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Volume 12 (2016)

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Patterns of Female Leadership in the Massachusetts Shaker Communities, 1770-1820

Walter H. Conser, Jr.
University of North Carolina Wilmington

For scholars of American religion concerned with the experience of women, the Shaker movement is fascinating. One of the best known and longest lasting religious communal groups in American history, the Shakers first established their communities in the Northeast in the late eighteenth century; by the mid-nineteenth century their societies stretched from Maine to the Ohio River Valley.  Celibacy and an insistence on the ontological dualism of God as male and female were their doctrinal signatures and orderliness, communalism, and equality between men and women shaped their daily life. Exploring these prominent characteristics, this essay will examine patterns of female leadership in the early years of Shaker communal life in Massachusetts and the complex meanings of this leadership in these communities. [1]

Coming to America from England in 1774, the Shakers, or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, as they were more formally known, settled in New York and New England under the direction of their leader, Ann Lee.  Scholars debate the sources of Shaker ideology and practice in England, with French Camisards and English Quakers leading the list. However, all agree that Ann Lee was the organizing power in America and that by the time of their arrival she was given the honorific by which she was subsequently known—Mother Ann Lee. [2]

The Shaker communities in Massachusetts—Hancock, Harvard, Tyringham, and Shirley—were all established in the 1790s and provided an organizational anchor for early generations of Shakers. The villages at Harvard and Shirley served as headquarters for Mother Ann during the early years of her public ministry in America and the other Massachusetts communities were important throughout this era of Shaker history. If one wished to sketch a portrait of these Massachusetts Shakers settlements, it would go something like this: rural communities, some 40 to 150 miles west of Boston with farming, dairy production, saw mills and orchards providing their economic base. One historian described daily life in the villages in these words, “the rhythm of Shaker life was calm as work, worship, food and sleep succeeded one another with predictable regularity.”  Between 1790 and 1820, there were a total of 1,700 members in the four Massachusetts communities, with an average size of 425. The percentage of males in these Massachusetts Shaker communities was 34-42% with an average of 38%. In other words, women outnumbered men. Moreover, women remained committed to the Shaker life in higher numbers than men as well, with 50-75% of adult women remaining in the Shaker communities for their lifetimes.  Thus, while men and women lived in the same village, they slept, ate, and worked separately. It is not too much to say that the Shakers lived lives that were intentionally communal and intentionally celibate. [3]

The reality of female numerical superiority in these Shaker villages brings one to the central issues of this paper: patterns of female leadership and the significance of celibacy and belief in the dual nature of God with respect to these patterns. From their arrival in America in 1774 until her death ten years later in 1784, Mother Ann Lee was the universally acknowledged leader of the Shakers. She provides an apt example of what Max Weber famously called “charismatic authority.” The charismatic leader, in Weber’s terms, was an individual recognized to have exceptional qualities or even powers. These qualities formed the basis of their capacity for leadership and recognition of the genuineness of these powers motivated followers to give their allegiance to the charismatic leader. [4]

This type of leadership derived neither from inherited bloodlines nor from satisfaction of requirements within a bureaucracy. Thus, charismatic authority, in the Weberian sense, was not simply dazzling, charming, or psychologically attractive. Rather, its powers were either divine or exemplary in origin. Moreover, as Joachim Wach pointed out, it was a power that could be found just as easily in either women or men.  In Ann Lee’s case, we find this divine referent in her frequent invocation of personal dreams, celestial revelations, and mystic visions which she claimed to have experienced and from which she derived direction for Shaker society. Additionally, as Wach further noted, “besides spiritual endowment, other qualities will bolster [the charismatic leader’s] prestige such as experience, shrewdness, resourcefulness, knowledge, and wisdom,” all characteristics ascribed to Ann Lee by her followers.  Finally, as the trope of Mother would suggest, Ann Lee was often depicted embodying the ideals and values of motherhood—solicitous concern and loving tenderness, but also firm and supervisory discipline. [5]

