by Dr. Michael Pratt
EARLY SHAKER HISTORY
Colonial America was fertile ground for religious groups and sects from Europe seeking a peaceful environment in which to be free to pursue their unique brand of religion. One such example are the Pilgrims: coming to this country on the Mayflower, settling in what would become New England, and founding towns and communities based on their own brand of Puritanism.
Another, later, example would be The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly know as the Shakers. In the 1750s, Ann Lee, the daughter of blacksmith John Lees (she dropped the “s” when she came to America) in Manchester, England, became associated with a group know as the “shaking Quakers”, and eventually assumed a role of leadership in the group, after receiving strange visions and revelations. Ann Lee’s youth was spent in the textile mills and she lived everyday amid overwhelming poverty. After her marriage to Abraham Stanley and the death in infancy of their four children, Ann Lee’s early prejudice against sex developed into the obsession that sexual intercourse was the root of all sin. Thus celibacy eventually became one of the four tenets of the Shaker religion: confession of sin, celibacy, community property, and withdrawal from the world.
After being imprisoned in 1772 for preaching her doctrine of celibacy, Ann Lee was given the title “Mother” and accepted by eight disciples as the reincarnation of Christ’s spirit. In 1774, directed by heaven and funded by one of the disciples who was well-to-do (John Hocknell), the small group of nine left for the New World, where they purchased a small tract of land near Albany, New York (later Watervliet, New York). There they prospered and grew in numbers through conversion (as they were celibate). During the Revolutionary war Mother Ann Lee and some of the elders were imprisoned for pacifism and treason. After the end of the war and their release, they began a campaign of proselytizing and the forming of small groups of Believers which eventually grew into Shaker colonies all over New England and as far west as Minnesota, eventually reaching a membership of many thousands.
The Dayton, Ohio and Montgomery County Public Library have an extensive collection of Shaker books, magazines, pamphlets, music, and artifacts. Their collection web site speaks of the “scope and content” of the Shaker religion:
The Shakers were simple Christians with distinct beliefs, and this led to a unique experiment in association. The Shakers formed a significant chapter in American history, by virtue of their communal principles, their status as a separatist sect, and their diverse social and economic contributions. Their ideas and experiments attracted a lively contemporary interest and a continuing curiosity. Thousands joined their communities. The extensive literature about the Shakers, especially from the 1780’s to the present, is evidence of the attraction the movement had for people from various educational and economic backgrounds. 
The Society of Shakers evolved into a community dominated by the duality and equality of the sexes. Men and women lived and worked separately as Brothers and Sisters. Much of their architecture reflected the dual nature of their existence. Unlike other religious sects which kept to old-fashioned values and techniques, shunning any new technology which came along, the Shakers not only embraced modern technology and innovation, but were, in fact, regarded as leaders in this area. As a result large markets opened up for Shaker products and they became quite prosperous and respected.
Music and dance played a large role in their peculiar type of worship service. Edward Demings Andrews describes a Shaker meeting as follows:
In Shaker worship the songs, tunes and dances of the sect were inseparable forms of expressing praise, joy, yearning or union. The first believers were seized by such ecstasy of spirit that, like leaves in the wind, they were moved into the most disordered exercises: running about the room, jumping, shaking, whirling, reeling, and at the same time shouting, laughing or singing snatches of song. No form existed: someone would impulsively cry out a line from the psalms or part of a hymn, or a phrase – perhaps in an unknown tongue –bespeaking wild emotion; someone might prophesy; another would exhort his listeners to repentance; another might suddenly start whirling like a dervish; then, as in a Quaker meeting, all for a time would be silent. After an order of worship was instituted, songs were sung without movement and dances paced without songs, but usually the procedure deliberately duplicated what had originally been involuntary: songs were danced, and the measures of the dance accentuated by the rhythms of the song. 
Shakers near Lebanon, New York
Lithograph by A. Imbert, New York, c. 1830
SHAKER RELATIONSHIP TO SOCIETY
Withdrawal from the world was one of the four main tenets of the Shaker religion, as a result of persecution and religious conviction. The covenant of the early Shaker church in New England contained the following articles:
Non-conformity to the world. Christians are commanded not to conform to the world in its customs, fashion, and idle conversation.
Liberality. They are to be good to all, communicate to the Church Stock, and admonish the covetous.
Pride. True Christians cannot “bear carnal weapons….”
Business. They should not follow the customs of the world in trade, but do as they would be done by, and not as they are done by. 
It became the common way of life for the Shakers to “possess as though you possessed not. It was agreed that no one should buy or sell in the Church, nor trade with those not of the Church, except by the Union of the Trustees.” (ibid.) In 1778 a covenant was ratified at a general Church gathering which specified the principles of communism and the religious basis for “Joint Interest”. This covenant further specified that Brothers and Sisters were not only equal in the community but would rule equally with each member receiving “one Joint Interest as a Religious right.” (ibid.)
