001.1 The Shakers | Skipping Ahead of the Apocalypse

Founder Story, Pitch and Recruitment Strategy

This is the first of six weekly articles in the Atlas Urbium pilot season on the Shakers. A pre-release of each article is shared with AU NFT collectors, who join the core team and an invited Builder to discuss it on token-gated channels before publication.

This week we had @EricWollberg, Head of Community at Praxis, join our collectors for a conversation on this article, which spawned discussions about: the concept of the frontier in a finite, interconnected world; opportunities for community projects during moments of instability; sum-positive neighbor relations; the current crisis of meaning; self-actualization as a service; designed versus emergent social contracts; the relationship between cultural movements and physical world endeavors; building solid cultures in the absence of the need for mutual aid; leveraging institutions with deep ideological roots; and more…

If you’d like to join the next conversation, or know more about the Atlas Urbium pilot season, read this.

Why start here?

Shakerism was a bottom-up, bootstrapped religious movement. It was a community first project that gathered people with a common set of goals and worldview. It then leveraged the talent, resources and time of this dispersed community to build out a coordinated network of villages in the image of their ideals. Shakerism came up as people before product. Its strength was in developing enough ideological and social consensus amidst the community. This enabled the creation of a coordination system, which allowed all members to effectively pool together what they could bring to the project to make something that was more than the sum of its parts; to develop a sustainable economy and a functional governance system that allowed the community to live out its image of the good life during its days on earth.

Shaker Gift Drawing. I Am the Lord Your God, Unknown Maker, 1843, Collection of the Shaker Museum
Shaker Gift Drawing. I Am the Lord Your God, Unknown Maker, 1843, Collection of the Shaker Museum

We’ve dedicated our first article to how the Shakers created their early community precisely because of all the reasons cited above. Shakerism was like a startup in that it needed to come up with a product that could disrupt the market of available options. It was like a social DAO in that it developed out of a community’s collective search to action the abstract values that brought them together. And it was like a political movement in that it leveraged the basic rights of its members within an existing government to develop new rules and privileges that were in the service of their vision. In all these scenarios, how you build your ‘team’ at the get-go is fundamental.

This is why we’ve chosen to focus this first article on how the Shaker founder came up, the story she told to motivate others, and the recruitment tools that she developed to bind the curious to her cause.

Who is Ann Lee?

Ann Lee was a factory girl from Manchester who in 1758 became involved with a society of religious dissenters led by a Quaker couple named Jane and James Wardley. This was the time of the Seven Years’ War, the first conflict of truly global dimension. It was also a moment of heated debate regarding the changes brought on by the technical innovations of the now established Industrial Revolution.

The Wardleys gathered people at their property for religious meetings, but they didn’t have a structured set of doctrines. They professed the end of days, and worshiped through informal services in which members underwent trance-like spiritual experiences. Each member expressed their spiritual feelings in an intense, chaotic assembly of dances, screams, songs, unintelligible rambles, immobility and fervorous embraces. The name ‘Shakers’ comes from these early practices of the Wardley ‘shaking Quakers’.

Although the Wardley encounters raised some eyebrows, they were one of many similar sects in a time when status quo religious institutions did not change fast enough to answer the needs of individuals living under new social circumstances. They were part of a reaction perhaps not unlike the recent surge of enthusiasm for alternative spiritual and intellectual awakenings mediated by psychedelics: with globalization’s erosion of the cult of the ‘secular’ nation-state, people have turned to new projects and rituals that might quell the anxieties of a world upended by technological acceleration.

A depiction of the Shaker whirling gift. Shakers of the mid 18th century began to feel the spirit of Mother Ann speak through them in ways that may have resembled the ecstatic worship of the Wardley sect
A depiction of the Shaker whirling gift. Shakers of the mid 18th century began to feel the spirit of Mother Ann speak through them in ways that may have resembled the ecstatic worship of the Wardley sect

Ann Lee entered the Wardley sect as a follower, until a series of experiences changed her. She apparently had a contorted relationship with sex since childhood, but it only became worse when her father forced a marriage upon her. Lee lost all four of her children in infancy, which led her to develop an aversion to all kinds of carnal gratification. After a period of personal suffering and doubt, Ann Lee began to see her traumatic experiences as a symbol of a larger human struggle. She took it upon herself to raise her voice within the Wardley sect, and eventually started preaching beyond it.