Female sacred figures, whether in the form of saints, avatars, or prophetesses, can be found widely in the history of religions. Considerably fewer in number, however, are females who are regarded as the founders of a religion. Yet it is undeniable that the Shaker communities considered Mother Ann Lee as their founder and that reference to her actual words and, later after her death, to supposed statements by her through dreams and revelations to members served as justification for decisions within the Shaker communities in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Thus with a female founder, it is perhaps not too surprising to find patterns of female leadership within Shaker society. However, as Weber pointed out, charismatic authority is very unstable and situations of succession within charismatic contexts can often provoke a crisis in leadership. Consequently, where traditional authority has recourse to bloodlines and bureaucratic authority has reference to alternative lines of recognized serial authority to settle questions of succession, charismatic authority does not necessarily have as easy an answer. According to Weber, one familiar response to this potential crisis was the designation by the original charismatic leader of their successor and the recognition of this person by the followers. [6]  

This is exactly what happened with the Shakers. After a short interregnum following Mother Ann’s death in 1784, Joseph Meachem, an American convert to the Shaker faith, was recognized as the new leader of the Shakers. Ann Lee had called Meachem, “my first Bishop, he will have the keys of the kingdom; he is my Apostle in the Ministry.”  Thus when Meachem was acclaimed as the Shakers’ leader, he brought the investiture of the founder and the sanction of the disciples as well as his own strength of piety, commitment, and past experience as a basis of authority upon which to lead. [7]

Further developments were soon to take place. Shortly after his own assumption of leadership, Meachem, as Stein puts it, “reaffirmed the principle of female leadership in the society and introduced the principle of parallel female authority by choosing as his partner in ministry Lucy Wright,” an individual who like Meachem was a talented early convert in America. With the establishment of Lucy Wright and Joseph Meachem as the Lead Ministry, effectively the co-leaders of the entire Shaker communal undertaking, a pattern of parallel leadership shared between males and females would be inaugurated in each of the individual Shaker communities. In this pattern, two male elders and two female eldresses were appointed to take care of spiritual affairs and two male deacons and two female deaconesses were selected to manage temporal affairs. If either a female or male leader died at the village level, they were replaced by a member of the sex of the deceased, thereby maintaining the principle of parallel male and female authority. To be sure, when Lucy Wright assumed her role as co-leader of the Shakers, there were reports of some men in the Shaker society objecting to it. Yet it is striking that these men either learned to live with this female leadership or left the society. They were unable to succeed in challenging the fundamental pattern of parallel leadership which Meachem and Wright inaugurated. [8]

Discussing the significance of creation myths, the anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, once stated that their function was “to strengthen tradition and endow it with a greater value and prestige by tracing it back to a higher, better, more supernatural reality of initial events.”  Probing further into the pattern of female Shaker leadership, we can employ Malinowski’s insight.  For the Shakers, the operative creation story was the account in Genesis 1:26-27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  [9]

The Shakers took two important themes from this passage: 1) the dual nature of God as both male and female; 2) a charter for dual leadership by men and women. In the first place, the Shakers believed that this selection from Genesis clearly illustrated the dual nature of God as both male and female. For if humans were created as male and female, and if humans were made in the image of God, then God was also male and female. The Shakers drew two further—and for their time rather radical—conclusions; first that in Ann Lee, the spirit of God had been incarnated in female form just as in Jesus, the spirit of God had been incarnated in male form.  Second, the Shakers insisted that if God is both male and female, then women and men are equal in the sight of God and women and men should share authority. Indeed, as Malinowski suggested, the Shakers were endowing a tradition of female leadership with greater value and prestige by tracing it back to a supernatural reality of initial events. [10]

If the dual nature of God as male and female provided a biblical sanction for female leadership within Shaker society, what part did their other signature doctrine, that of celibacy, play in Shaker life? Celibacy was a universal requirement, a non-negotiable feature of Shaker society from its outset. Ann Lee considered the human world to be out-of-balance and sexual relations between men and women to be one of the surest signs and causes of that imbalance.  She claimed that the Apostle Paul’s injunction against female leadership in the church applied only if the human world and church were in good order. Since in her view that was manifestly not the case, Paul’s injunction did not apply. Moreover, for the Shakers, lust was the cause of the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the only way to recover the innocence of Eden was a complete dedication to a new life, one in which the distractions and corruptions of sexual relations could be controlled and one would live as it would be in Heaven, where they “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34-35).  Finally, while the Shakers agreed with the Apostle Paul’s injunction that it was better to marry than to burn with passion, they also emphasized what was for them the more important point—to be celibate was the path for Christ’s true followers. It should be further noted, as most scholars have, that in her own life, Ann Lee dreaded sexual relations. During the nine years of her marriage before she adopted celibacy, she bore four children, all of whom died in infancy or early childhood. In her last pregnancy, she herself almost died in childbirth. Clearly there is a biographical element here, though the adoption of celibacy by other Shakers cannot be simply reduced to the details of Ann Lee’s life. [11]