The term “family,” in Shaker usage, referred to a group of brethren and sisters living in the same dwelling, autonomous as regards their industrial pursuits, and organized under the dual leadership of elders and eldresses (usually two of each sex), deacons (or trustees) and deaconesses, who had charge of the “temporalities,” and “caretakers” of children, also of each sex. The family was the socioeconomic unit ranging from as few as 25 to as many as 150. (ibid.)
Through a process of constant recruitment of new members, the Shakers not only maintained but increased their numbers. It was customary for new members to transition gradually to the Shaker way of life.
The relinquishment of all personal and private property and of the right to receive wages for his services was the accompaniment of the individual’s reception into the church or “covenant relationship.” It was customary for the prospective member to remain for a time with his or her family. While maintaining this partial relationship to the society, the individual retained full control of any property possessed and the freedom to withdraw at any time. Entrance into “church relation” involved not only freedom from all involvements, but a full dedication of all personal property. (ibid.)
Even though it was a main tenet of the Shaker religion to live apart from the rest of the world, the Shakers understood that they could not exist economically apart from the rest of the world.
It was the economic policy of the society which, more that any other factor, formed a bridge of understanding between the society and the world. The Shakers were not economic separatists. They realized that subsistence, indeed survival, depended on industry and trade. They sought to erect barriers against worldly contamination, but at the same time welcomed the opportunity to produce goods which the world needed, and which would excel what the world could produce. (ibid.)
The Shakers soon became known for the high quality of their craftsmanship and work. They became highly skilled at tanning, blacksmithing, shoe making, coopering, clothiering, tailoring, hatting, saddle-, button-, buckle-, dipper-, and whip-making, joinering, and carpentry. In addition they founded a garden seed industry, dried sweet corn and dried apple industries, a medicinal herb industry, and bottle, jar, and label industries. Machine shops produced everything from tea pots to oil cans. They produced brooms, brushes, pails, tubs, churns, casks, barrels, dippers, boxes, buttons, cheese hoops, spinning wheels, sieves, baskets, pipes, and all types of clothing items, hats, and garments. The Shakers produced almost literally every single item they used in their personal, community, and daily life. Even though they had taken a vow of celibacy, they did not take a vow of poverty. Thus they became very profitably in their commerce with the outside world, which they avoided in their personal life.
THE SHAKERS AND THE MILITARY
One of the biggest problems that the Shakers faced in their relation to society at large was their response to the need for a common defense of all, in other words, the military. Mother Ann Lee’s successor was Brother Joseph Meacham, who gave the following instructions regarding the military:
As we have received the Grace of God through Jesus Christ, by the gospel, and are called to follow peace with all men, we cannot, consistent with our faith and conscience, bear the arms of war, for the purpose of shedding the blood or any, or doing anything to justify or encourage it in others. But, if they require, by fines or taxes of us, on that account, according to their laws, we may, for peace sake, answer their demands in that respect, and be innocent so far as we know at present. (ibid.)
For a time the Shakers were successful in their approach of “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and were thereby exempted from their obligation to participate in the defense of the state-at-large, for the common good of all, by the paying of such fines. “Up to 1815 the New Lebanon [New York] society alone paid $2000 in such fines.” (ibid.) Soon, however, states began to pass laws forbidding the practice (of paying a fine to avoid military service) or voided already existing laws allowing for such exemptions. New York being such a state, many Shaker communities there moved to Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Ohio where the laws still allowed the Shakers to practice their brand of “conscientious objection.” Ohio had a particularly interesting provision of allowing military exemption in return for a like amount of service on the public highways.
THE SHAKERS AND CHILDREN
Although a tenet of the Shaker religion was celibacy, and Brothers and Sisters were not married, and thus there was no “family life” as is normally thought of, there were children in Shaker communities. They existed as a result of new converts to the church which were previously a family with children. The marriage no longer existed between the new Brother and the new Sister but the children were still there to be raised. All of the children that existed in a community were raised communally with trustees of both sexes appointed to be caretakers for the children.
This procedure worked well enough when both partners in a marriage came into the Shaker settlement together and of their own free will. The problem arose when one of them came into the Shaker settlement with the children against the will of the other partner. Many times this involved the Shaker settlement in a legal battle with the world they were avoiding, over the custody of the children. The official Shaker position was:
No believing husband or wife is allowed by our rules to separate from an unbelieving partner, except by mutual agreement: unless the conduct of the unbeliever be such as to warrant a separation by the laws of the land. Nor can any husband or wife who has otherwise abandoned his or her partner, be received into communion with the Society. (ibid.)
