Minimalists in History: The Shakers


“The Shakers, at their essence, are ordinary people who made an extraordinary choice to gather together in community in order to live a principled life.”

– Hancock Shaker Village

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing was founded in England in 1747. Its members were derisively called “Shaking Quakers” because of their dancing and shaking during worship. This was later shortened to “Shakers.”

Ann Lee became leader of the group in 1770, adopting the title of “Mother.” In 1774, Mother Ann brought a small group of followers to New York. While the Society soon faded away in England, it prospered in America.

At its peak, several thousand Shakers lived in ten states: Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Florida and Georgia.

“They were certain God’s kingdom had come and they were living in it, unmarried and unsullied as angels.”

– Flo Morse

The Shakers’ central beliefs were celibacy, communal living, confession of sin and separation from the outside world. They believed in pacifism as well as sexual and racial equality. Believers valued self-sufficiency, hard work and simplicity.

The only way for the faith to grow, given the celibacy requirement, was conversion. Shakers allowed families to join so long as the parents became celibate. Men and women lived apart, and their children were raised communally.

The Shakers also cared for orphans. When they reached adulthood, they could either join the community or return to “the world.”

“The children of this world…set their hearts upon such things [gold, jewels, etc.]; but the people of God do not want them.”

– Ann Lee

Like the Puritans and Quakers, Shakers valued hard work, and their communities prospered. Believing that God dwelt in the quality of their craftsmanship, Shakers created reliable and well made products that those “in the world” were eager to buy.

As with all property, the community, rather than the members, owned the money Shakers earned from selling to the outside world. The elders decided how and when to spend it.

Shakers embraced technology because it saved their energy for worship. It’s said that the Shakers invented the flat broom we use today, clothespins, washing machines with powered agitators and many other labor-saving devices. In addition, they were the first to sell packaged seeds.

Although the Shakers lived apart from the outside world, they embraced its inventions as well. There was, however, a long process for obtaining approval of items “from the world.” This helped keep the Shakers’ lives simple, even while they were able to adopt useful innovations.

“Let it be plain and simple, of good and substantial quality, unembellished by any superfluities which add nothing to its goodness or durability.”

– Shaker saying

The Shakers believed in simplicity without adornment. They appreciated beauty, however, believing that beauty rested in utility. You’re probably familiar with the Shakers’ simple but lovely architecturefurniture and oval boxes.

While conducting research for this post, I learned that my mental image of Shaker lives as somewhat drab was completely wrong. It turns out that recent scientific analysis shows that much of their furniture, as well as rooms and clothing, was brightly colored.

“The Christian’s task is to live in the present moment and not to store for tomorrow the bread that comes from heaven.”

– Shaker Village at Sabbathday Lake

Due to its strict rules and the lack of procreation, the Shaker religion has nearly died out. Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine, is the only remaining active Shaker Community.

As of this past February, the community had 3 members. That is not a typo. There are only 3 Shakers left in the world.

Not just anyone can join. According to Brother Arnold, only those between the ages of 21 and 50, unmarried, in sound mind and body and free of debt and dependents, are accepted as new members.

Interestingly, the love of technology continues, and despite the life of simplicity, the few remaining Shakers enjoy TV and the Internet.

Want to Learn More?

For more historical information, read The Story of the Shakers, by Flo Morse, and/or  The Shaker World: Art, Life, Belief by John T. Kirk. The Morse book has an interesting discussion of spiritualism in Shaker history, as well as information about Shakers in the 1980s. The Kirk book is more detailed and has a lot of photos.

8 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: The Shakers

  1. Hi Christy, Thanks for another informative and entertaining post! Don’t you just love Shaker craftsmanship? So simple and yet so beautiful!

    I live in Massachusetts. In Harvard, MA there is a great place called Fruitlands. They have a Shaker Museum there as well as other wonderful small museums, a restaurant, and a great view (Mt. Wachusett).

    • You must enjoy living among so much history. As you know, I’m out west, so we miss all of that early colonial history. We’ve been enjoying the Oregon Trail History, the Mormon Trail, Lewis & Clark, etc., though.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.