The embodiment of this new life, this restoration of proper relations, and this modelling of the Kingdom was the goal of Shaker social experience. Men and women reflected the dual nature of God and were equal in God’s sight. Men and women lived celibate lives, freed from the distractions of lust. Men and women participated in communal sharing and harmony, seeking thereby to achieve that simplicity of the early Christians who “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). These observations bring us to a final consideration—gender relationships in Shaker communities. Human sexuality can be thought of in two general contexts. The first is the biological definition of human sexuality, that is, the chromosomal reality hard-wired into humans as male or female. The second is gender identity or the social construction of sexual identity, that is, the roles, expectations, and style of being masculine or feminine.  Where biological identity is generally fixed, gender identity is much more fluid, malleable, and subject to social forces.  To the extent that in the realm of religion, women had been defined by their sexual and reproductive statuses, (e. g. temptress, descendent of Eve, breeder, and care-taker) then celibacy had the potential to change that identity. Celibacy gave Shaker women a choice about how to order their lives and empowered them to make decisions about their sexuality.  Freed from the traditional roles of child-bearing and child-rearing through celibacy and communal child-raising and coupled with the establishment of parallel female leadership, Shaker women were freed to exercise authority within their communities. [12]

This they did; however, did the Shakers completely redefine or escape the gender assumptions of their day? To this question, the scholarly consensus is that while the Shakers expanded the gender definitions of their day, they did not totally reconstruct them. The familiar division of labor between men and women remained in place, with Shaker women working in the kitchen and the dairy, weaving cloth and preparing food, while the Shaker men did the outdoor labor of blacksmithing, tanning, and farming. To be sure, since the Massachusetts Shaker communities were all rural communities, men and women shared many manual tasks. Even more importantly, just as men and women were equal in the sight of God, so too were all forms of labor equal and communally valuable. So while familiar divisions of labor persisted, here in the Shaker world, one does not have the concept of separate spheres divided between the male and female spheres, with the female sphere derogatorily regarded as private, unpaid, and secondary to the male’s public and commercial sphere. [13]

At this point, a comparison with another nineteenth-century American communal group might be useful. The Oneida community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes, reached a membership of 200 persons between the years 1848-1868. Located first in Putney, Vermont and then later in Oneida, New York, this communal religious experiment is best remembered for its doctrine of complex marriage and its communal life style. John Humphrey Noyes sought to develop a community that, based upon his reading of the Bible, could restore the spirit of early Christianity in a nineteenth-century American context. [14]

To put it very briefly, the model of early Christians in which they held all things in common inspired Noyes. In complex marriage, all loved each other and there was no monogamous marriage, no exclusive sexual or emotional ties between individual men and women, and no ownership of women by men. Male continence was used as a form of birth control and between the years 1848 and 1868, with a community of 200 adults, there were only 12 cases of unplanned births. A communal nursery staffed by both men and women, raised children at Oneida. As was the case with the Shakers, women at Oneida were thus freed from exclusive relegation to the duties associated with child-bearing and –raising. Under Noyes’ leadership, women and men both performed any number of economic and social roles at Oneida. Consequently, as one historian has concluded, “few societies in history have broken down the conventional distinctions between the sexes as fully as did the Oneida community.” [15]

Nevertheless, when juxtaposed to the Shakers, there is an intriguing paradox in the Oneida experience. While Oneida reconstructed many gender expectations, leadership was firmly, indeed almost absolutely, in the hands of John Humphrey Noyes. Thus in principle, gender per se did not determine leadership. Rather, it was spiritual maturity with Noyes at the top, followed by a number of spiritually mature men, followed by the most spiritual women, who were above the less spiritual men, who were above the less spiritual women. In practice, then, leadership reflected assumptions of male superiority, and the community, as one historian put it, was “the lengthened shadow of this one extraordinary man,” John Humphrey Noyes.  [16]

At Oneida, women participated in most aspects of community life, yet they operated under the loyalty-based male leadership of John Humphrey Noyes. The Shakers followed more traditional gender roles, though their theology insisted on the fundamental equality of males and females in all things, including work, and the pattern of their leadership allocated equal responsibilities to males and to females.