Like all such statements, this was subject to interpretation. It is also interesting to note the wording of “unless the conduct of the unbeliever be such”, thus automatically assuming that the conduct of the believer would not be such. The Shakers were embroiled in many such legal battles, the most notable of which were Eunice Chapman in 1815 (which Chapman won against the Shakers) and Mary Dyer in 1818 (which the Shakers won against Dyer).
Since the Shakers were largely untrained musically and ignorant of music theory, they developed their own unique style of music notation, based somewhat on the shape-notation prevalent at the time.
“Come Life, Shaker Life”
from a Shaker manuscript in letter notation
(Courtesy: The Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio) 
The Shaker legacy of music, both for singing and for dancing, however, is as rich as can be. Daniel W. Patterson states:
During Ann Lee’s lifetime and for the rest of the eighteenth century the Shaker song repertory probably numbered less than two hundred tunes, most sung without words. The Believers’ acceptance of worded songs in 1805, however, started an outpouring of new songs that would flow for more than a century. . .[There is] a manuscript in the Music Division of the Library of Congress entitled “A Record of Spiritual Song” [containing] some 2400 songs compiled by Elder Russel Haskell of the Shaker Society of Enfield, Connecticut organized according to the Shaker’s own classification system. 
Early Shakers followed the tradition of preferring unaccompanied unison singing (as did early Baptists and Methodists). More than likely this was because of the unavailability of musical instruments and the lack of skill in producing them. As time went on this changed. Witness the invention by Brother Isaac N. Youngs of Hancock of the “tone-ometer” in 1833.
Set it upon some hollow thing such as a chest or a box or even upon a table [and] it sounded very well. . .place the little square block to the line of the letter you wish to sound with your finger on the wire [and] press it snugly, with the other hand you can touch the wire giving it a quick motion and it will give you the correct sound. (ibid.)
Patterson further states:
But as other churches crept gradually into more elegant musical tastes, the Shakers came to regard their own monophonic song as a badge of their separation from the world. During the 1840s divine injunctions were even received against “picking up the songs of the world, and singing after their manner, carrying their parts.” As long as the Shakers held an essentially folk outlook they resisted part-song. It was not until the 1870s that the Shakers began to purchase organs and pianos, get music teachers from the World, study the songbooks of other denominations, and regularly compose hymns with four-part harmony. (ibid.)
Of the many thousands of dances, songs, hymns, and anthems composed by the Shakers, probably the most famous is Simple Gifts.
This song gave a title to Edward D. Andrew’s pioneering study of Shaker songs and a theme to Aaron Copland’s ballet suite “Appalachian Spring.” These men made it the most widely known of the Shaker spirituals. It also had popularity among the Shakers. More than fifteen manuscripts preserve the tune, and it survives in oral tradition. (ibid.)
The manuscripts identify the song as a Quick Dance, but give conflicting word of its origin. One written at Lebanon says that it was received from a Negro spirit at Canterbury. Andrews reports seeing it described as “composed by the Alfred Ministry June 28, 1848.”. . .Several manuscripts record the song from the singing of Elder Joseph Brackett and a company from Alfred, who visited a number of societies in the summer of 1848. Mrs. Olive H. Austin heard that it was Elder Joseph’s own song. Eldress Caroline Helfrich there remembered seeing him sing it in a meeting room, turning about “with his coat tails a-flying.” (ibid.)
In Edward D. Andrews landmark study of Shaker music and dance, he identifies a number of categories of Shaker songs such as
- Songs on the themes of simplicity, humility, or repentance
- “Tis the Gift to be Simple”
- Wake up, Stur [sic] about”
- “Mother’s Child”
- “Lowly is the soul”
- Songs relating to spiritual freedom and “freedom from bondage”
- “Come life, Shaker life”
- “Holy Power”
- “My Carnal Life , I Will Lay Down”
- “An Indignant Shake”
- “Come, Come Turn Away”
- “Dismission of the Devil”
- “Keep the Fire A-burning”
- “I Hate the Old Deceiver”
- Songs in the imagined tongues of various races
- “Shiney Mudder”
- “Te he te haw, te hoot, te te hoot”
- “Black Bills Wonderment”
- “Hiang tron doo”
- Songs in unknown tongues
- “Niskarara senego”
- “O calvin criste I no vole”
- Ritual songs
- “Mother Ann’s Sweeping Gift”
- “Midnight Cry”
- “Decisive Work”
- “Sweep. Sweep and Cleanse Your Floor”
- Dance songs
- “Pretty Birds”
- “Come Dance and Sing”
- “Come Little Children All Unite”
- Gift songs
- “Mother’s Love”
- “Basket of Treasures”
- “A Cup of Love”
- “A Fan to Blow”
- Songs of spiritual love and union
- “Heavenly Love”
- “Hear ye, Hear ye”
- “Come, Sister, Come”
- Miscellaneous songs
- “drinking” songs
- bird songs
- songs of welcome or departure
- shepherdess songs
- songs without words
- prayer songs
- special songs
[while] a group of young girls [were] dancing, shaking, and whirling, some of the number lapsed into unconsciousness and began to sing “new and beautiful songs.” Similar phenomena were reported about the same time in other communities. When the subjects awoke from their trances or visions, the songs were carefully recorded, sometimes by the one who had received the “gift”, sometimes by a “scribe” or instrument who had overheard it or to whom it was sung again. The gift songs usually came from Mother Ann Lee or other departed Shaker saints. 
