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Kenneth Kang

Tuesday, November 26, 1996


A Formal Church

The Shakers were founded by Mother Ann Lee around 1774. With only eight followers, they moved to the United States and settled down. After several years of waiting, working odd jobs and moving around, the Shakers found new converts. These founding members did not have many strict rules and codes to follow. Except for the occasional insight that Mother Ann Lee had, they lived relatively unrestrained and were united only by their peculiar worship. After Mother Ann Lee died, her chosen successor, Lucy Wright took charge of the society and made sweeping changes. Above all, Wright supervised the creation of Shaker communities where perfect societies would be formed. The first community, New Lebanon would be the model for all other communities, setting standards for architecture, lifestyle, and social interaction. She would spearhead efforts to create a formal church and theology as well as a history. As the Shakers grew under Wright's leadership, the society saw rapid expansion and the challenges of survival as they went into nineteenth century.

Lucy Wright and Ann Lee had seen that the future of the Shakers was in the West. In 1805, Lucy dispatched a group of missionaries to the West and earmarked the Southwest for further exploration. The Second Great Awakening with the camp meeting revivals had already swept through the Western United States. After gaining over thirty converts, the first community in the West, Turtle Creek, later known as Union Village, was built in 1806. The Shakers, despite the torments of the community, persevered and remained there. Lucy Wright saw the addition of 15 other communities along with the creation of the first communal community, New Lebanon. During her life, Shakers expanded all the way to Kentucky only five years after the first missionaries were sent westward.

The rapid expansion caused the number of administrative tasks and jobs to increase. The establishment of some sort of system was required to keep the communities together as well as keeping each one financially stable. Efforts included the letter writing along with members of the society who would travel between communities. The letters covered nearly every aspect of Shaker life. Stretching from Kentucky to Florida to Maine, the Shakers often would write a circular letter that would be copied and sent to each community. The constant flow of letters kept the Shaker communities together in a larger sense, but these remote colonies had almost too much independence. The letters were not replacements for a written document that enumerated the actions that distinguished Shakers from the world. Such documents would keep the spread out Shakers together and united in their actions and their beliefs. Written by the central church and by other communities, New Lebanon needed some way of addressing doctrines and other permanent beliefs in an orderly way.

The founding Shakers had written records and testimonies, however, the founder, Mother Ann Lee, did not know how to read or write. Their beliefs were concisely coded in a document written in 1790, after the founding of their first community. It only presented the doctrines of the early church. The document summarized the doctrines of the Society, but it failed to give guidance to acceptable behaviors in the society. The western missionary work had spawned the particularly active Union Village community which produced many of the theological works during the early 1800s. In 1808 work started Testimony which outlines the theology of the Shakers. The six hundred plus page work interprets the Bible and presents the reasoning that places Shakers as the right way to salvation. The Manifesto written by Dunlavy, also gives an insight into Shaker theology. Wright saw the theology of the Shakers being written down and thus recorded permanently; yet she always did remind the theologians that earthly politics was below the intended goal of the communities. This emphasis on the practical nature of temporal affairs explains why these works were never extremely popular. For a religion, however, the creation of a viable theology is the starting point by which a lasting, unwavering society. The all important justification and support of their beliefs are developed and published during the leadership of Mother Lucy.

Lucy Wright did not lead a formal church. There still were differences among the communities and complete unity was not possible. A solution written in 1821, the Millennial laws, would later present the "Gospel Statutes and Ordinances" for the Shaker communities. The whole document would later be revised and reaffirmed by the Ministry and Elders at New Lebanon in 1845. The document, as written by Wright, served its purposes, but as the flow of converts trickled and more members called for slight reforms, the Elders at New Lebanon revised the code. As revised, the laws take up nine sections and are divided into four parts which range from the organization of the leadership, meals, working tools, getting up in the morning, writing and many more topics. As many of the Ministry and Deacons found, the rules were not exhaustive and left many activities unregulated. This allowed for flexibility to fit the needs and the idiosyncrasies of the various communities. These written rules helped define and unify Shakers despite their wide geographic distribution.

Although Lucy did not see the final version of the Millennial Laws and the subsequent creation of a Shaker church, her leadership provided the critical movements toward formalizing the Shakers. Under the Summary View which was published in 1823, the Shaker communities formed the United Society of Believers (1823), a formalization of the movement Ann Lee had started with only eight people in the 1770s.

Other Works Referenced

Boyer, Paul S. et al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. 2nd ed. Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1993.

Sprigg, Jane and David Larken. Shaker: Life, Work, and Art. New York: Steward, Tabori, and Chang, 1987.