In conclusion, it is clear that all societies have gender constructs. Nevertheless, there can be variations and alternative conceptions within the dominant structure of gender within a given society. The dominant construct of femininity in early nineteenth-century America placed women in a subordinate position to men, privileging the public and commercial roles of men over the private and domestic roles of women, and stereotyping women as emotional and weak versus strong and rational males.[17]

The Shakers upset many of these assumptions. By abolishing marriage they cancelled one major source of men’s traditional authority over women. By grounding equality in divine sanction and by intertwining male and female roles in contexts of respect and communal endeavor, they challenged the economic paternalism and the social individualism of the dominant culture. In the construction of their communities they redirected the allegiance of their members away from their traditional families and into new spiritual families that provided them, men and women alike, with comfortable food and housing, acknowledged worth in their daily labors, and the hope of total union with God. In summary, an examination of the Shaker society in these years shows the dynamics of change as well as the powerful hold of tradition. It provides a portrait of religious renunciation and spiritual exaltation. It demonstrates the complexity of the topic of religion and gender in history.


[1] Scholarly studies that were useful in this essay include Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992);  Edward Deming Andrews, The People Called Shakers (New York: Dover Publications, 1963); Edward Deming Andrews, The Gift To Be Simple: Songs, Dance, and Rituals of the American Shakers (New York: Dover Publications, 1940, rpt. 1962); Daniel W. Patterson, The Shaker Spiritual (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979); Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Clarke Garrett, Origins of the Shakers: From the Old World to the New World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, orig. ed. 1987; 2nd ed. 1998); Louis J. Kern, An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias—the Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981);  Mary L. Richmond, Shaker Literature: A Bibliography,  2 vols. (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1977).

[2] See Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 23-30; Stein, Shaker Experience, 5-6; Garrett, Origins of the Shakers, passim.

[3] The description is by Brewer, Shaker Communities, 6. For discussion of Shaker demographics and apostasy from the group, see Brewer, Shaker Communities, 28, 228-238 and Suzanne R. Thurman, O Sisters Ain’t You Happy? : Gender, Family and Community among the Harvard and Shirley Shakers, 1781-1918 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002): 27-30, 50-52. For a provocative study of female religious participation, well beyond the context of Shaker experience, see Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce, Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[4] See Max Weber, Economy and Society, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) I: 241-242.

[5] See Joachim Wach, Sociology of Religion, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944): 334-335; Stein Shaker Experience, 22.

[6]  See Weber, Economy and Society, I: 247.

[7] On Meachem, see Andrews, People Called Shakers, 55, 308 note 76.

[8]  Stein, Shaker Experience, 43. See Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 38 and Glendyne R. Wergland, Sisters in the Faith: Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011): 9 for discussion of the development of female leadership and its opponents.

[9]  Bronislaw Malinowski, Myth in Primitive Psychology (New York: W. W. Norton, 1926): 91-92. All biblical citations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

[10]  See Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 28.

[11] See Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 24-26, 46-48.

[12]  See Thurman, O Sisters Ain’t You Happy, 55; Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 38.

[13] See Thurman, O Sisters Ain’t You Happy, 67-79; Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 40. For a discussion of gender in communitarian settings, see Wendy E. Chmielewski, et al eds., Women in Spiritual and Communitarian Societies in the United States (Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1993).

[14]  Foster, Religion and Sexuality and Kern, Ordered Love provide extended comparative analysis of the Shaker and Oneida communities.

[15] Lawrence Foster, “Free Love and Community: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Perfectionists,” in Donald E. Pitzer, America’s Communal Utopias (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997): 257-262; Foster,  Religion and Sexuality, 105

[16]  Foster, “Free Love and Community” 254, 262-264, quotation p. 254. The community at Oneida did not share the Shaker belief in the dual gender nature of God.

[17]  Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860,” America Quarterly 18, (1966): 151-174 provides the classic starting point for discussion of conceptions of femininity in early nineteenth-century America. See also, Wergland, Sisters in the Faith, 10, 53-55.

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