Thinking About Religion
Volume 13 (2018)

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Transformation and Consolidation in Early American Shaker History

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

The Shakers are quite familiar in the annals of American religious history. Like many other religious communal groups of the time, the Shakers emphasized a reformed lifestyle, shared labor, and the equality of women and men; however, unlike many such groups the Shakers had a long history. Focusing during the years 1780-1820 on the four Shaker communities in Massachusetts—Hancock, Harvard, Tyringham, and Shirley—this essay will show, first, that transformations in dance and hymnody mirrored important changes in social structure and, second, that these modifications in dance and hymnody reinforced the altered social structure and thereby strengthened the Shaker’s ability to continue in nineteenth-century America. [1]

Calling the decades from the 1780s through the 1820s, the “Formative Era” of Shaker history, Stephen J. Stein pointed to changes in the patterns of leadership as one of the most salient achievements. Stein and others have discussed at length the recognition of Joseph Meachem as the leader of the Shakers in 1787 and, shortly thereafter, his choice of Lucy Wright to share the Lead Ministry with him. Under the direction of Meachem, from 1790 through 1793, the small group of Shakers located in Hancock, Harvard, Tyringham, and Shirley Massachusetts were collected into disciplined, largely self-sufficient, and intentional religious communities. This act of withdrawal from the secular world by the Shakers was an opportunity to intensify their religious life in its totality, to provide that intimacy which would strengthen the ties between the believing saints, and from which these same individuals could draw the reinforcing sense of righteous certainty that could see them through hard and troubled times.  Furthermore, in 1795 Meachem instituted written covenants as replacements for the previous oral compacts agreed upon at the entrance of each new member into the society. These written covenants were designed to defend against the calumny of individual apostates and to clarify to an often skeptical, if not hostile, outside world the meaning of the Shaker society with its commitment to celibacy, its insistence on the ontological dualism of God as male and female, and its belief that in their founder, 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. Finally, Meachem reorganized the leadership of individual Shaker communities into a structured consecutive hierarchy of elders and eldresses, deacons and deaconesses, effectively establishing a pattern of parallel leadership shared between males and females.[2]

The consolidation of the social structure of the Shaker communities and the regularization of leadership in the society in this era illustrates the process that Max Weber famously called die Veralltäglichung des Charisma (“the routinization of charisma”.) In general, this process represented a transformation of the initial fervor associated with the founding of the organization by the charismatic leader, in this case, Ann Lee, into more sustainable forms of social organization. The rise to leadership of the American-born convert, Joseph Meachem, and the methods by which he consolidated Shaker society overcame the immediate problems of succession which every group faces in the aftermath of the death of its founder and his or her immediate group of disciples. As Weber noted, the designation of a successor by the original charismatic leader, as happened in the case of Meachem, can secure recognition of that individual’s talents (including their own elements of charisma) and smooth the transition to the next generation of leadership. Beyond that, by reorganizing the framework of Shaker society, the actions of Meachem helped to channel the quintessentially enthusiastic nature of Shaker religious life into structures that shaped the foundation for the continuation of the Shaker experience from its initial beginnings into an era of growth and expansion. [3]

The consolidation of Shaker society during these years can also be seen in the transformations taking place in the ritual conduct found in dance and the simple assertions of belief proclaimed in hymnody. Ritual and belief have traditionally been thought of as primary modes of the religious life and worship. Ritual experience in all its variety represents an embodiment of the principle social values of the group as well as a reaffirmation of the collective nature of the group. As Mary Douglas put it, “rituals enact the form of social relations and in giving these relations visible expression they enable people to know their own society.”  Moreover, “dance frequently plays an important role in ritual events,” noted Cynthia J. Novak, “by providing a means of connection or communication with the spiritual realm.” What ritual attempts to achieve kinesthetically, statements of belief in their own literary diversity attempt to do cognitively: by articulating the doctrinal understandings of the sacred and thereby instructing the faithful. Consequently, as Stephen A. Marini pointed out, hymns have served as ready vehicles for teaching the faith and recruiting new members. Thus in a crucial way, both religious ritual experience, such as holy dance, and statements of belief, such as hymns, function to direct the individual in leading a correct life, one sanctioned as consonant with the sacred. They are actions containing a deeply felt recognition of the sacred. Indeed, attention to dance and to hymnody provides accessible and perhaps under-appreciated perspectives on Shaker society. [4]

