The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance
When all around you is going from bad to worse there is something vaguely appealing about starting again from scratch and creating a society which operates in the way you think best, in other words a utopian society, a term first coined by Thomas More in his book, Utopia, published in 1516. One of the most successful utopian communities, at least in terms of longevity, was the United Society, better known as the Shakers.
In the 1760s there was an offshoot of the Quakers operating in England, called the Shaking Quakers, so-called because they danced and spoke in tongues. By 1770 Ann Lee had split from the Quakers following the death of her fourth child and formed the Shakers, claiming to have had a vision from God in which she was told that sexual intercourse was the root of all evil and that to truly follow God you had to be celibate. Perhaps a more revolutionary thought was that God must be bisexual because both men and women were made in God’s image.
Lee gathered adherents, who regarded her as the female component of Christ’s spirit and as representing Christ’s second appearance on earth. Mother, as she was known, then had another vision in 1772, in the form of a tree, telling her to move to America where a place had been prepared for the Shakers. So in 1774 nine Shakers, including Lee, upped sticks to cross the Atlantic, stopping initially in the Big Apple while saving up enough money to buy a patch of wilderness they called Niskeyuna in Western New York State, the first of what were to become eighteen Shaker communities.
Four basic tenets ruled the Shaker lifestyle – communal living, celibacy, regular confession of sins and withdrawal from the outside world. Men and women were treated equally and people of different races and creeds were welcomed – truly revolutionary for the time but also sensible because the strict celibacy rule meant that they needed to recruit constantly in order to survive. There was also a strong work ethic, requiring each member of the community to work – each had an allotted task – and they were expected, in the words of Lee, to toil “as if you had 1,000 years to live, and as if you were going to die tomorrow”. Their craft work reflects the pride and care they took in their work.
The Shakers also believed that their communities would serve as a model by which they would attain redemption, a promise which they used to attract the new recruits which were their lifeblood. By 1850 there some 4,000 Shakers in America in communities from Maine to Kentucky – Lee’s last vision told her that they would find an ideal place for their communities out West.
Over the two centuries or so of their existence it is estimated that some 20,000 or so have lived their lives in whole or in part in accordance with the tenets Mother Lee established in accordance with her vision. There are now just a handful of Shakers but they have reason to hope. According to yet another Lee vision – how many can you have? – the community would be renewed when membership had dropped to five. You can imagine the remaining handful anxiously looking for any sign of ill-health amongst their colleagues. Needless to say, it’s not happened yet!