Ann Lee, who would come to be referred to as Mother Ann, vocally condemned the cohabitation of the sexes as the cardinal human sin. She went around with her followers rejecting worldliness of all kinds, interrupting religious services and disrespecting the Sabbath. After a series of threats, brawls and legal charges, Mother Ann ended up in prison for a couple of days.

In prison, she had a divine vision that led her to America. There, she would be able to find a New World population ready to hear her message, and the freedom to spread it across the land. In 1774, she departed for New York with less than ten followers. In the towns of New England, the Shaker project began to take form.

Washington Crossing The Delaware (in 1776), Emanuel Leutze, Americano, 1851, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Washington Crossing The Delaware (in 1776), Emanuel Leutze, Americano, 1851, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Where did the Shakers land?

Until her departure to America, Mother Ann’s religious experiences and worldly efforts remained irreverent, disorganized and somewhat incoherent. Once in New York however, her project acquired another dimension. Making do as fresh arrivals, Mother Ann and her followers started to think more carefully about how to spread their message and how to create a communal life surrounded by fellow Believers.

The American Revolutionary War against England broke out less than a year after the Shakers landed at the port of New York. Mother Ann and her group dispersed and laid low for a couple of years, but in 1779, they managed to establish themselves on a tract of land near Albany, in Niskayuna. There, they toiled away through the cold New England winter, working toward economic independence. It was at this point that the Shaker story transformed from yet one more commune full of people entranced by the persona of their leader, to a veritable movement and a discrete form of collective identity nested within the larger American revolutionary experiment.

New England’s Dark Day in 1780 marked the pivot between the Shakers’ retreat into a corner of the countryside, and their outward mission that would eventually yield a thousands-strong network of Believers living in coordinated communities across the country. On Dark Day, a series of Canadian forest fires fogged the sky over New England, requiring the use of candlelight during the day. It is this seemingly premonitory event that motivated Mother Ann to restart her proselytizing efforts. She became one more in the scene of local preachers across rural New England calling upon small congregations to participate in a moral reorientation of society before the end of days came.

Dark Day (1780), Richard Devens, 1878
Dark Day (1780), Richard Devens, 1878

Mother Ann’s project was to gather people to live together in an enlightened way that opposed the moral decay that pervaded the world as it appeared to her. Despite all the forces in formation during her time, it was the unraveling of the old order that probably occupied most people’s minds. This is something that perhaps we can relate to.

Mother Ann was up against quite a bit of competition in the sect-building space of the late 19th century. America was in the midst of a second round of Protestant religious revivalism, with tons of small churches or preachers advocating for different means towards salvation. Ann Lee was in somewhat of a disadvantage in this landscape. Her pacifist views and her British accent raised suspicion everywhere she went. People thought her call to exit worldly life was a way of sabotaging the American revolution.

What was Mother Ann’s pitch?

Mother Ann’s pitch was one of the two original things that gave her an advantage in the field. She was able to articulate the urgency of the problem she had identified, which in this case was existential. She was also able to offer a solution to said problem that felt more accessible than those of her competitors. For anyone that has poured endless hours into pitch decks trying to understand how to make their project’s value proposition more compelling to others, it's probably obvious why this is a critical aspect of the Shaker story.

Ann Lee’s interpretation of reality was in line with other Millennialist traditions, where a specific event is supposed to mark a transformational moment for society. In 19th century America we can think of the Second Coming of Christ. But this is not that different from a psychological perspective to a climatic or nuclear apocalypse–both of which are very present in our minds these days.

Millennial events generally need to be somewhere in the near future in order to recruit a following through fear of them. There also need to be signs that they are arriving. Most of the places Mother Ann began to visit in New England were rural communities where her competitors followed this model. They had existing groups that were either waiting for this event, or disillusioned by a prediction of it that had not materialized.

Mother Ann took a different route. The Shakers believed that Christ’s Second Appearing was in fact real, and had already happened. However, it had not materialized as the world-on-fire scene that many imagined. It was, instead, a disappearance of spiritual opportunity and order from the world. Sinners had been left in their devolving chaos. That chaos of the corrupt church that Protestantism had unmasked; of the violent affair that the secularization of the state looked like during the Revolutionary War. Like any change of historical dimension, where some saw the possibility of an enlightened future, others saw the end of everything noble and pure. Painting a picture of a point of no return amidst rural communities in New England was definitely viable.

