The Shakers, formally the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, are a Christian cult that combines elements of Quakerism and Charismatic worship practices. Their beliefs can be hard to codify, as all congregants are allowed to prophesy and all prophecies are considered inspired.
History: The Shakers broke off from the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) in 1747 in England. The more informal name is a contraction of "shaking Quakers," as they were heavily influenced by French Charismatics who had fled to England to avoid persecution. The first Shakers were Jane and James Wardley, former Quakers who claimed to have received a divine command to start the one true church. Ann Lee became a devout convert and joined their group. While in England, the Shakers were often incarcerated for disturbing the peace (often in other church services) and persecuted for their beliefs. Ann and eight of her followers immigrated to America in 1774 to escape the persecution. Six years later, they absorbed the members of a failed revival and announced that the millennium had begun.
When the Revolutionary War began, many Shakers were arrested due to the group’s English background, belief in pacifism, and refusal to take oaths. Despite the opposition, membership increased through proselytizing, adoption, and accepting indentured children. Many were drawn to the Shakers’ utopian ideals, communal living, and leadership opportunities for women. Their numbers reached 6,000 at one point, but membership later declined in large part due to an insistence on celibacy and laws prohibiting adoption by religious organizations. As of 2011, there were only three known Shakers in America. Several former Shaker communities have become museums.
Beliefs: The Shakers held four basic beliefs: celibacy (they taught that sexual intercourse is the root of sin), Christian communion, confession of sin, and separation from the world. The Quaker influence was seen in the form of pacifism, the rejection of ordained clergy, and the practice of “Spirit-led” worship. Shakers also preached the importance of repentance since the millennium was imminent.
The most influential Shaker leader, Ann Lee, had lost four children as infants and claimed to have received messages from God saying that sex was evil. As a result, abstinence was required in the church as preparation for heaven, where there will be no marriage. Shaker belief was uniquely gender-equal; the wife was subject to her husband, but if she had no husband, she was equal in every way to men (Ann Lee’s husband left her shortly after their arrival in America). This gender-neutrality was also reflected in the Shaker belief that God is both male and female. Jesus was seen as the male manifestation of God and the leader of the first Christian Church. The Holy Spirit is Christ, who is separate from Jesus. Mother Ann Lee was the female manifestation of God, the second coming of Christ, the leader of the second Christian Church, and the Bride of Jesus. Shakers believed salvation was based on obedience through four historical dispensations: circumcision in the time of the Patriarchs, the Mosaic Law, the way of the cross, and following God in the new kingdom.
Worship style: As the Shakers were Charismatic, their services included much prophesying and speaking in tongues. They also danced and shook. Anyone, regardless of gender, class, or education, could preach or prophesy. Music was especially important in Shaker worship, and revelations could take the form of new songs. Ecstatic dancing and spontaneous speaking in tongues were later standardized and developed into hymns and dances which Shakers performed regularly. Shaker music has influenced such modern artists as Aaron Copland, R.E.M., Weezer, and Joel Cohen.
Lifestyle: The Shakers lived together in communities removed from worldly influences. Each community was ruled by two men and two women. They were strictly celibate; men and women lived in segregated dormitories, coming together during the day to worship and work. Even the work was usually segregated. Their emphasis on community over family as the primary social unit resulted in much suspicion among outsiders. Conversely, their simplicity, self-reliance, productivity, and craftsmanship were highly respected.
Art and architecture: Today, Shakers are perhaps better known for their inventions and woodworking than for their religion. Their designs were part of a greater architectural movement known as Craftsman or Arts and Crafts which emphasized strong lines, high-quality workmanship, and natural materials. Shaker-made furnishings are beautiful, functional and unostentatious. Shaker inventions include the circular saw, the clothespin, the modern broom, and many other items we still use today.
Conclusion: Theologically, the Shakers are a legalistic cult developed by a deceived, emotionally wounded woman. Their practice of communal living was not sinful, just unnecessary. Their equating of sex with sin, however, is decidedly unbiblical. Shaker worship practices are unbiblical insofar as they are influenced by heretical belief. Jesus is the Christ. The Holy Spirit is not. Ann Lee was not the second coming of Christ, and she was not the female manifestation of God. The Holy Spirit would never influence someone to prophesy contrary to Scripture.
The most important contributions of the Shakers to society are beautiful furniture, mechanical devices, and architecture. The theological beliefs of the Shakers should be avoided.