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Shakers on the Cutting Edge 28.8 56.6 DSL

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Communism in Early America? Nah, it's those Shaking Quakers!

Teddy in front of a Shaker barn
Have you ever met anyone who though he was God's gift to Earth? How about anyone who thought she was God ON Earth?

Every once in a while, a charismatic person comes along who is viewed as God living among humans: someone like Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammed, or even a cult leader such as David Koresh. On the U.C. Berkeley campus, where I went to college, there are about a half dozen preachers who feel so inspired by God that they spend all their energy spreading the word of the Bible. In India, there are literally thousands of living religious icons whose followers believe they are manifestations of God on Earth.

Could this guy be God on Earth? Ten million followers believe he is.
In 18th-century America, one of the most famous people who thought she was God on Earth was a woman. Her name was Ann Lee, and she was a member of the Christian dissident group called the Shakers.

Ann Lee had a lot going against her. She was born into a poor family in England in the 1700s. She never learned to read, because she was sent to work in a factory as a child.

While working as a cook in England, she joined a group of Shakers. The Shakers were a break-off group from the Quaker religion. Both groups got their name from the label "Shaking Quakers." Basically, the Shakers believed that it was possible to communicate directly with God. Shakers would go to a meetinghouse on Sundays and sit quietly until they felt motivated by God.

Little Red Daphne-hood sports Shaker wear.
When Shakers got motivated, they really got going. First, they would stand up, trembling, eyes closed. Then, as though they had little control of their own limbs, they would begin to dance, shout, and sing with intense fervor. The Shakers believe that their bodies were transistors for the power of God.

Ann Lee really let loose at these meetings. The physical episodes she experienced would leave everyone else staring at her in alarm. She would collapse, shake, and sweat blood from her pores. She would sometimes remain in this "touched by God" state for weeks. For nine years, her episodes were so powerful that she had to be fed like an infant.

At age 23, she emerged from these periods of intense quaking with a message from God. She said God was both mother and father, not just father. She told everyone that God had intended for males and females to be absolutely equal. Finally, the big bomb: she was the second coming of Christ, and they all had to prepare for the end of time.

"Mother Ann," as she was soon nicknamed, gathered a strong following and began to spread the gospel. Ann Lee and her followers sometimes went to the rather peaceful services of the Church of England. While the priest was delivering his sermon from the pulpit, Ann and her fellow Shakers would begin to sing and dance in the aisle. They were tossed into jail, but some of the churchgoers grew curious about a form of worship where the people relied on themselves, not the minister, to reach spiritual truths.

During one of her stays in jail, Ann got another message from God. According to Ann, God told her to move to America, where she could practice her religion without persecution. In contrast to England, America was in Ann's time a tolerant environment for various religious practices. One hundred years earlier, Ann might have been burned at the stake for her unorthodox form of worship, but when she arrived in 1774, America was open to most religious practices.

The laundry room used water from a nearby creek.
After getting settled in America for a year, the Shakers moved together to a farm outside Albany, New York. There, they set up the first farming community that was preparing for the end of the world. They called the new age that would come after the world's end the New Millennium.

With the powerful magnetism of a walking God in their midst, the Shakers' movement began to spread. After touring New England for two years, Ann Lee converted hundreds of folks who renounced their previous lives to join the Shaker community.

Joining the Shakers was a big commitment. For one thing, all property was shared, so no matter how much you loved riding your horse, you had to let everyone else use it. There was no currency. Everything belonged to everybody. There was no buying or selling. Not even bartering was allowed.

You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself about...
Furthermore, males and females did not mix in Shaker society. They ate separately, worshiped on separate ends of the meetinghouse, and worked in different areas on the farm. That meant that if a wife and husband joined the Shakers, they had to discontinue their previous relationship and adopt the proper method of interaction. If they already had kids, the whole community would adopt the children.

Also, once you joined, there was no way you were going to have any more kids. Sexual relations were strictly forbidden! This meant that it would be hard for the Shakers to continue as a group, since they didn't reproduce, but instead had to recruit. But they didn't care, because they thought the day of redemption was at hand.

The Shakers spent a good deal of the day at work. No luxurious items were made in the Shaker community; everything was simple and made to last. Their furniture is world-famous for its fine craftsmanship. They also invented things like apple peelers and double rolling pins. In all, the tiny group of Shakers patented 22 inventions.

The Shakers gained many converts from the poor and homeless population who heard about a safe haven in the countryside where everyone was welcome. Also, lots of unwanted children and orphans were brought up in Shaker communities.

Don't forget number one!
Ann Lee died only ten years after she had arrived in America, at the age of 49. Shakers continued to believe that she had been Christ revisiting Earth, and the community grew steadily. By the 1850s, there were 6,000 Shakers in America. All of the members practiced the doctrines of celibacy (meaning no sex) and communal ownership of property.

However, today, there is only one Shaker community left in America, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It is so small that the Shakers could all fit comfortably in a minivan. They are the remainder of what began as a Utopian community whose plan was to make Heaven on Earth. ("Utopia" means an ideal community.)

Well, dudes and dudettes, the story doesn't end with these guys. The whole point of the Shakers is that their story poses some important questions. Are women and men equal? Does God live within each of us, or must we communicate with God through religious authority figures? Why on earth did God make Ann Lee sweat blood for nine years?

Teddy points out his favorite garden herb
I am proud that the Shakers were allowed to exist in our young nation. America was founded on a principle: freedom. However much we have violated that principle in our short history, we should celebrate the times when freedom of thought, worship, and lifestyle flourished.


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Public school's best friend
Daphne - Standing up for the mentally ill
Rebecca - A simple walk 'round Walden Pond
Teddy - Intellectuals plow into a farming commune
Kevin - Class struggle takes center stage
Ned - Looking for Utopia - and mint chocolate chip ice cream
MAD - Homeless shouldn't mean hopeless