The rapturous and enthusiastic joy of Shaker religion, its power to immerse the individual in a spiritual experience of the divine, is nowhere better seen than in its preeminent ritual of dance. Shaker leaders were fond of quoting the story of David dancing before the Lord in celebration (II Samuel 6:14). Nor is this particularly surprising, for in an era held in the sway of evangelical religion as well as in the sectarian life of a religious community such as the Shakers, biblical scripture carried a normative authority. Moreover, in frenzied turbulence or measured solemnity, dance in the history of religions has served as a medium for maintaining contact with the powers unseen. Grounded in feeling and emotion, bursting with the energy of intuitive understanding, dance, as portrayed by Suzanne Langer, is a response to the “recognition of a realm of powers wherein vital forces emanate and shape a whole world of dynamic forms by their magnet-like, psycho-physical action.” Writing from a comparative worldwide perspective, Judith Lynne Hanna has more recently observed, “the power of dance in religious practice lies in its multisensory, emotional, and symbolic capacity to communicate…dance is a vehicle that incorporates inchoate ideas in visible form and modifies inner experience as well as social action.” [5]  

Nonetheless, dance has often been held in a suspect status in America. Divines of both Puritan and Republican lineage criticized dance as tending to excite immodest passions and to provide opportunity for individualized exhibitionism. Dancing thus appeared incompatible with the moral virtue that was the only sure bulwark of the Lord’s people against the temptations of corruption and the Devil. From nearly the moment of their arrival in America, the Shakers were forced to defend their seemingly bizarre custom of celibacy, but most especially the use of dance in their worship services. [6]

Traveling through New England in 1782, William Plumer sojourned with the Harvard Massachusetts Shaker society. The society having assembled in a large room in a private house, Plumer noted that “near the center of the room stood two young women, one of them very handsome, who whirled round and round for the space of fifteen minutes, nearly as fast as the rim of a spinning-wheel in quick motion.” Yet this was not all, for at the same time, “some were shaking and trembling, others singing words out of the Psalms in whining, canting tones (but not in rhyme,) while others were speaking in what they called ‘unknown tongues’.” Soon the assembly was “dancing, singing, whirling, shouting, clapping their hands, shaking and trembling as at first.” Another account of early Shaker worship is given by Valentine Rathbun. Rathbun was the founder of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Baptist church and had been a former member of the Shakers. Now in 1782, Rathbun, in composing one of the earliest accounts written by an apostate, sketched a tableau of worship begun by convulsive trembling and singing “without words or rule.” Soon this chanting stops for “in the best part of their worship, everyone acts for himself, and almost everyone different from the other; one will stand with his arms extended, acting over odd postures, which they call signs, another will be dancing, and sometimes hopping on one leg about the floor, another will fall to turning round, so swift that if it be a woman, her clothes will be so filled with wind as though they were kept out by a hoop.” [7]

Neither Plumer nor Rathbun was sympathetic to Shaker ideals and practices. However, while these earlier dance rituals were characterized by both critics as well as by friendly observers as energetic, even grotesque expressions of individualized spiritual activity, under Meacham’s direction these outpourings of the spirit were channeled and disciplined into regularized, patterned dance rituals. Said to be the result of a dream in which Meacham saw angels dancing around the throne of the Lord, this standardized dance, the square-order shuffle, was introduced into the Massachusetts and other Shaker villages in 1787 or 1788. [8]

One individual, writing in 1796 under the name of “A Traveller from Cambridge, Massachusetts,” described dancing during a Shaker worship service probably taking place at the nearby Harvard community. Noting that dances in earlier years had been “marked and disgraced” by contortions and grimaces, now the dances were “regular, solemn, and uniform.” Here was the transformation from the animated scenes described by Plumer and Rathbun to the structured and organized ritual introduced by Meachem. The use of formal, patterned dance continued into the nineteenth-century. William S. Warder, a Quaker from Philadelphia visiting the Hancock village in 1818, recounted how the Shaker men and women entered the meetinghouse by separate doors, and then “form in regular columns, the men on one side and the women on the other. Several men and women commence a tune, while every other person dances, keeping time admirably, for at least half an hour. The men and women, facing each other, advance and recede a few steps alternately, through the performance.” Warder concluded “with respect to their dancing during regular worship, it may be thought a ludicrous appendage, but there is nothing in their dancing to excite levity; they indeed term it labouring, and many of the extravagances of an earlier period have been laid aside.” Here again patterned regularity rather than individual expressions was the hallmark of these Shaker ritual practices. [9]

One wonders why the Shakers followed Meacham in this decision? Was it simply that the level of energy had dissipated, the vitality run out? More probable is an interpretation that concedes the persistence of belief in spiritual gifts, especially those received through the traditionally ineffable medium of dreams, and notes further, the unquestioned authority of the chief Elder and Eldress in all matters spiritual and temporal concerning the society. Thus in 1796 with Meacham’s death, effective leadership passed on to Lucy Wright, under whom ritual dance remained patterned and standardized.

