Sermon: Shakers Shaking Things Up

Date: 24 February 2019
Scripture Lessons:  Psalm 37:1-11, Luke 6:27-38
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Since there are only two Shakers left, living at Sabbathday Lake in Maine, we could see the Shakers as anachronistic; dying out because they are old-fashioned and living in the past.  But when we look at the witness of the Shakers, what we see is that they very much embrace change and some of their ideas are radical and very forward thinking. Mother Ann Lee who came to this country in 1774 with her husband and 6 others seeking religious freedom after being persecuted in Europe, was very much in support of change.  She is really considered the founder of Shakerism in the US and she believed in change. She believed that the Shakers were compelled to always be listening to God, following the way of God, and living in obedience to God. And this involved the expectation that God would do new things among them. So they were always to be open to change and new ways of living and expressing their faith.  

The early Shakers had a rule, an understanding that they were to live by, certain guidelines.  Some Shaker leaders wanted to write this rule down, codify it, standardize it. Mother Ann was against this.  She felt that by writing it down, it would become like a creed. It would be set in stone. It would no longer be pliable and she believed that the Shakers were always to remain open and adaptive to change.  

To me, as a 21st century Christian, this openly stated attitude is very refreshing.  So often these days, the church seems unwilling to adapt or change. Sure, the church will bring in drums and electric guitars, but that is the packaging.  The underlying content is still the same as it has been for years, even though it no longer fits with today’s context. The contemporary church would do well to listen to antiquated Mother Ann who believed the church needed to be adaptive and to change according to the dictates of God given the nature of the times.  

We see this commitment to change in the many different chapters of the unfolding history of the Shakers.  

The Shakers began in Europe as part of the Quaker fellowship in the early 1700’s.  A group of exiled Quakers and Camisard Protestants in France joined together and fled to England to escape persecution.  There they continued their association with the Quakers. In 1747 James and Jane Wardley started a separate community known as the Shaking Quakers or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming.  They were known for shaking, shouting, dancing, whirling, and speaking in tongues in a form of ecstatic worship. Yes, we can see why they broke away from the quiet Quakers. This break off group was also persecuted in England, mobbed, imprisoned, and stoned, so they decided to send a small group to North America seeking religious freedom in 1774. This group was led by Ann Lee.  She had visions of the female nature of God and the second coming of Christ as a woman. She was later thought to be that embodiment. There are hymns that equate her with Jesus Christ, and attributing salvation to Mother Ann, just as it was attributed to Jesus Christ. Within five years of coming to America, the Shakers had grown to a community with several thousand members. Mother Ann Lee died ten years after the arrival in America.  After her, there were new leaders, a man and a woman. And they changed things in Shakerism. They established communities in New England, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and even one in Florida so that Shakers could live in safety and security, both physical and economic. By 1826 there were over 20 Shaker villages in 8 states including one in Narcoossee, Florida, east of Kissimmee. By the time of the Civil War, the Shakers numbered between 5,000 and 6,000 members.  They had long given up ecstatic dancing, but they still offered choreographed dancing in worship. They expected God to give them revelations and these were received as gift drawings and gift songs. Their numbers fell off after the Civil War in part due to the emergence of industrialization.

All of these different phases of Shaker history involved adaptation and change.  And the Shakers continue to change and adapt with the times. Today there are just two Shakers left.   Two elderly people living at Sabbathday Lake in rural Maine, but they have a website and a presence on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.  They have worship services on Sundays and welcome the public. They have lands and buildings and their farm is operational. They have an online school.  They are hardly living in the past.

In the midst of all the changes that have marked the history of the Shakers, there have been certain guiding principles, rooted in Scripture, that have been the foundation of their church through its many phases.  

Central to the Shaker expression of Christianity is the desire to live according to God’s will.  To please God. One way to say this is, “Shaker faith has been and always will be an unending search for heaven on earth.”  [“Faith in Music,” Sarah Knights, in A Collection of Essays By The Shaker Studies Class of 2006, p. 16]  The Shakers are seeking a great life, the abundant, glorious life that God intends for humanity.    They are looking for the fulfillment of the praises of the Psalms, as we heard this morning:

“Trust in the Lord, and do good;
    so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
    and you will receive the desires of your heart. [edited]
But the meek shall inherit the land,
    and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”  [Psalm 37:3-4, 11]

The Shakers are bent on upholding their side of things – trusting God, taking delight in God and Creation, doing good.  And they believe that this will lead to a good life, security, fulfillment, joy, and an abundant life. As they worship daily, they have this outlook of faith reinforced day in and day out.  Not only is there the reading of the word, but there is a time of witness where people in the community share how they see these promises being fulfilled in their midst.