Ann Lee preached that lost souls remained in the world, turning in their sin, ignorant that a possibility for salvation had finally opened up; a chance to walk alongside Christ on earth. There was now a threshold that could be crossed for those that wished to live a pure life beyond the world. This is in essence what being part of a Shaker community meant.

What was life ‘beyond’ the world?

Shakerism was different from Christian monastic traditions that had been around for a thousand years at that point. Monasticism was a retreat from the world allowed to some that wanted to lead an ascetic life of contemplation and service.. Shakerism was life beyond the world itself, open to anyone that voluntarily crossed its threshold and consensually obeyed the communal order that lay within.

The gravestone of Mother Ann Lee in the Shaker cemetery in Watervliet, New York, where her remains were moved after she was exhumed 1835. Her grave is the same as that of every other Shaker in the cemetery, apart from being a couple inches larger
The gravestone of Mother Ann Lee in the Shaker cemetery in Watervliet, New York, where her remains were moved after she was exhumed 1835. Her grave is the same as that of every other Shaker in the cemetery, apart from being a couple inches larger

For Shakers, death was no longer the threshold that marked entry into an other-worldly garden. This was very clear in their austere cultural practices around death. Shaker burial rituals were unceremonious by most standards. Believers were laid on a plank as soon as they passed, wrapped in a winding sheet, and buried in a simple pine coffin. Their graves were marked with a plain stone burial marker that was the same for all, and very few records were kept in the society of the lives of individual Believers. This was not a moment of individual transcendence, and it was not worth highlighting as such. In a way, life in a Shaker village was already a form of the after-life, and death was purely the shedding of a Believer’s physical existence, the body of which was not necessary for further resurrections.

Communal grave stone at the Shaker cemetery in Canterbury, New Hampshire.
Communal grave stone at the Shaker cemetery in Canterbury, New Hampshire.

In many places Shakers eventually opted to further de-emphasize individual death by doing away with conventional grave markers, using the existing grave stones as pavers in their villages. They replaced the individual markers with a simple collective one, emphasizing their communal identity as an awoken, other-worldly people formally self-labeled as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing; a peoples purportedly beyond the fear of death itself.

With this pitch of a paradise-possible on earth, Ann Lee made a leap ahead of her competing preachers. Shakerism was more worthwhile believing in. It was a more attractive answer to the fears of puritanical rural communities. Ann Lee did not advocate sitting around dwelling on guilt and repenting for damages done. This wasn’t about trying to do enough good to live up to the gifts of an all forgiving Father. Ann Lee offered the devout a familiar narrative, but one which gave them a clean slate and immediately opened up the doors into a state of spiritual salvation.

How did ‘shaking’ affect recruitment?

Mother Ann began to travel from town to town where there were signs of religious fervor, engaging both community members and local religious leaders that had the potential to bring their entire flock with them to Shakerism. Compared to the many other Protestant services, the Shaker meetings were profoundly sensual and bodily. The ‘shaking quakers’ shook because God did not speak to them, but rather through them. They channeled this powerful energy from the inside out, and underwent what people described as truly ecstatic and mysterious religious experiences. Observers to the service didn’t have to fully understand how sinister sex or ornament were, as the Shakers believed. They didn’t have to trust that years of meditative mantras and rituals would open up the channels to a transcendent state through their faith. For a moment, they saw the result right in front of them, and in many cases, they felt it too. Their heads shook violently, they were called to speak unintelligible tongues, and they physically felt something more intense than what intimacy could offer. Early Shakers didn’t ask people to abandon worldly delight without offering them a superior sensual pleasure of their own.

There are many reasons why organized religious systems avoid these ecstatic and visceral forms of worship. They exceptionalize the religious experience rather than encourage social cohesion. They limit the capacity of a political institution like a church to regulate what is and isn't a veritable message. In the establishment of an order that goes beyond a charismatic leader, the monopoly over the interpretation of signs is an important form of temporal power. One which needs to be acquired by transitioning from offering short-lived ecstatic experiences to longer term pragmatic benefits for the believer along a well-designed spiritual route plan.

Museum interpreter showing the basic hand movements involved in the canonized version of Shaker dance
Museum interpreter showing the basic hand movements involved in the canonized version of Shaker dance

The Shakers themselves would move away from these services and into highly ritualized and regulated ways of worship as they formalized into an egalitarian society. But whilst an underdog, this appeal to spiritually-infused pleasure was a competitive advantage that the Shakers had over more ossified religious organizations.

