Religious History Sunday – American Utopian Experiments: Shakerism in America

When the Shakers had raised enough funds, they purchased land in western New York State near Albany, naming it “Niskeyuna”.  It was the first official Shaker settlement in America.  Because the group landed in America near the time of the Revolutionary War, they had to defend their pacifist beliefs by refusing to support either side in the War.

Building the flock was not an easy task – they endured mockery, beatings and even imprisonment.  On May 19, 1780, Mother Ann delivered her first public testimony – dramatically accented by the occurrence of the “Dark Day”.  On that day in New England around noon, the sky darkened – went black as midnight and continued through the afternoon and night (the sun returned the next day).

Many attributed the darkness to the Judgment of God.  Issachar Bates, a Revolutionary War veteran who later converted to Shakerism (the son of a Presbyterian minister and himself a former Baptist minister) described that day in his autobiography:

There were neither clouds nor smoke in the atmosphere, yet the sun did not appear…No work could be done in the houses without a candle! … The darkness covered the whole of the land of New England!  And what next, right on the back of this came on the Shakers!  And that made it darker yet …. it was singing, dancing, shouting, shaking, speaking with tongues, turning, preaching, prophesying, and warning the world to confess their sins and turn to God.

Bates was tempted at that time to join the Shakers but resisted for awhile, later joining the group and helping to establish a Shaker community in Kentucky.  That first “testimony” of Mother Ann made a great impression, given the events of the day.  With her charismatic leadership, membership increased.  Many came to believe her to be the female embodiment of Christ.

About this time, the Revolutionary War was spreading into that area of western New York and rumors began to spread that the Shakers were British sympathizers, perhaps even hiding British spies.  Mother Ann commanded her followers to “arm yourselves only with meekness and patience.”  Given the growing fervor of engaging the British in that region, her group’s pacifist views were not welcome.  In July of 1780, she and other members were arrested and put in prison — all had refused to take an oath of allegiance and fight in the War.  Mother Ann was later released and continued her work.

Beginning in 1781, Mother Ann Lee began a missionary tour of New England seeking new converts.  She was often met by violent mobs, even suffering violence herself.  After growing frail, at the age of 48, Mother Ann Lee the dynamic leader of the Shakers – an illiterate blacksmith’s daughter — died in 1784.

Leadership of the movement was passed onto others and the movement continued to establish communities in various places, some as far west as Kentucky.  The movement probably benefited from the effects of The Second Great Awakening as well.

By 1850 the dynamism of Shakerism began to wane.  Many of the leaders through the years had died and with the group’s belief in celibacy (one way the movement grew was by taking in orphans), numbers began to dwindle.  By 1932, several communities had been closed.  Today, one lone surviving community exists in Maine called Sabbathday Lake.  That group still accepts new members, although adoption of orphans is no longer allowed by law.  Every year on the first Sunday in August, “Mother Ann Day” is observed and celebrated to remember the arrival of the English Shakers in 1774.

Some of the things that are most remembered (and perhaps some that are not so well known) about the Shakers are the following:


Shakers believe in simplicity, hard work and clean lines – a piece of Shaker furniture is instantly recognizable by its careful craftsmanship.

shaker rockerThe “Heart-in-Hand” Symbol

The symbol was used by the Shakers (as well as the Oddfellows).  One of Mother Ann’s mottos was “put your hands to work and your hearts to God”.

heart-in-handSpace-saving Innovations

Depicted below is the concept of using pegs as a space-saving method.

shaker pegs

Inventions and Innovations

Circular Saw

In 1810, a Shaker woman named Tabitha Babbitt invented the circular saw.  Tabitha was a weaver and she observed that with the two-handled saw used by the men of her Shaker community in Massachusetts, the motion of the forward stroke was the only one accomplishing actual results – the return stroke was useless.  She thought this to be wasted energy and designed a circular saw by attaching a circular blade to her spinning wheel – each and every movement produced results.  She never applied for a patent, however (against Shaker beliefs).

According to the book “Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology” (p. 341), Tabitha Babbitt also shares the invention of cut nails with Eli Whitney, as well as developing an alternative method for making false teeth.

Clothes Peg

One-piece wooden clothes pegs were invented in a Shaker community in the 1700s.  Again, the Shakers never patented their inventions and later others improved upon the design.

shaker clothes pegModern Flat Broom

Originally brooms were assembled by attaching a round bundle of broomcorn to the handle.  The Shakers invented the flat broom by securing the broomcorn with a wire, sewn tight and flattened with a vice.

ancient broom (thnkstock)shaker broom


Shaker architecture, like their furniture, was built without ornamentation – simple, clean lines, with maximum functionality.  Their barns were round (although they didn’t invent round barns), making it easier to feed and care for the cattle.  The Shakers built large communal dwellings (single men and women were segregated in separate housing).

1830-Brick-Dwelling_hancock shaker village websiteHewlett-Packard

The volume of historical data on the Shakers is immense, and there is no way I could write about it all in one blog article.  The internet and local and college libraries would be excellent resources for research.  For instance, via an internet search I found a copy of Issachar Bates’ autobiography that would shed light on the events of that period of history as it related to the Shakers and their beliefs and the spread of their movement.

Note:  If you missed last week’s article on the beginnings of Shakerism in England, click here.

Another great resource for learning more about the Shakers is to view Ken Burns’ PBS documentary which originally aired in 1985.  You can find it in the Amazon Instant Video library.

Next Week:  Short-Lived American Utopian Communities, Part I

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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 © Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2013.


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