The Shakers

Mother Ann Lee, the spiritual leader of the Believers in the Second Appearance of Christ or the “Shaking Quakers” in Manchester, England, brought eight followers to America in 1774 in search of religious freedom. They established their first permanent settlement near Albany, New York. During the 19th century, Shaker membership grew to about 6,000 converts living in 24 settlements throughout New England, the Midwest, and the South.  The Shaker movement in America was characterized by communal living, celibacy, confession of sins, pacifism, belief in the equality of all people, and daily living designed to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Shakers were known for inventiveness, outstanding craftsmanship, industriousness, and spirituality, as epitomized by their motto “Put your hands to work and your hearts to God.” Today Shaker life and crafts are preserved by museums at former Shaker sites, as well as at the remaining three members at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Shaker Inventions and Innovations

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, popularly referred to as the Shakers, is generally known more for the goods that they produced than for their religious beliefs. Shakers are also remembered for an impressive array of innovations, inventions, and timesaving devices that were developed for their communal labor and industries. However, these goods—and the industries that developed around them—are a reflection of the religious principles that underlie every aspect of Shaker life.

Life of the diligent Shaker sectResting on the core belief that it was their responsibility to build “Heaven on Earth,” the quality and design of Shaker goods is intricately tied to their unique concept of stewardship. Shakers believed that everyone was endowed with certain gifts and talents; each person was accountable to develop and use these gifts, and do their best in every task they undertook. The process of creation was a form of worship. This was realized in the level of craftsmanship and care employed in the making of goods for communal use and retail sale.

The development of businesses and industries that created these goods was a byproduct of the Shakers’ decision to isolate themselves from the political and religious pressures of the outside world. When forming communal societies, the Shakers were quickly met with the challenges of providing for each Believer’s daily needs. Strategies for survival prompted innovation and invention. New tools and methods were implemented in order to ease the tasks of feeding, clothing, and providing for the general needs of a large group of people. Never able to become truly self-sufficient, the processes and technologies developed to meet the needs of the community were then incorporated into revenue-generating businesses and industries including their herbal medicine industry and their seed packaging industry. All profits from the sale of these Shaker goods were returned to the community—thereby sustaining their existence.

The objects that remain tell a story of the many economic endeavors undertaken by the Shakers in order to live in complete devotion to their faith and speak to the creativity, innovation, and industrious spirit employed by the Shakers. While Shakers may be remembered primarily for the goods that they produced, these objects are a reflection of the qualities that fueled the survival of Shaker communities for nearly two centuries.

The North Union Shakers

The Ritual Dance of the ShakersThe North Union colony was one of 24 Shaker communities nationwide.  Known as “The Valley of God’s Pleasure,” it was one of the last colonies to be formed. The settlement was originally located in what is today Shaker Heights and portions of Cleveland Heights.  It was established in 1822 by Ralph Russell, a settler and land owner in Warrensville Township and included many members of his family and more than 80 of his neighbors.

A unique “Shaker bridge” between eastern and western communities Northeast Ohio, land that was previously unsettled, originally belonged to the state of Connecticut and was referred to as the Western Reserve.  The Western Reserve was an area of land that was given to Connecticut by the United States Congress in recognition of its colonial land claims.  Moses Cleaveland, and company, was sent to survey the area in 1796.  Settlers arrived in the area, and by 1803 Cleaveland’s namesake village had seventeen residents.  Among the first settlers were New Hampshire natives, Daniel and Margaret Warren, and the township surrounding their land was eventually named for them.

In 1812, Jacob Russell and his extended family arrived in Warrensville Township to clear the land and establish farms.  In 1821, Jacob Russell’s son, Ralph, paid a visit to the Shaker community of Union Village in southern Ohio.  Inspired, Ralph Russell returned to Warrensville Township to share his experience.  Learning of his father’s death, Ralph decided to form a new Shaker settlement on his land.  Ralph encouraged his friends, family, relatives, and neighbors to join his community and donate their land, material good, and wealth to his cause.  By 1822, North Union Village or “The Valley of God’s Pleasure”—named for its geographical position relative to Union Village—was founded.  However, by 1828, when the time came to sign the written covenant to officially join the Shakers, Ralph, his wife Laura, and their children left the community.

Shaker Religion

The Shaker religion was founded by Ann Lee, an illiterate blacksmith’s daughter, in Manchester, England.  After an unfulfilling marriage and at least four miscarriages and four unsuccessful childbirths, Ann Lee denounced sexual activity as the root of all sins.  Distancing herself from her sins, Ann Lee threw herself into her religion, a group called the United Society of Believers in the Second Appearing of Christ.  The Believers began to see religion and life as a duality, every aspect having a male and female counterpart.  While many religions were still waiting for the second appearance of Christ, Ann Lee and her followers believed she had come.  Ann Lee was seen as the female counterpart of Christ and was referred to as Mother Ann.  Facing religious persecution, Mother Ann and her followers travelled to America in 1774.

America did not provide the safe haven it had promised.  Mother Ann and her followers were mocked, beaten, dragged through the streets, and imprisoned.  However, the Believers persevered.  They travelled

Shakers during worship

Shakers during worship

throughout New England, into Ohio and as far south as Kentucky gaining converts and establishing communities.  By this time the news of this religion has spread and people came from all over to witness the strange religious manifestations that came in the form of shaking, dancing, and flailing.  These onlookers aptly named them the “Shaking Quakers,” which shortened became the “Shakers.”  In every Shaker community, religious services were held every Sabbath in the meeting house.  Brothers and Sisters would enter through separate doors and take their place at opposite sides of the room.   Most of their worship was singing and dancing.  In the beginning, the dancing was done individually.  Later in the 1800s the dancing became more organized and practiced by the group as a whole.  The complicated steps and interesting formations brought hundreds of people to watch the Shakers dance.

