The three pillars of the Shaker belief were Church, Community and Celibacy.
Besides the Sunday services, the Shakers believed that work itself was sacred and a job well done was as much a
prayer to God as a Church service. One of their mottos was “Put your handsto Work, and your hearts to God.”
Essentially agricultural, the Shakers ran large and productive farms. Most of
the work was split along traditional gender lines. Their standards of
cleanliness (not at all common in that time) meant their livestock was fat and
healthy, their milk pure and disease free. Although most people have heard of
the Shaker furniture, they also ran many businesses to support themselves. Many
villages had their own mills, tanneries, basket making and broom making shops.
They were famous for their medicinal herbs and seeds, which they sold via traveling
wagons. They were creative inventors as well and many of the villages had
machinery far in advance of the neighboring farms. Their attempt to create perfection resulted in
the high quality of their products that we admire today.
The Sisters, besides cooking, caring for the children, doing laundry and housework, spun and
wove cloth that was famous for its high quality. They were equal to the men.
Every Family had two Elders and two Eldresses, two Deacons and two Deaconesses
to share the authority for the community. The Shakers believed that God was
both male and female and of equal importance.
Marriages were not allowed and married couples that joined a Family were expected to live as brother and sister. Men and Women were segregated although Unions, where the Brethren and the Sisters could meet and talk on a regular basis, became a feature of the village life.
Ah, but how could there be children when Celibacy was strictly practiced? Answer: The Shakers took in orphans and childrenwhose parents could not care for them, frequently finding foundlings upon theirdoorsteps. The children were trained in the skills they would need as adult: farmingand animal husbandry for the boys and cooking, preserving food, spinning and
weaving for the girls.
In an age where literacy was not the norm, especially
for girls, all the children were taught to read and write. The girls attended
school in the summer, the boys in the winter. When the children reached the age
of twenty one, they were free to choose between remaining or leaving. Many of
the children raised by the Shakers married.
Converts donated all their worldly
possessions to the Family. No one who needed help was turned away,
However, including those who had nothing to give. The certainty of regular meals must have been a powerful draw for
people who were always on the edge of starvation. A term was coined to describe people who converted during the winter and then left the family during the summer: Winter Shakers.
Eventually, with the shift ofAmerica from a rural to an urban society the flood of new converts began to
diminish and by the 1930’s the number of members had declined so severely that several
villages were closed and much of the land sold off.