Consequently, while non-members might think of dance as a form of blasphemy and the Shakers that it was a celebration of the Lord, the transformation of dance had a wide-ranging impact. For the codification of these individualized experiences into a cohesive communal exercise furthered that sense of belonging and reaffirmed that sense of purposefulness to which similar institutionalizing developments in the social structure were directed. In this way, the blissful quality of dance, its transforming power to reach the mysterious was harnessed to the social ends of the society, and the personal coherence that derived from individual ritual experience was subsumed within the integrating forces of life in the intentional community. As Helga Barbara Gundlach aptly put it, “dance can be seen as a living record of the overall social conditions and historical developments of a society.”  [10]

A crucial nexus grew, then, between social structure and the social life of the Shakers in their Massachusetts communities. It was a connection that served to reinforce the Shakers in their daily life and helps to explain their unparalleled longevity among American utopian communities. Yet it was a method of reinforcement that would find perhaps its most subtle expression in the Shaker hymns. As the Plumer and Rathbun accounts document, music in early Shaker worship was as free flowing, unstructured, and untrammeled an expression as the dance ritual. While both music and dance were used as celebrations of the Lord and taken as outpourings of the spirit and manifestations of the presence of the divine, it was not until 1807 that the first fully worded Shaker song appeared, and not until 1813 that the first full hymnal, the widely-used Millennial Praises, was printed. [11]

In these developments the influence of larger circumstances within American society must be seen. The years 1780—1830 were a time of religious excitement in America and in Massachusetts. Denominations grew dramatically, sects proliferated, and agencies of moral reform blossomed anew. This half-century witnessed a time of growth for the Massachusetts Shakers as well, particularly in the decades between 1800 and 1820. For Shaker missionaries repeatedly canvassed the frequent camp meetings and revivals during the years of the Second Great Awakening, as they vied with Baptists, Methodists, and an assortment of fellow “ultraists” for the souls of anxious sinners.[12]

It is within this context of religious conversion and competition that the appearance of the comprehensive statement of Shaker theology, The Testimony of Christ’s Second Appearing, and the first hymnal, Millennial Praises, must be placed. For both the theological treatise and the hymnal shared the basic function of teaching Shaker beliefs and doctrines; however, they did so in very different ways. According to the authors of The Testimony, they needed to defend themselves against misrepresentations and uninformed prejudice. To that end, the nearly 600 closely printed pages of The Testimony discussed the signature Shaker doctrines of the bisexuality of God and the Second Appearing of Christ in the person of Mother Ann Lee, the new dispensation of perfectionism thereby inaugurated and the necessity of celibacy, simplicity, and communalism as the essential requirements for virtuous living. [13]

While Shaker belief obviously had a theological underpinning, nonetheless, its central thrust was didactic. As a result, it was of paramount importance to make the doctrines comprehensible and easily understood by all believers. Herein lies the significance of hymns: as integral parts of worship service (and thus quite familiar), as regularly repeated (and thus easily remembered), and finally, as collective group experiences (and thus reaffirmations of the communal existence), the hymns acted, in ways not possible for the longer and more abstruse theological treatises, to convey Shaker teachings. Somewhat more doctrinal than devotional in their style and content, the hymns inculcated the message and reinforced the behavior most compatible with Shaker beliefs. They simplified the content of Shaker theology and facilitated its absorption and understanding by venerable members and fresh recruits alike. Much as the organization of dance furthered the ends of the intentional community, so the stabilization of music and hymns served to discipline and instruct the spirit of Shaker religious life.

