The coming end of the Shakers

I live in a small suburb of Cleveland called Shaker Heights. Its name originates in the fact that the land was originally owned by a commune of a religious group known as the North Union Shakers. I had never heard of the Shakers before we moved to this town. The city’s website explains its origins.

The North Union Shakers, a utopian religious sect, settled here in 1822. Known as The Valley of God’s Pleasure, the colony included several mills, farms, a Meeting House, and a school. When Cleveland emerged as an industrial metropolis, the dreams of the North Union Shakers faded. Horseshoe Lake, the Lower Lakes, and a handful of streets were all that remained of the Shaker community.

In 1905, business partners and brothers Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen began purchasing the settlement’s original 1,366 acres to develop a scenic residential suburb. They based their plans on the popular Garden City movement.

Their development – named Shaker Village and incorporated in 1912 – preserved the natural landscape and provided residents with easy access to greater Cleveland on two Rapid transit lines.

The Wikipedia page has a lot more, including the fact that the Shakers broke away from the Quakers and the original official name was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They became known informally as the ‘Shaking Quakers’ and later simply ‘Shakers’ because during their religious services their bodies would quiver in ecstasy.

The Shakers, like many puritanical religious groups, frowned upon sex, and its members lived in dormitories separated by gender and no sex and procreation was allowed. The only way that the group could maintain its numbers or grow was by conversion. Amazingly, despite the no-sex rule, the group flourished at one time though never growing very large. But alas, their numbers started to dwindle and recently came news that one of the last three members had died.

As Ed Simon writes, the Shakers were an interesting offshoot of Christianity, ahead of their time in progressive ideas, especially when it came to gender roles.

Often confused with the far larger denomination of the Quakers (though itself a relatively small sect), the Shakers came from the same milieu of dissenting, radical religious traditions that emerged in 17th and 18th-century Britain. Ann Lee, the religion’s founder, was the daughter of a Manchester, England blacksmith. In 1774 she set out to the wilds of America with the promise of establishing a godly community in the New World. Mother Ann’s experiment became an important chapter in American utopianism, which included groups as varied as the Oneida Community, the Fourierists, the pilgrims at Ephrata and the social experiments of the 1960s.

Like so many other heterodox religious communities that proliferated in early America, Lee saw in the continent an opportunity for remaking society in a more just, egalitarian, and equitable way—including the radical equality of the sexes. Indeed the Shakers understood Christ’s return as being in a feminine form, and they understood their founder to be a messianic “manifestation of divine light.” For the Shakers, God’s gender was always understood as dualistic, as containing both the masculine and the feminine, and leadership was often matriarchal.

But even more crucial than their rich cultural traditions is their witnessing to the possibility of legitimate counter-culture within the machinery of capitalist America. Like the Amish, the Shakers have represented an American counter-tradition that uses the vocabulary and experience of faith as a bulwark against systems of oppression. The Shakers were among the first conscientious objectors to compulsory military service in U.S. history.

That the Shakers, with their pacifism, their communal living, and perhaps most of all their celibacy, seem weird to us is precisely the point. As in the tradition of the radical Reformation they don’t just believe in separation of church and state, they see any collusion between religion and government as a profound rejection of Christ, as rendering all unto Caesar.

The Shakers, in their pious oddity and their strange holiness remain, however small, a crack in the wall that divides us in this increasingly insular, hierarchical, and oppressive era. They rejected the apparatus of state, economy, industry and military.

It is interesting how egalitarian and socialistic early Christian groups were, including the groups that formed in Jesus’s time. Now of course, we have mega-churches that are as militaristic, capitalistic, and anti-egalitarian as one can imagine.


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