Upstate New York is a hub for spiritual cults and experimental societies. Many do not know that there is a little town in Albany County where the remnants of a revolutionary Christian sect -- the Shakers -- can be found. Famously, the John Fowles novel, A Maggot, builds on the supernatural mythology of the Shakers before they escaped England for the New World. Visit Watervliet to experience the fruits of unshakable (pun not intended) religious fervor and conviction.
Who Were The Shakers?
The Shakers were formally called the "United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing". The name "Shaker" came from outsiders who observed the bizarre rituals of the sect. During prayers and sermons, Shaker leaders claimed that the Holy Spirit would communicate with them. Supposedly, the presence of the Holy Spirit was so intense that the mortal flesh of the shaman was overwhelmed. From the outside, it looks like the Shakers, as conduits of God's energy, were having seizures, which is what the label "Shaking Quakers" or "Shaker" refers to. It is not all that uncommon for religious figures to exhibit similar behaviors during heightened spiritual states. Shamans from animist tribes all over the world enter hysteric states to contact ancestors, spirits, and deities. Similarly, Charismatic Christians, by placing exaggerated importance on the Holy Spirit, believe that miracles and faith healing can occur through violent shaking during prayer.
In the early 1700s, in northwestern England, a group of spiritual purists branched away from the Quakers, who are formally known as the "Religious Society of Friends". The main point of difference was to do with marriage and millenarianism.
- Fact: Millenarianism is the religious or metaphysical belief that society will be radically transformed by inevitable and predestined forces of nature and time.
The dominant Anglican Christians of England did not take kindly to this eccentric group, who openly claimed that all mainstream Christian denominations would be swept away along with Pagans and unrepentant sinners during the second coming of Christ.
Escaping violent mobs, the Shakers emigrated to the United States in 1776. The first settlement was in Upstate New York. At its peak, there were at least 2,000 Shakers. Unfortunately, their beliefs were so controversial that they attracted criticism and derision wherever they settled. Also, since the Shakers shunned marriage, practiced celibacy, and espoused egalitarian values, the population was bound to dwindle with time.
What Did The Shakers Believe?
In short, the Shaking Quakers believed in Biblical literalism, which, in practice, involves the adoption of the triple vows of Jesus: poverty, chastity, and obedience. They also believed that the end times were nigh.
One might be inclined to inquire, where did the Shakers derive their convictions? The answer to this is probably the most controversial and subversive aspect of the group. They believed that their leader, Mother Ann Lee, was the flesh incarnation of the messiah in the female form. She supposedly communicated directly with the Divine and claimed that society was on the verge of total transformation. The 19th century was to be the "Era of Manifestations". The crazy thing is that she was pretty much right. After her passing, the global order shifted dramatically, the industrial revolution exploded the world population, man became one with machines, and humanity was forever changed with no path of return or repentance to contain the forces that were unleashed.
Where Are The Shakers Now?
After the demise of the Shaker spiritual leaders, most followers left the faith or moved to Maine and Puritan New England, where the sparseness of land would allow them to practice their faith in peace. The original settlements in Upstate New York were sold to Albany County, and today exist as museums.
According to Wikipedia, there are two Shakers left in the world. The last Shaker settlement, if one can even call it that, is located in the state of Maine, in a small town called Sabbath Lake, near New Gloucester.
Visiting The First Shaker Settlement In New York
The first settlement was next to the prominent city of Albany, in Upstate New York. At the time, it was called Watervliet. Today, the town is called Colonie. There is much to see in the Watervliet Shaker Historic District. Many of the original structures were demolished by the government, but nine buildings are still standing today. In addition to this, visitors can pay respects to the Christ figure Ann Lee, whose final resting place is in the Shaker Cemetery of Watervliet.
While marriage was not allowed, the Shakers believed that spiritual relations are sufficient to form family bonds. Shaker "families" lived quite comfortably in three-story houses with attics, basements, and arable backyards. Some buildings burned down or crumbled, but the ones that survived are fine examples of Shaker architecture, which is quite impressive and ironically decadent. In each family house, men and women slept, communed, and lounged in separate areas with separate staircases. Another notable attraction is the Shaker Meeting House. It is a relatively plain wooden house that was rebuilt in 1848 to replace the original meetinghouse from 1791. At various points in Shaker history, buildings had to be replaced as the originals were built in a hurry by a poor and persecuted group of immigrants.