, and they were hospitable to outsiders. Shakers had a reputation for honesty and their products were the best of their kind.[43]



  1. ^ a b The Alfred Bishopric was placed under the Canterbury Ministry from 1830 to 1859.[6]
  2. ^ Groveland came under New Lebanon after 1859.[6]
  3. ^ The Hancock Village spread out over Hancock, Pittsfield, and Richmond. In 1950, Eldress Francis Hall moved the Ministry from New Lebanon to Pittsfield.
  4. ^ After the last Shakers left Narcoossee in 1924, it took until 1933 to successfully sell all the property
  5. ^ a b c d e f After 1862, North Union fell under Union Village. After 1889, Union Village oversaw all societies in Kentucky and Ohio.[6]
  6. ^ Watervliet itself was part of the New Lebanon Bishopric, but the Philadelphia Shakers operated under the authority of the Watervliet Village
  7. ^ Unique among Shaker communities, the Philadelphia Shakers were an urban community
  8. ^ Some property in Savoy was retained by the Shakers until the 1880s


  1. ^ "The Great Stone Dwelling". Enfield Shaker Museum. Retrieved 2022-03-14.
  2. ^ Stein 1992, pp. 10–37.
  3. ^ Brewer 1986, p. xx; Stein 1992, p. 114
  4. ^ Wergland 2006, Chapter 2.
  5. ^ Duduit 1992, pp. 32–33.
  6. ^ a b c d Paterwic 2008, p. 18.
  7. ^ Stein 1992, p. 94.
  8. ^ Stein 1992, p. 181.
  9. ^ a b Paterwic 2008, p. 235.
  10. ^ Alfred Shaker Historic District; Paterwic 2008, p. 2
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o National Register of Historic Places.
  12. ^ Canterbury Shaker Village; Paterwic 2008, p. 29
  13. ^ Enfield Shaker Historic District; Paterwic 2008, p. 65
  14. ^ Enfield Shakers Historic District; Paterwic 2008, p. 63
  15. ^ Murray 1994, p. 35.
  16. ^ Paterwic 2008, p. 96.
  17. ^ Paterwic 2008, p. 101.
  18. ^ Harvard Shaker Village Historic District; Paterwic 2008, p. 104
  19. ^ Mount Lebanon Shaker Society.
  20. ^ Murray 1994, p. 235.
  21. ^ Murray 1994, p. 125.
  22. ^ North Union Shaker Site.
  23. ^ National Women's History Museum; Danker 2005, p. 121; Smith 2013, p. 603; Paterwic 2008, p. 171
  24. ^ Shakertown at Pleasant Hill Historic District; Paterwic 2008, p. 174
  25. ^ Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village; Paterwic 2008, p. xx
  26. ^ Murray 1994, p. 95.
  27. ^ Shirley Shaker Village; Paterwic 2008, p. 191
  28. ^ Paterwic 2008, p. 197.
  29. ^ South Union Shakertown Historic District; Paterwic 2008, p. 201
  30. ^ Tyringham Shaker Settlement Historic District; Paterwic 2008, p. 218
  31. ^ Murray 1994, p. 185; Whitewater Shaker Settlement; Paterwic 2008, p. xxi
  32. ^ Watervliet Shaker Historic District.
  33. ^ Ohio Historical Society; Paterwic 2008, p. 229
  34. ^ Ohio Historical Society.
  35. ^ Murray 1994, p. 229.
  36. ^ Whitewater Shaker Settlement; Paterwic 2008, pp. xxi, xxiii
  37. ^ Andrews 1963, pp. 291–293; Stein 1992, p. 19; Paterwic 2008, p. 141; Merchant 2010, p. 248
  38. ^ a b c d Andrews 1963, pp. 291–293.
  39. ^ Paterwic 2008, p. 202.
  40. ^ The San Francisco Call 1895, p. 10; Stein 1992, p. 331; Dowe 1983, pp. 341–342; Powers 1894, p. 110; Anstatt 1894, p. 117
  41. ^ Whitson 1983, p. 24-25.
  42. ^ Stein 1992, p. 502, n. 176; The San Francisco Call 1895, p. 10; Powers 1894, p. 110; Anstatt 1894, p. 117
  43. ^ Wergland 2007; Wergland 2010


Further reading[edit]