For introducing the dance into their worship, the Shakers suffered severe criticism and persecution. They were charged with indulgence in the wildest orgies: with fiddling, telling fortunes, playing cards, drunkenness, and, most often, dancing naked. But they held steadfastly to the doctrine that dancing was the highest expression of joy and thankfulness – “a figurative manifestation of the manner in which the true followers of Christ were to be called to worship God, and manifest their joy in the latter day, for their victory over the powers of darkness.”
In content simple and direct, and seemingly artless in character, the dance songs of the Believers were true spirituals, tokens of the inspiration which uplifted and united this peculiar people. (ibid.)
Patterson (1979) identifies a number of Shaker dance categories:
- The back manner
- The holy order
- The skipping manner
- The turning shuffle
- The regular step
- The drumming manner
- The walking manner
- The quick dance
- The round dance
- The square step
- The hollow square
- The circular march
- The square march
- The changeable march
- The compound march
- The heavenly march
- The square check
- The antediluvian square shuffle
- The quick march
The famous song Simple Gifts is an example of a quick dance. Below is a description of the dance steps used for the eight phrases of the song. 
During Mother Ann’s lifetime the Shakers erected no structures: they lived in farmhouses and often worshiped in fields and woods. In 1785, however, just one year after Lee’s death, James Whittaker, who had followed her from England, and Joseph Meacham, who led a congregation of Baptists in New Lebanon, New York, before converting to Shakerism, launched a program to establish organized Shaker communities. The first project was to build a meetinghouse a Mount Lebanon, New York. (ibid.)
Edward D. Andrews (1940) sums up Shaker existence best:
Simplicity was one of the most pervasive of the Shaker virtues. In their “travel” towards perfection, the conduct of the Believers, particularly in the processes of worship, was invested with a curious primitivism and child-like innocence. Often their ways were naïve and unworldly. But “gospel simplicity” appeared in aspects more mature: as Christian humility, the product of self-discipline and self-denial; as singleness of purpose, giving vitality to work and deed; as a doctrine of purity, affecting the labor of the hands. Speech and dress bore the impress of plainness. Thought and policy were honest and direct. In various guises the quality was ever-present, an essential attribute to the unity, harmony and consecration of a unique religious order.
In the late 20th century the last of Shakers died out in New England, ending a one hundred and sixty year old experiment in American communism and unique religious identity which helped shape the values and identity of this nation as a whole. The Shakers are remembered with fondness and studied with great dedication by scholars around the world for their invaluable contribution to human culture.
Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.
 Elli Bambakidis, “The Shakers Collection,” Dayton & Montgomery County Public Library, June, 1991, 1991, http://www.dayton.lib.oh.us/archives/shakers.htm/ (accessed June 12, 2006).
 Edward Deming Andrews, The Gift to be Simple: Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers (New York: J. J. Augustin, 1940).
 Edward Deming Andrews & Faith Andrews, Work and Worship Among the Shakers (Toronto, Ontario: Dover Publications, 1974), 16.
 Roger Hall, “Shaker Music History,” American Music Preservation, http://www.americanmusicpreservation.com/shakerhistory.htm. (accessed June 14, 2006).
 Daniel W. Patterson, The Shaker Spiritual (Mineola, New York: Dover Publication, 1979).
 Edward D. Andrews, “Shaker Songs,” The Musical Quarterly Vol. 23, no. 4 (October 1937): .
 Touchstone Sacred Dance Library, “Simple Gifts – Shaker Dances,” http://www.sacredcircles.com/THEDANCE/HTML/DANCEPAG/SIMPLEGI.HTM. (accessed June 15, 2006).
 Julie Nicoletta, “The Gendering of Order and Disorder: Mother Ann Lee and Shaker Architecture,” The New England Quarterly Vol. 74, no. 2 (June 2001)