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popular name for members of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, also called the Millennial Church. Members of the movement, who received their name from the trembling produced by religious emotion, were also known as Alethians. The movement originated in a Quaker revival in England in 1747, and was led by James and Jane Wardley. However, the sect, then known as the Shaking Quakers, grew strong only after the appearance of Ann LeeLee, Ann,
1736–84, English religious visionary, founder of the Shakers in America. Born in Manchester, she worked there in the cotton factories and then became a cook. In 1762 she was married to Abraham Stanley, a blacksmith. In 1758 she had joined the "Shaking Quakers.
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. Imprisoned for her zeal, she believed herself the recipient of the mother element of the spirit of Christ. Following a vision, she and eight followers emigrated (1774) to New York state and in 1776 founded a settlement at Watervliet, near Albany. Mother Ann, as she was known, gained a number of converts, who after her death (1784) began the formation of Shaker communities. The community at Mt. Lebanon, N.Y., founded in 1785, became the largest and most important Shaker center. By 1826 there were 18 Shaker communities in eight states, as far west as Indiana. After 1860, the church began to decline; by 2000 it was almost nonexistent, with a tiny community at Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine, constituting the only active Shaker village in the country.

One of the fundamental doctrines of the society was belief in the dual nature of the Deity. The male principle was incarnated in Jesus; the female principle, in Mother Ann. Other tenets were celibacy, open confession of sins, communal ownership of possessions in the advanced groups, separation from the world, pacifism, equality of the sexes, and consecrated work. Singing, dancing, and marching characterized phases of Shaker worship. The community was organized into groups, called families, of between 30 and 90 individuals. The believers donated their services and possessions but were always free to leave. Shaker furniture and handcrafts are noted for their fine design and crafting.


See E. D. Andrews and F. Andrews, Shaker Furniture (1937, repr. 1964) and The People Called Shakers (2d ed. 1963); J. G. Shea, American Shakers and Their Furniture (1970); H. C. Desroche, The American Shakers (tr. 1971); P. J. Brewer, Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives (1986); S. J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America (1992); S. Skees, God among the Shakers (1998).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Shakers/United Society of Believers

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

During the eighteenth century many Christian communities, sects, cults, and denominations were formed, each with its own expressive way of interpreting the Gospel.

In Manchester, England, a group led by James Wardley broke off from a Quaker community (see Quakers/Religious Society of Friends) because they wanted to practice a form of religious expression foreign to Quaker tradition. They believed in the ideals of simplicity and gender equality beloved by Quakers, but their services were often interrupted as members experienced ecstatic dance and trembling when filled with the Holy Spirit. Because of this habit, they became known as "Shaking Quakers." Understandably for the time, they were soon the objects of persecution and harassment.

One of the founders of the group was a young woman known as Ann Lee. During a long imprisonment she experienced a vision in which it was revealed to her that she was the Second Coming of Christ, the female component of "God the Father/Mother." Upon her release, "Mother Lee," as she came to be called, became the leader of the movement.

With a theology so radically different from mainstream Protestantism, the group, now called Shakers, were forced to immigrate to the United States, home of many diverse sects and cults. They arrived in New York City in May of 1774, gained some converts, and started a commune in Watervliet, New York.

Their timing couldn't have been worse. Persecution intensified, first because the Shakers were different, second because the bumptious Revolutionary War spirit so prevalent in America at this time was often directed at anyone who had recently come over from England, and third because the Shakers were pacifists.

They might have simply disappeared into history, forgotten like so many other small Christian cults, were it not for a religious revival called the New Light Stir that swept across New England beginning about the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Other independent but like-minded sects united with the Shakers, impressed by the preaching of Mother Lee, who traveled and taught extensively in the western portions of Massachusetts and surrounding states. She died in 1784 having accomplished what she had set out to do. The Shaker religion was now firmly entrenched.

It wasn't just due to Mother Lee, however. "Father John" Meachim recognized early on the attraction many people had for Shaker furniture, music, dancing, and books, all of which demonstrated simple design and flawless craftsmanship. These industries began to finance the organization and served as marketing tools.

And it was good that they did, because the only way the Shaker religion was going to grow was by making converts. They couldn't "grow their own" like other religions because they practiced absolute celibacy. According to Mother Lee, sex was a gift given only for reproduction. It constituted the original sin in the Garden of Eden. The only way to grow spiritually was to return to the uncorrupted state of Adam and Eve before they started fooling around with something God had intended only as a reproductive duty.

Needless to say, no babies have ever been born into the Shaker religion. That tends to keep the numbers down.

By the 1880s Shakers had peaked in terms of numbers. They became sort of a tourist attraction that "worldly people" could observe. Their furniture and music were certainly in great demand. Ironically, there may have been more complicated musical arrangements of the Shaker tune "Simple Gifts" than of any other song. No less a luminary than Leonard Bernstein tried his hand. But probably Aaron Copland's ballet music, Appalachian Spring, takes the prize for the most musically complex and embellished setting of a tune written to celebrate simplicity. On the other hand, thanks to Martha Graham's choreography, at least people dance to it. Mother Lee would have appreciated that.

But all good things come to an end. Industrialization caught the fancy of the American public, and mass-produced chairs soon replaced the handcrafted Shaker furniture so sought after today by antique dealers. During the twentieth century the Shakers retreated into small communities, cutting way down on their contact with outsiders. In 1965 the group decided to accept no new members. Only two small communities, one in New Hampshire and the other in Maine, now remain. A few new members were received into the Maine community at Sabbath Lake during the 1990s, but some original members refused to recognize them. So, very soon, the Shakers will have no remaining presence save for their historical legacy and museum displays.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


celibate religious sect flourishing in 19th-century U.S. [Am. Hist.: EB, IX: 105]

Shakers (or Alethians)

received their name from the trembling produced by excesses of religious emotion; because of doctrine of celibacy, Shakers are all but extinct. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1938]


sect believing in virgin purity. [Christian Hist.: Brewer Note-book, 819]
See: Prudery
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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