  • Bishop, Rufus. Elder Rufus Bishop’s Journals. 2 vols. Peter H. Van Demark, ed. Clinton, N.Y.: Richard W. Couper Press, 2018.
  • Brewer, Priscilla. Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986.
  • Brewer, Priscilla. "The Shakers of Mother Ann Lee," in America's Communal Utopias ed. by Donald E. Pitzer. (1997) pp. 37–56.
  • Burns, Deborah E. Shaker Cities of Peace, Love, and Union: A History of the Hancock Bishopric. U. Press of New England, 1993. 246 pp.
  • Eastman, Harland H. "Alfred, Maine : The Shakers And The Village" (1986).
  • Foster, Lawrence. Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons (1991).
  • Gutek, Gerald and Gutek, Patricia. Visiting Utopian Communities: A Guide to the Shakers, Moravians, and Others. U. of South Carolina Press, 1998. 230 pp.
  • Kelly, Andrew. Kentucky by Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture, with an Emphasis on the Shaker Communities at Pleasant Hill and South Union. University Press of Kentucky, 2015. ISBN 978-0-8131-5567-8
  • Murray, John E. "A Demographic Analysis of Shaker Mortality Trends." Communal Societies. Volume 13 (1993): 22–44.
  • Murray John E. "Determinants of Membership Levels and Duration in a Shaker Commune, 1780–1880". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34 (1995): 35–48. In JSTOR
  • Murray, John E. "The white plague in utopia: tuberculosis in nineteenth-century Shaker communes." Bulletin of the History of Medicine: 1994, volume 68: 278–306; erratum, 510.
  • Paterwic, Stephen. "From Individual to Community: Becoming a Shaker at New Lebanon, 1780–1947." Communal Societies, Volume 11 (1991): 18–33.
  • Paterwic, Stephen J. "Mysteries of the Tyringham Shakers Unmasked: A New Examination of People, Facts, and Figures." Historical Journal of Massachusetts. (Winter 2003).
  • Portman, Rob and Cheryl Bauer. Wisdom's Paradise: The Forgotten Shakers of Union Village. Wilmington, Ohio: Orange Frazer Press, 2004. ISBN 1-882203-40-2. (About the Warren County, Ohio settlement.)
  • Pushkar-Pasewicz, Margaret. "Kitchen Sisters and Disagreeable Boys: Debates over Meatless Diets in Nineteenth-Century Shaker Communities." in Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias. Etta M. Madden and Martha L. Finch, eds. University of Nebraska Press, 2006. pp. 109–24.
  • Rotundo, Barbara. "Crossing the Dark River: Shaker Funerals and Cemeteries." Communal Societies. Volume 7 (1987): 36–46.
  • Sasson, Diane. "Individual Experience, Community Control, and Gender: The Harvard Shaker Community During the Era of Manifestations," Communal Societies 13 (1993): 45–70.
  • Shaker Autobiographies, Biographies and Testimonies, 1806-1907. 3 vols. Glendyne Wergland and Christian Goodwillie, eds. London, England: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.
  • Sprigg, June. Simple Gifts: Lessons in Living from a Shaker Village. New York: Random House, 1998.
  • Stiles, Lauren A. "'Rather Than Ever Milk Again': Shaker Sisters' Refusal to Milk at Mount Lebanon and Watervliet—1873–1877." American Communal Societies Quarterly. Volume 3.1 (2009):13–25.
  • Thurman, Suzanne R. "O Sisters Ain't You Happy?": Gender, Family, and Community among the Harvard and Shirley Shakers, 1781–1918. Syracuse University Press, 2002. pp. 262.
  • Thurman, Suzanne. "'No idle hands are seen': The Social Construction of Work in Shaker Society." Communal Societies. Volume 18 (1998): 36–52.
  • Wergland, Glendyne R. Sisters in the Faith: Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
  • Wertkin, Gerard C. The Four Seasons of Shaker Life: An Intimate Portrait of the Community at Sabbathday Lake. Photographs by Ann Chwasky. Simon & Schuster, 1986. pp. 189.
  • Youngs, Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton Youngs’s Concise View of the Millennial Church. Glendyne Wergland and Christian Goodwillie, eds. Clinton, N.Y.: Richard W. Couper Press, 2017.

External links[edit]