Shaker Beliefs

The Shaker religion is governed by several basic tenets, the most common being communal living, celibacy, confession of sins, and sexual and racial equality.  Upon joining, members were required to give all land, material goods, and wealth to the community as a whole.  Families were separated and familial ties were dissolved.  Members were placed in one of three families—Center, Mill, or East.  These families were located at the ends and in the center of North Union’s linear tract of land.  The family located by the mills was appropriately called the Mill Family; the family located farthest east served as the East Family, or Gather Order, for new converts and children (usually orphans); while the family located in the center of the property was the Center Family.  In all Shaker communities, the Center Family was comprised of the most spiritually advanced members and was in charge of the other two families.  Each family was relatively autonomous and was governed by its own Elder, Eldress, Deacon, and Deaconess.

To best govern their large population, the Shakers were ruled by a document referred to as the Millennial Laws.  Following the prescription of the Millennial Laws, and to maintain sexual equality, men occupied one side of the dwelling houses while women used the other.  Men and women, known as Brothers and Sisters, also used separate stair cases, as well as separate doors into public rooms and dwellings.  They were forbidden to associate except during meetings known as “union meetings,” which were designed specifically to allow for a sanctioned “permissible degree of association” between the genders.

North Union Shaker Industry

Fortunate in their location, North Union thrived.  Its proximity to Cleveland, Ohio’s canal network, and railroads allowed for extensive shipping and trading.  As a result, farming was the principle industry of North Union.  Among the crops raised by the Shakers were corn, flax, linseed, and enormous quantities of potatoes.  Like many other Shaker colonies North Union produced significant quantities of fruit as well.  The village maintained apple, cherry, peach, plum, and pear trees, along with strawberries, currants, huckleberries, and grapes.  From this production, Shaker Sisters were responsible for pickling, canning, and drying these goods for sale.

In part because of its orchards, the North Union Shakers also maintained a large apiary or bee house.  The Shakers kept their bees in newly developed box hives, lining them up against the south wall of the bee house.  The bees entered and exited through slots cut in the wall.

Other flourishing North Union industries include broom-making, livestock breeding, cattle production, sheep and wool production, hog production, hay production, poultry production, blacksmithing, coopering, spinning, weaving, bonnet-making, woodworking, silk production, seed and herb packaging, and tinsmithing among many others.

Shaker Work as Worship

Shakers harvesting their herbsShakers were famous for their hardworking nature.  Members woke early and followed a rigorous daily schedule.  With breakfast at six, lunch at twelve, and dinner at six, the remainder of the day was dedicated to the rotating seasonal work and continuous worship.  Men were responsible for numerous tasks including farming, constructing and repairing buildings, and preserving the grounds.  On the other hand, women were  responsible for duties such as cooking, sewing, and washing.  Brothers and Sisters were responsible for maintaining the many North Union industries which included maple syrup production, bee keeping, horticulture, coopering, milling, gardening, and caring for the dairy herds and apple orchards.  Shaker thought and practice integrated physical life with spiritual life; they were not opposites, but part and parcel of the whole cloth that composed Shaker life.  Work was considered a form of worship, which was why every member of the Shaker community, from the ministry on down, with the exception of the infirm, was required to perform some form of manual labor each day.  Seeing their labor in a religious context, the Shakers believed that a godly life would naturally produce economic success.  Additionally, for the Shakers, manual labor also allowed them the opportunity to release the tension created by following a celibate lifestyle.  Despite their willingness to work, the Shakers took whatever opportunities they could to lighten their work.  As a result, the Shakers were pioneers in developing new technologies and methods of organization to improve their labor and allow them to devote more time to worship.

Shaker Education

The East Family of North Union was responsible for caring for the children of the community.  The Shakers accepted children for several reasons.  Most often children came with parents who sought to join.  However, the Shakers were known to take in orphans, adopt children of poor families, or take in runaways.  The North Union Shaker also accepted children from the poor house in Cleveland.  Not only were Shaker children well cared for, they were also educated.  Subjects included reading, spelling, speaking, arithmetic, and manners.  As was the case in most agricultural communities, boys went to school in the winter and girls in the summer.  It was rumored that Shaker schools were so effective that “non-believers” sent their children to Shaker schools to be educated.  After their classroom education concluded, Shaker children were placed in jobs according to their age and skill.  When the children grew stronger or mastered the skill, they were moved to a different or more difficult task.  When children reached the age of twenty-one, they were given the option to remain with the Shakers.  Unfortunately, less than a quarter of the young adults brought up at North Union chose to remain.

By 1850 at the peak of their membership, about 300 Shakers maintained their buildings and mills, operated a Shaker school, and grew a wide variety of produce.  After their numbers had dwindled, North Union was closed in 1889.  The remaining Shakers were relocated to colonies in Southwestern Ohio.  Their 1,366 acres of land were sold to real estate developers for $316,000, thus ending one utopian village to allow for another — Shaker Heights.  A portion of Shaker land is part of the Shaker Village Historic District.


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