Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

The Shaking Quakers

Gazetter entry


At Manchester, in England,
This blessed fire began, And like a flame in stubble,
From house to house it ran:
A few first receiv'd it,
And their lusts forsake;
And soon their inward power
Brought on a mighty shake.

Millennial Praises 1813

A group of French religious refugees, known as the Camisards, brought a renewed sense of mysticism to the scattered English dissenting sects from 1707 onward. They and their converts toured, gave lectures and brought a new enthusiasm to small groups of seekers up and down the country. One group of Quakers who were enthused by these French prophets was based at Bolton-le-moors 12 miles north of Manchester. Lead by Jane and James Wardley this small group used the techniques of Quaker meetings, but their `silent meditation' was interrupted by 'Mother' Jane's passionate revelations; walking up and down trembling she would declaim the word of God. Because of their dancing and crying out in strange tongues, they were known as the Shaking Quakers.

Trance dance picture

Engraving of Ring Dance,Niskeyuna Shaker Community USA

Attracted to the group was a blacksmith's daughter from Toad Lane (now Todd St) in Manchester. Already known for disrupting church services and disturbing the peace, Ann Standerin a short, stout twenty-two year old would in the ten years from 1758 go from being a lowly member of the Wardleys congregation to Mistress-Messiah and Prophetess of the Sect. The catalyst for this transformation was her marriage to John Lee and subsequent loss of four children. Ann saw the deaths of her children as a series of judgements on her. She reacted with guilt, shame, and an aversion to sex. Avoiding her bed `as if it had been made of embers' night after night she walked the floor in her stocking feet afraid to sleep lest she `awake in hell'. This suffering went on, she denied her self food & drink - that her soul `might hunger for nothing but God.' Her health deteriorated until she became so weak that she had to be fed and supported by others. Finally when she had cleansed herself of the `last remains of human depravity' she experienced a spiritual rebirth. From this point she would rise to lead the sect being known to her followers as the `Bride of the Lamb', `Mother Ann' or 'Ann the Word'. Under Ann's leadership the group grew, holding tumultuous meetings that went on throughout the night. Tales of the strange worship, with shakings, tongue-speaking, and dark prophecies disturbed the neighbourhood. They were accused of fanaticism, heresy, even witchcraft. Ann's condemnation of lust and criticism of the established church for condoning marriage brought her into conflict with the authorities and she suffered numerous arrests. Eventually an accommodation was reached whereby the 'shakers' were left alone so long as they didn't disturb the Sabbath.

In 1772 Ann received a vision from God in which she was told that "a place had been prepared" for them in America. A small band of nine believers emigrated to America in1774 and founded the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. They lived in New York until they could raise enough money to buy a tract of wilderness for themselves in Western New York State, which they called Niskeyuna. Here they built the first Shaker community in America. In numerous visions Mother Ann formulated a basic philosophy for the group - in one vision it was explained to her that sex was the root of all sin, and that to truly serve God, one must be celibate. She came to believe that God was bisexual because both man and woman were made in his image, and that this was duplicated throughout nature. Every living thing, animal or vegetable, had both a male and female component. She herself was seen to be the female component of Christ's spirit representing the second appearance of Christ on earth. This lead to the belief that all people were equal regardless of sex or race. Although men and women in the communities had separate spheres of activity and responsibilities there was a fundamental spiritual and physical equality, an equality which was extended to non-Christians and black and native americans who joined the communities. Following Ann Lee's death, the leadership would pass to both men and women. Other tenets of belief were that they must regularly confess their sins, they must separate themselves from the outside world and that they must live communally. These beliefs would eventually become sets of written rules by which they would guide their lives. The Shakers would go on to become the most successful communal sect in America establishing18 communities. By 1850, they would number almost 4,000 members and over their 200 year history it is estimated that 20,000 Americans spent at least some of their life as Shakers.

Shaker community picture

Engraving of Shirley Shaker Community USA

Today they have become almost better known for their simple designs for houses and furniture than their spiritual practices which included not only elaborate rituals and dances, but prophetic trances, spirit contact, native American chants and the laughing gift. In the `laughing gift' worshippers held their sides and reeled in their chairs till they became exhausted. Spirit birds brought spirit (ie: Invisible) musical instruments and chosen members would march around playing spirit music.
In the mid-19th century using sales techniques usually thought of as modern, such as the mail-order catalogues and showrooms, the Shakers began to sell their furniture in quantity setting up a factory at the Mount Lebanon community. In 1927 a Shaker rocking chair found its way to Denmark, where it caught the eye of one of the most important figures in the Scandinavian modern movement, architect Kaare Klint (1888-1954). When the Danish Co-operative Wholesale Society began to make well designed, attractive, affordable furniture its designers would draw on Shaker examples for inspiration. Scandinavia began exporting its mass-produced furniture to the rest of Europe and the USA in quantity in the 1950s and the style has gained enormous & continuing popularity, most notably through the IKEA chainstores. The Modern movement mantra 'form follows function' would appear to be an echo of the Shakers from almost a century before - "All beauty that has no foundation in use, soon grows distasteful and needs continuous replacement with something new."

In 1871 FW Evans, the ex-Owenite elder from the Mount Lebanon community, made a speaking tour of England where as well as making a number of converts he set up a recruiting office in London under the name of The Progressive Literary & Spiritual Institution. He was of the opinion that `there are many people in England prepared to enter the Order, and a revival of spiritual life is all that is necessary to inaugurate Shaker Communism on British soil’

Historians have extolled Shaker virtues, their lack of vice, co-operative communities, inventiveness, superb craftsmanship, and self-reliance. But a somewhat different story has started to unfold as archaeologists have begun to excavate Shaker rubbish dumps they have found "widespread evidence for violations of the Shakers' own... laws." 'Contraband' found includes: countless beer, whiskey, wine, and perfume bottles; tobacco pipes; pig bones (pork was taboo); and gaudy material items. These items would appear to come from later periods when it appears from their garbage at least that it is hard to tell the Shakers apart from the mass of middle class America.

In 1999 there remained one Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake with only 10 members. Mother Ann, before her death, had a vision that the Shakers would be renewed once they had dropped to five members. The last of the Shakers are awaiting the renewal and continuing to live their utopian lives according to the visions that Ann Lee received over 225 years ago.

Shaker community engraving

Shaker Links:
New Religious Movements - http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/Shakers.html
Hancock Shaker Village - http://www.hancockshakervillage.org/old/shakers.html
Shaker Workshops - http://www.shakerworkshops.com/index.htm
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