Who Were the Shakers and What Did They Believe?

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This religious sect is responsible for the elegant and simple furniture design we know as Shaker Style. Where did they come from and what did they believe?

The real name of the sect known as the Shakers is The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.

Shaker History and Faith

The Shakers were a religious sect that began in Manchester, England by Ann Lee and brought to America in 1774. They were called Shakers or Shaking Quakers because of their propensity to dance and shake during worship.

Ann Lee came to be known as Mother Ann and was believed, by her followers, to be the female counterpart of Christ. She preached that one could achieve perfection and be free of sin. She also referred to herself as “Ann the Word” The tenets of the faith include passivism, celibacy, communal property, confession of sin and equality between men and women in all things.

In order to prevent any impure thoughts toward the opposite sex the communities were segregated. There were separate homes for men and women. Because of their strict adherence to celibacy, the Shakers adopted children and took in orphans on a regular basis to keep their communities thriving.

Shaker Furniture and Design Principles

They obeyed the Millennial Laws of the Shaker Society. These laws dictated the form of design in objects as well as architecture to promote serenity and order. Their goal was to create simple, efficient designs that were elegant and useful. The idea of creating the Millennial Kingdom on earth was at the core of their efforts. That is why throughout all Shaker villages and embodied in the design of their furniture and architecture you will see the same symmetry and design attributes.

Shaker Inventions and Contributions

The Shakers were well known for their work ethic and quality products. They had a passion for technology and are responsible for many inventions including the circular saw, the clothes pin, a steam powered washing machine, and a rotating oven that could bake 60 pies at a time. They had mills and electric power houses and pump houses. They were among the first to own cars and cameras. In fact it is their fascination with photography that has preserved the history of the early years of the Shaker communities and their members. Their most well known hymn "Simple Gifts" was popularized by Aaron Copeland in "Appalachian Spring"

They were largely autonomous and were able to sell their agricultural and craft products in their gift shops. They were farmers, artists, inventors, carpenters, weavers, musicians and composers. Entertainment was also embraced and there are photographs of plays that they would perform in their communities of both religious and secular subjects.

The Shaker utopian life was, however, not sustainable. With the advent of state run orphanages and the lack of adult converts the numbers dwindled quickly after the Civil War. Membership into the Shaker Society was officially closed in 1965.

As of December 2009 there were only three remaining Shakers at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

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