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The United Society of Believers in Christs Second Appearance: Unraveling the Shaker Myth

The Height of the Shakers

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Late 1820's - 1880's and 90's

The late 1820’s and early 1830’s represents the beginning of the height of Shakerism in America. Leadership within the society had been passed to the third generation of American Shakers. Unlike the leaders who had come before them, none of the new leaders emerged as a dominate figure within the society. This new generation of leaders depended less on claims of spiritual authority and more on “structured relationships defined by explicit functions and responsibilities”.[i] The necessity of this change in leadership was due largely in part to the fact that the geographical distance made it difficult to rely solely on personal relationships. During this time the central ministry was strengthened. At the height of Shakerism the order that had been established during the earlier times, while it still played a major role in the day to day activities of the communities, became slightly relaxed. The order was dictated by work and season, yet believers were still able to establish their own unique personalities and friendships.

 

At this time the Shakers were also building their reputation as having an excellent work ethic. Even with the self- sufficient logic of Shaker religion, they were not immune to economic system of the United States. While most villages were able to successfully able to sustain the village on the crops they raised, there were cases where location, season, or weather might prevent them from growing enough crops to meet the needs of their community. There was almost always a need for supplies such as sugar, coffee, or butter, which had to be purchased from the outside world. For the majority of villages, farming was simply a way in which to provide for the community. However, the Shakers also became well-known for the quality of their seeds and were able to market their product to farmers with great success. In addition to selling seeds, the Shakers also sold herbs. Little by little the Shakers began using their various skills to develop profitable economic activities.

 

The Shakers were affected by various influences from the outside world. One example of this can be seen in the willingness of the society to embrace the views of Sylvester Graham. Graham was a Presbyterian minister and health reformer who believed that many of the problems in American society were a result of the consumption of refined flour. In the mid-1830’s several Shaker communities began to follow Graham’s recommended diet which called for the use of whole flour, no coffee, tea, or chocolate, as well as the elimination of rich and highly seasoned foods and meat. This trend was short-lived and the Shakers soon returned to their usually hearty diet. The 1830’s are also significant as it is the time known as the Era of Manifestation. During the Era of Manifestation, there was a rise in visions from various spirits throughout the Shaker community. These visions inspired various gift songs and art that are still part of Shakerism today.

 

During the height of Shakerism many communities had the task of caring for children who had come to the Shakers in a variety of ways. Some entered the community as part of a family, others were given to the Shakers by their parents who could no longer care for them, and still others were orphans and homeless. The Shakers hoped that by bringing these children up in the Shaker way that they would join the community when they came of age. The children were well cared for and well educated. However, as the 19th century drew to a close, fewer and fewer Shaker children were choosing to remain with the community as adults.

 

In 1874 there were fifty-eight families in the Shaker religion, located in eighteen different sites stretching from Kentucky to Maine, with a grand total of 2,415 Shaker members. However, as the Shakers began to approach the twentieth century, those numbers began to dwindle. The decline is believed to be the result of geographical retreat, economic hardship, and growing interest in the changing outside world on the part of many. The increased decline brought the high period of Shakerism to the beginning of an end.



[i] Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience In America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 123.