The Shaking Quakers were formed in Northwest England in 1747 as a splinter group of Quakers. One of their members, Ann Lee, with 8 of her followers, brought the Shaker religion to the Colonies in 1774, immigrating to New York after Ann received a revelation from God. By 1779, the group had acquired land in northwest New York and began to preach their beliefs which included that each person’s ability to experience a direct relationship with God was expressed through ecstatic behavior such as dancing and speaking in tongues. It is this way of worship that earned the group the name of Shaking Quakers or Shakers, for short.
In 1781 , Ann Lee began a missionary tour and found a group of disgruntled Protestants who had left the church in Harvard, Massachusetts. From this group, a Shaker Village was formed upon the four basic tenets of their faith: communal living, celibacy, regular confession of sins and separation from the outside world. The Shaker Village was made up of several spiritual families whose members were grouped according to their spiritual maturity and commitment to Shakerism. Within the family, men and women lived separately in large communal housing. Ann Lee was called “Mother Ann” while men were called “Brother” and women “Sister”. Each Shaker family within a village was an autonomous unit responsible for its own viability. The families planted gardens and built houses, barns and workshops. At Harvard, the Village was made up of the Church, North, South and East Complexes.
The Shakers worked hard to insure the primacy of the spiritual over biological family. However, the biological family continued to play an important role. At Harvard, records reveal that most of the first converts came with at least one other family member.
In restructuring the family, the Shakers were forced to confront notions of gender as well. Their notion of community required that both women and men act androgynously which promoted gender equality. Young women were drawn to the Shakers as well as abused wives. The US 1790 census shows that the ratio of women to men at the Harvard Shaker village was about 2:1.
The Shakers were also subjected to persecution. At Harvard, two documented incidents exist, one in 1782 and one in 1783. Angry mobs converged about the village and whipped the Shaker men. In the 1783 incident, Bethiah Prescott Willard tried to stop the lashing of Shaker William Lee and was beaten so badly that she bore the scars for the rest of her life. Insteading of stopping the Shakers, it actually encouraged them by convincing them that they were beaten for speaking the truth.
Today what remains of the Shaker Village at Harvard is a National Park.
Sources: “O Sisters Ain’t You Happy? Gender, Family and Community Among the Harvard and Shirley Shakers” by Suzanne R. Thurman and the U.S. National Park Service