For example, where The Testimony expounded at length on the bisexuality of God and the fulfillment of Mother Ann and took extended pains to argue for their legitimacy, the hymn, “Testimony of Eternal Truth,” simply stated:

The Holy Ghost at length did bear,
The anointed one, the second heir,
A virgin soul, a holy child,
A Mother pure and undefiled;
In her the heirship is complete,
And God’s last building stands upon,
The sacred truth of two in one. [14]

 Similarly, the bulk of The Testimony contained protracted explanations of the different epochs of human history each with its own signs, meanings, differences, and limitations. However, a series of hymns condensed this past history and brought one directly to the 1760s, the Manchester ministry of Mother Ann, and the Shakers’ departure for America:

At Manchester, in England,
This blessed fire began,
And like a flame in stubble,
From house to house it ran;
A few at first received it,
And did their lusts forsake,
And soon their inward power,
Brought on a might shake.
This little band of union,
In apostolic life,
awhile in England
Among the sons of strife;
Till the Columbian Eagle,
Borne by an eastern breeze,
Conveyed this little kingdom,
Across the rolling seas. [15]

And located now in America, free from established churches and their minions, the future was bright:

Forever released from the soul binding priest,
We can look through the boundless expanse,
Where souls of the just are redeemed from all lust,
And the virgins rejoice in the dance. [16]        

The hymns go on to specify in accessible and easily understood terms the virtues of celibacy, hard work, obedience, and simplicity, for the centrality of the new life is a recurrent theme in Shaker hymns.  In this way, the hymns of Millennial Praises paralleled and reinforced in an uncomplicated form the elaborate exposition of the doctrinal content contained in The Testimony. Standardized hymns and patterned dance complemented each other and once taken together with the developments within the social structure of Shaker society, it is clear that hymns, dance, and social organization all served together to shape and express Shaker experience.

Several years ago Donald G. Mathews described the Second Great Awakening as not only a time of theological shifting, but also as an epoch of social organization that gave meaning and direction to people “suffering in various degrees from the social strain of a nation on the move into new political, economic, and geographical areas.” More recently, Gordon S. Wood has argued that while the Revolution had freed Americans for the challenge and responsibility of political independence and the frontier and economic developments had loosened the hierarchical social bonds of colonial society, such changes were not without their price. Materialistic excess, individualistic exorbitance, a fast profit and sumptuary splendor, these seemed too often to be the hallmark of the new republic rather than the calm and sanguine attributes of morality and virtue that had been the anticipated consequences of this republican revolution. [17]

Within this context, the early Shaker experiment in Massachusetts develops a more tenable plausibility. For the Shakers represented not so much the misfits or perennial malcontents of society, as individuals particularly anxious in their desire for security and order, for religious commitment and spiritual purpose in the face of the strain and dislocation subsequent to the Revolution. The combination of ritual dance and doctrinal hymnody provided the individual with a coherent and easily understood set of meanings with which to order life, just as the social structure of Shaker society provided a context for the construction of a collective situation that allowed for a life of purposefulness to exist and flourish amid the more general circumstances of social instability.

The decades between 1780 and 1820 represented a time of institutional strengthening for the Massachusetts Shaker communities. The later history of the society would show outbreaks of rapturous spiritualism and tremendous growth counterpoised by seasons of dwindling membership and lagging enthusiasm. Yet such alterations always operated within the framework broadly established in these earlier years. In the end, even the seemingly most eccentric of groups, if it is to continue, must produce a stable relationship to the world not only institutionally, but, as the Shaker experience of these years amply demonstrates, in terms of cultural dynamics as well.


[1] Under the direction of their founder, Ann Lee, the Shakers left Manchester, England for America in 1774. The Shaker communities of Massachusetts—Hancock, Harvard, Tyringham, and Shirley—were established in the 1790s and provided a foundation for the early generation of Shakers. Between 1790 and 1820 there were a total of 1,700 members in the four Massachusetts communities, with an average size of 425 men and women. Women outnumbered men in this period, with 62% of the Massachusetts Shaker population composed of females. For statistics on the Massachusetts communities, see Priscilla J. Brewer, Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986): 215, 228-238. For discussion of the Massachusetts Shaker villages, see Edward R. Horgan, The Shaker Holy Land (Harvard, Mass.: Harvard Common Press, 1982); Deborah E. Burns, Shaker Cities of Peace, Love, and Union: A History of the Hancock Bishopric (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1992); 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). Other 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 Stein, Shaker Experience, 43-48, 113; Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 36-37; Brewer, Shaker Communities, 18-29.

[3] See Max Weber, Economy and Society, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) 1: 246-254 and Stein, Shaker Experience, 113. For wide-ranging assessments of the category of charisma, including its routinization, see Robert C. Tucker, “The Theory of Charismatic Leadership,” Daedalus, 97, (1968): 731-756, Ann Ruth Willner, The Spellbinders: Charismatic Political Leadership (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), Spencer C. Olin, Jr., “The Oneida Community and the Instability of Charismatic Authority,” The Journal of American History, 67, (1980): 285-300,  Jonathan G. Adelson, “Routinization of Behavior in a Charismatic Leader,” American Ethnologist, 7 (1980): 716-733, and Stephen Turner, “Charisma Reconsidered,” Journal of Classical Sociology,  3, (2003): 5-26.