Wherever Shakers went in these early days, they raised as much enthusiasm as they did suspicion amongst different segments of a community. They experienced all sorts of verbal, physical and sometimes even legal violence that they responded to with a pacifism that must have seemed as other-worldly as their capacity to physically channel spirits. Mother Ann’s skull paid for some of the damage that came from these tensions, but Shakerism probably benefited from it overall. The persecution narrative defined the edges around Shakerism, and reinforced an unconditional pack mentality amongst its early members. Both the woke and those that feel threatened by their cultural project probably thrive off a similar kind of othering of the opponent today.

How did Shakers bind recruits to the project?

To exit the world and cross the threshold into Shakerism during their recruitment events, there was one simple but well chosen demonstration required: the act of confession to a brother or sister. Maybe this sounds boiler-plate to some, but in a territory marked by puritanical expressions of Protestantism, this was a powerful way of binding people of the world to the Shaker community.

One of the fundamental tenets of Protestant Christianity is Martin Luther’s interpretation of the priesthood of all believers, whereby he un-drew the line between the spiritual and secular membership of the church; between priest and believer. This was of course an affront to the Roman Catholic Church, which in Luther’s view had become abusive through its near monopoly on spiritual authority, requiring the payment of unreasonable indulgences in exchange for penance. This perhaps had more to do with temporal politics than doctrinal issues. However, it had a profound impact on the structure of societies that fell to Protestantism; those same societies that have the most dominant cultural and technological influence over the West today.

Portrait of Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529, Collection of the Uffizi
Portrait of Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529, Collection of the Uffizi

Protestantism is much more customizable than Roman Catholicism by virtue of the principle of the priesthood of all believers. It is a doctrine and a history that ties churches together, but allows their infinite, permissionless proliferation. This is one of its major differences to Roman Catholicism, where doctrine is bound to a single, hierarchical temporal power: the church. Protestants share the bible but they are each, as individuals or communities, responsible for interpreting its applications directly.

This responsibility gives more freedom to the individual believer, in exchange for a lack of guidance. Each is responsible for figuring out the right set of rituals that in practice accompany the lessons of the bible. Although this is an incredible spiritual opportunity for some, it is perhaps also where Protestantism fails others.

Confession is one of these rituals that presents a challenge. There is no power that tells you with absolute certainty how to do it, or when you are absolved. This lack of clarity is a contributing factor to the moralistic character of Protestant society. When in doubt about something important, most will try to avoid erring. And when that something is as serious as the degree to which we have absolved ourselves of sin, it makes sense to apply it all the way down to mundane, everyday events.

This issue also has a dimension that relates to living in the company of others. In Protestant faiths, God has already forgiven you for your sins. A good Christian lives up to that benevolence by constantly striving to become what Christ died for him to become. If you are not engaged in this process of Theosis, the question arises: are you a Christian after all? And if you’re not, is there actually salvation in store for you?

If you sin, and you fear this means that you are an ‘other’, you don’t necessarily want your community to know. After all, they are on that same journey; they have similar uncertainties about salvation. Why risk it by association with individuals that may be irreversibly damned? This is distinct from Roman Catholicism since in that case, there is actually a tangible dependence on the rest of the congregation–on the family of the church–to achieve salvation.

All of these issues make the Protestant spiritual journey not only an individual one full of freedoms, but also in certain ways a lonely one. The believer carries his sins, his guilt and his shame more alone. Salvation is not something always on the horizon; you are rather constantly grappling with whether you are, or are not one of the saved. We still see many features of this psyche in its secularized form in the United States: the application of rigid morals to everyday actions that may not be so consequential in practice; the urge to identify on what side of an ideological line we stand; the abject fear to err in a moral assessment in front of others; the satisfaction that comes with flagging virtues and demonstrating to others how good we are at policing bad actors. Social penance in America today comes at a much higher cost than the payment of those indulgences that Luther contested.

These are many of the behaviors that have upheld American society for centuries. They are the same ones that are igniting culture wars and cementing differences as the manifest destiny of the nation-state trembles.

It’s within this religious context that the use of confession as the threshold into the other-worldly was a powerful move. Firstly, it was a clear answer with a parameterized procedure. But it must have also been an extraordinary human experience for a Puritan carrying all her skeletons on her own; living in fear of being ostracized by even her closest peers. In a world where having community and comfort required silence, putting all the darkest parts of you in front of a Shaker brother or sister and receiving only love in exchange must have been an incredible experience. Testimonies of these conversion sessions show that people felt an immense sense of release, as if a giant lifelong weight had been taken off their chest. It marked an exit from a world of sinful hustlers each carrying their own weight, into a virtuous afterlife of compassion, fraternity and co-dependence.