One aspect of pursing this life of pleasing God is the practice of repentance.  Daily repentance for the forgiveness of sins and the pursuit of reconciliation is very important to the Shaker vision of heaven on earth.  They want to be in right relationship with God, with each other, and with the world at large. Interestingly, being in right relationship with the world to the Shakers includes the paying of taxes even though they are technically tax exempt as a religious community.  They believe they should pay taxes to support the community and the common good, so they do. For the property in Sabbathday Lake, the tax bill comes to some $27,000 a year. But it is very important to the Shakers to practice repentance every day. This frees the flow of God’s love and grace in their lives so that they receive the abundant blessings of God.  It was a form of spiritual regeneration. It is something like a daily cleansing so that life can be unburdened and joyful.

The Shakers also hold fast to a belief in the dual nature of God.  They belief that God is spirit and has a feminine aspect as well as a male aspect, though God is also much more than our human gender constructs can describe.  This belief that God has a feminine nature has been the foundation of gender equality in the Shaker church. To the Shakers, women and men are equal in the eyes of God, and therefore should be treated equally on Earth.   The church has a hierarchical structure but there are men and women at every level of the hierarchy. Women and men both hold leadership roles. Women are considered equal to men. During one period of Shaker life, Mother Ann Lee was considered equal with Christ.  They believed that the second coming of Christ would be in female form and that Mother Ann was the embodiment of that expectation. Later those associations with Mother Ann were no longer as important or emphasized. Again, an example of the Shaker willingness to change and adapt though they have held fast to a commitment to gender equality in their community.  

Another core aspect of Shaker belief is separation from the world.  After their experience of persecution in Europe, which led to their coming to America, the Shakers began to establish communities separate from the world to help keep themselves rooted in devotion God and apart from the many temptations presented by living amidst the general population. They believe that in the pursuit of heaven on earth, they can be more faithful in separate communities than living in contemporary American society, so they live separately to pursue that ideal.  Being apart is a way to reinforce their beliefs, minimize temptation, and create a better world as they seek the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Along with separation from the world, Shakers practice communal living.  There is no private ownership of wealth, land, money, etc. All is held in common by the community.  It is a practical application of the example of a faith community in the book of Acts. Communal living implies a utopian vision and that applies to the Shakers. They see the dangers presented by private ownership.  People with more wealth wanting more power, being treated differently, etc. They believe that everyone is equal in God’s eyes and one way to embody that is through communal living and ownership.

Another part of Shaker commitment is celibacy.  This became part of Shaker identity when the Shakers came to America.  Ann Lee and her husband were among that first small group that came to these shores.  Shortly after their arrival, Ann’s husband left her for another woman and was no longer part of the Shaker community.  It was after that that the commitment to celibacy was incorporated into Shaker life. Who knows, maybe if Ann Lee had had a happy marriage, the Shakers may never have taken on celibacy!

The commitment to celibacy did not come from a view of sex being dirty or sinful or evil, but it came from the idea that romantic relationships, marriage partnerships, could be a distraction from devoting oneself fully to God, God’s purposes, and the good of the community.  By avoiding marriage, a person is fully free to live in union with God. In describing life in the Shaker community, one leader says, “here all of your energies can be God-directed.” [“Humble Servants of the Lord: The Works of Brother Ted,” by Kathy Mooney, in A Collection of Essays, p. 9]  In another description of the commitment to celibacy it is said, celibacy is “also about throwing off one’s identity and becoming part of something bigger.”  [Quoted in “Faith in Music,” by Sarah Knights, in A Collection of Essays, p. 17]

These aims are well and good, but today we are also seeing the dark side of celibacy in the clergy abuse scandals.  In light of the Shaker openness to change, perhaps today the Shakers, if their church were more robust, would be open to reconsidering the issue of celibacy.  