[4] See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966): 128; Cynthia J. Novak, “Ritual and Dance” in Selma Jeanne Cohen, ed., The International Encyclopedia of Dance, 6 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 5:355; Stephen A. Marini, “Hymnody and History: Early American Evangelical Hymns and Sacred Music,” in Philip V. Bohlman, et al. eds., Music in American Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006): 123-131. For a history of ritual theory, with particular emphasis on the work of Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and Catherine Bell, see the essay by Ronald L. Grimes, “Performance Theory and the Study of Ritual,” in Peter Antes, et al. eds., New Approaches to the Study of Religion, 2 vols. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 2: 109-138.

[5] Suzanne Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York: Scribner, 1953): 184; Judith Lynne Hanna, “Dance and Religion,” in Mircea Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion, 16 vols. (New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1995), 3: 203. See also Patterson, Shaker Spiritual, 99-102.

[6] Increase Mather excoriated dancing in his essay, An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn out of the Quiver of the Scriptures,  (Boston: Samuel Greene, 1684) and his son, Cotton, joined in with his own contribution, A Cloud of Witnesses; Darting Out Light upon a Case, too Unseasonably Made Seasonable to be Discoursed on (Boston: B. Green & J. Allen, 1700). For a full discussion of the issue, see Ann Wagner, Adversaries of Dance: From Puritans to the Present (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) and Ralph G. Giordano, Social Dancing in America, 2 vols. (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2002), 1: 1-60.

[7]William Plummer, “The Original Shaker Communities in New England,” New England Magazine, 22 (1900): 305-309; Valentine Rathbun, A Brief Account of a Religious Scheme taught and propagated by a number of Europeans who lately lived in a place called Nisquenia, in the State of New York, but now residing in Harvard, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, commonly called Shaking Quaker (Worcester: s.n. 1782):7-9, 13. See also Thomas Brown, An Account of the People Called Shakers, (Troy: Printed by Parker and Bliss, 1812): 63, 82.

[8] See Andrews, Gift to Be Simple, 147-148; Patterson, Shaker Spiritual, 107-108.

[9] “A Traveller from Cambridge (Mass.),” The Theological Magazine, 1 (1796): 233; William S. Warder, A Brief Sketch of the Religious Society of People Called Shakers (London: Printed by R. & A. Taylor, 1818): 9-10, 12. See also Barbara Damon Simison, “Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse’s Journey to Saratoga Springs in the Summer of 1794,” The Yale University Library Gazette, 40 (1965): 100-103. As this essay discusses the Massachusetts Shaker experience, I have confined my examples to those in Massachusetts. Other examples of both early and later Shaker forms of dance are available in many apostate accounts. See Brown, An Account of the People Called Shakers and the collection edited by Christian Goodwille, Writings of Shaker Apostates and Anti-Shakers, 1782-1850, 3 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013).

[10] Helga Barbara Gundlach, “New Approaches to the Study of Religious Dance,” in Antes, et al. ed., New Approaches to the Study of Religion, 2:160.

[11] Patterson’s extensive analysis of Shaker music notes the existence of over 2,000 tunes and 8,000 to 10,000 songs in the total corpus of Shaker hymnody over the duration of their existence. Millennial Praises, which included one hundred forty songs, was the first printed hymnal and for many years during this formative period of Shaker history the most widely available and used. See Patterson, Shaker Spiritual, 149 and Christian Goodwillie and Jane F. Crosthwaite, eds., Millennial Praises: A Shaker hymnal (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).

[12] See Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

[13] “Preface to the First Edition,” Benjamin Youngs & Calvin Green, The Testimony of Christ’s Second Appearing (Albany: United Society called Shakers, 4th ed. 1856; first edition, 1808): vii.

[14]Seth Wells, compiler, Millennial Praises, containing a collection of gospel hymn in four parts; adopted to the day of Christ’s second appearing composed for the use of his people (Hancock, Mass.: Josiah Talcott, Jr., 1813):4.

[15] Wells, Millennial Praises, 79-80.

[16] Wells, Millennial Praises, 32.

[17] Donald G. Mathews, “The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780-1830: An Hypothesis,” American Quarterly 21 (1969): 23-43; Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).


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