With the upcoming release of The Shaker Murders in two weeks, I thought I’d review some of the facts about the Shakers.
First, they are still in existence, but there are very few. Although there were eleven when I began my research, there are only three now. These three live in Sabbathday Lake in Maine, near Alfred. They live as the Shakers have always lived, although the schoolhouse is now a library/repository of Shaker history.
Begun by Mother Ann Lee in the 1700’s, they are in effect an evangelical offshoot of the Quakers. (The name Shakers means Shaking Quakers). Ann Lee brought her small band to the new country from Great Britain in 1774. They set up their first colony just outside of Albany, calling it Niskayuna. The remnants of it are still there although the fields are now under the Albany airport.
The Shakers were celibate and men and women were separated. It was a top down organization and each ‘Family’ was run by two Elders and two Eldresses who were themselves under the main headquarters. (Later on that was New Lebanon in New York.)
Perhaps because their spiritual inspiration came from a woman, from the first, men and women were of equal importance. Eldresses were of equal clout in running the community. (This in a time when women could not inherit from their husbands unless he specifically named her in his will. Otherwise, she was in the care of her eldest son.) To keep their numbers up, they took in apprentices as well as orphans. Boys were taught to read, write and ‘figure’ in the winter while girls were educated in the summer. (Another difference from the outside world. Illiteracy was epidemic and girls especially were not taught to read.) By the time the children grew up, they knew how to run a farm as well.
The work was divided along gender lines, with the Brothers working outside and the Sisters doing the cooking, cleaning and so on. They also made whips and brooms (the Shakers had the patents on a number of items including the round broom and the humble clothespin), sold seeds and had a very profitable business in herbs, primarily medicinal. As anyone who has priced Shaker furniture knows, it is very costly. But it is perfect. The Shakers soon developed a reputation for perfection. They had a saying: ” Hands to work, hearts to God”. Work was valued and good work served to honor God. An imperfect job could not be offered to Him.