The Shaker Experience in America

When Charles Nordhoff published COMMUNISTIC SOCIETIES in 1875, he declared the Shakers the “oldest,” as well as the “most successful” communistic society on the North American Continent. There were at that time an estimated 2,415 covenanted members of the radical sect; collectively, the society owned nearly 100,000 acres of land. Among their most notable fundamental beliefs and practices were spiritualism, celibacy, confession, community, and separation from the world. In 1875, the Shakers had been in America just over a century and had not yet achieved their greatest numbers in membership and wealth; they could not anticipate from their experience with persecution and ridicule the respect, sympathy, and popular fascination that would attend the last Shakers and Shakerism itself at the end of another century.

In THE SHAKER EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA, Stephen J. Stein has rejected the popular image of a Shaker as something like an Amish, only celibate and good with chairs, and presented a historical portrait of the Believers—including the questionable character of the society’s founder Ann Lee, the development of Shaker theology (in which Lee is considered the feminine incarnation of Christ), the controversial explosion of spiritualism that included visitations by Lee and the early founders as well as Pocahantas and interested non-Shaker spirits, and the ensuing decline in the prosperity of the sect. Stein examines the distinctive role of women in Shakerism; the Shaker appetite for technology, including early automobiles and airplanes, electricity, and the telephone; the activism that in the first decades of the twentieth century defended civil rights, animal rights, and environmental preservation; and the internal conflict that divides the two remaining Shaker communities.