The Shakers are also committed to pacifism.  No use of violence. They do not support hitting people, spanking children, war, or any kind of violence.  This is a commitment they share with the Quakers from whence they came. It is part of their commitment to treat others as you want to be treated.  It is also part of repentance and seeking the highest good for others, even your enemies.

During the Civil War, the Shaker communities would provide care to soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy even though they were adamantly against slavery.  They believed in equality of the races just as they believed in equality of the sexes. But they held true to the commitment to follow the golden rule. They did not discriminate.  But the Shakers did not fight in the war even if it was to end slavery. President Lincoln exempted Shaker men from military service which is noteworthy since the Shakers had been persecuted for their pacifism in the past.  The Shakers were the first conscientious objectors in the US.

One last thing that characterizes Shaker identity is the commitment to simplicity borne out in practicality, technological innovation, and design.  Shakers are known for their crafts and for their distinctive style of furniture and architecture. They are less well known for technological innovation, but the Shakers were very interested in developing labor saving devices and pursuing technological efficiency.  They developed many patented devices and processes that led to greater efficiency including – for the engineers among us, the screw propeller, babbitt metal, rotary harrow, automatic spring, turbine waterwheel, circular saw (invented by a woman), and a threshing machine. They also developed the clothes pin, metal pen nibs, the flat broom, waterproof clothing, and a washing machine.  Their crafts and home products, their seeds and herbal remedies were highly sought after. The Shakers were known for fair dealing and well made products. They were known for being industrious and for their ingenuity. Their communities were prosperous through the mid 1800’s but industrialization after the Civil War led to the decline in demand for Shaker goods and services.

As we think about the character of the Shaker expression of Christianity, we see that it is characterized by devotion to a God of love, daily repentance, belief in the dual nature of God – male and female and gender equality, separation from the world, communal living, celibacy, pacifism, and simplicity and practicality in design and work.  Interwoven into all of this is an openness and willingness to adapt and change as directed by God. So why are the Shakers dying out? Why are there only 2 left, living in a community designed for 100’s at Sabbathday Lake in rural Maine? The first explanation we may look to is celibacy. But the Shakers took in many orphans who had the choice at the age of 21 whether to stay in the community or leave.  And even to this day, the Sabbathday Lake Shakers receive about 2 inquiries a week about joining the community. So, in terms of maintaining the community, celibacy can be overcome by welcoming new recruits.

Are they dying out because of their strong devotion to a God of love?  Most churches think they subscribe to that. Is it the practice of daily repentance?  Again, that is a common Christian practice. Is it their belief in the dual nature of God and gender equality?  That makes the Shakers outliers. That is not something that is accepted in many other expressions of Christianity.  Is it the separation from the world? Wasn’t the Judeo/Christian community called to be a model for others to follow?  Being separate was a strong part of Jewish identity. And the New Testament teaches believers to “be in the world but not of it.”  Is it the communal living, so popular in the 1800’s and then again in the 1960’s, and still practiced by some today in the environmental movement, but still not common in Western culture?  Does that turn people away from Shakerism? The commitment to private ownership? There could be comfort in communal living as many of you know who live in senior life care communities. Is it the commitment to pacifism that keeps people away from Shakerism?  That is definitely not a common belief among Christians, even those who claim to follow the Bible, though it should be because Jesus was known to be a pacifist. Or is Shakerism dying because of their “hands to work, hearts to God” philosophy of honest work and innovation living in harmony with neighbors and Creation?  

It sounds like the Shaker expression of Christianity actually has much to offer, including its adaptability and willingness to embrace change.  As the well-known Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” mentions, “to bow, and to bend. . . to turn. . . t’will be our delight.” It seems to me that Shakerism is sidelined not because it is antiquated but because it is radical.  

In the description of the Sabbathday Lake community, the Shakers tell us that Shakerism “teaches above all else that God is Love and that our most solemn duty is to show forth that God who is love in the World.”  []  While the Shakers may die out, may we be committed to carrying on their core teaching – to show forth the God who is love in the world.  If we do this, the pacifism, equality, and simplicity will follow! Amen.

Sources used in preparation for this sermon:

Website of the Sabbathday Lake Community,
A booklet, A Collection of Essays By The Shaker Studies Class of 2006.
The Wikipedia entry about “Shakers.”
The website   


A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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