Stereoscopic view of the Church Family dining room at the Canterbury Shaker Village, New Hampshire, Kimball Studio, c. 1880. Shakers lived an absolutely communal, but highly regulated lifestyle. They worked, ate and rested in silence, following a strict schedule that made life a ritual in itself
Stereoscopic view of the Church Family dining room at the Canterbury Shaker Village, New Hampshire, Kimball Studio, c. 1880. Shakers lived an absolutely communal, but highly regulated lifestyle. They worked, ate and rested in silence, following a strict schedule that made life a ritual in itself

Confessing to a Shaker was not the semi-anonymous experience of talking to a priest at a confessional booth. It was peer to peer, and this made it binding in the most human of ways. Everyone knows what this is like at some level. Whether with a friend or a partner, vulnerable acts of confession are powerful experiences, dangers aside. There is a deep feeling of acceptance and understanding on one side, and a certain honor or sense of self-importance on the other. It is a mutually rewarding experience that cannot be taken back. It is an act that immediately creates a feeling of mutual destiny, and radically increases the degree to which we become tolerant of the faults of the other. It is the moment when ‘another’ becomes one of our own. Anyone was welcome through this gate into Shaker life. All that was expected is that they obeyed the orders within.

A studio portrait of the eldresses and sisters from Canterbury and SabbathDay Lake Shaker Villages, c. 1880
A studio portrait of the eldresses and sisters from Canterbury and SabbathDay Lake Shaker Villages, c. 1880

Closing thoughts

We think that the early adoption of Shakerism can be attributed to the following:

  • A founder that arrived at a profound conviction for her project through personal struggles
  • A superior narrative that felt more accessible than competing ones, without sacrificing on its promise
  • An emotionally and sensually intense communal ritual
  • An answer to the problem of Protestant confession that bound recruits to their fellow Shakers

Mother Ann offered agreeable answers to difficult questions in people's minds. She demonstrated that she could help them tap into transcendental spiritual experiences, and she relieved them of their weightiest guilt and secrets. If we add that Shakers would achieve a degree of prosperity that made the quality of life within their communities superior to those of their surroundings by all basic material standards, we can start to piece together the success of the Shaker experiment, despite some of its most structural challenges.

Next week, we will dive into some of the details about how the Shakers went from a commune with a dozen members near Albany to a network of believers across state lines. This will then allow us to dive into the governance and coordination protocols that they managed to establish in order to turn the goodwill and conviction of a generation of Believers into a prosperous, multi-generational endeavor.

Collector Creds

This article was produced with the support of the following AU Early Collectors:

0x7061Ed44F568a1a408a3dE397be5066B76F0dCd9, 0xa36b3FC258f12283Fb38E86832965700db828128, @sdalcega, metaverseplayer.eth, @chancecollabs, grantschneider.eth, 0xBcB4dC8c178258B6b4800334F66941B4289b41Af, eczacia.eth, 0x2DBd790553eeB5DA59EfF598758E087632225b2c, 0xcFloki.eth, remaxtr.eth, 0x0cbe02bea5c7884955fb1364fb2451d0f970ba13, 0xb36a051bf399febf6aa30eff9e65ce57288afecc, 0xf948f029b1370aa6bbb07e473b2573aa7d14a4b1, 0x799aa6d5a146adbae47794bf12556eebcc689943, @herdemkefxwes, 0xa2b68941d64e6a7eea45d507c6e385c4791c83e0, 0x9d19fdbc6f5760e72f31b1d3fc32733b50c89080, 0x7e1e7f5e5a3de22207223aebb30bfcd1514039ed, @brunozell, sylksie.eth

Up Next

001 The Shakers | Scaling Paradise: From a Node to a Network

  • PRE-RELEASE: Friday, April 8th, 2022
  • COLLECTOR DISCUSSION: 6:00 PM EDT, Tuesday, April 12th 2022
  • RELEASE: Thursday, April 14th, 2022

001 The Shakers | A Regulated Lifestyle: Ownership and Coordination Protocols

  • PRE-RELEASE: Friday, April 15, 2022
  • COLLECTOR DISCUSSION: 6:00 PM EDT, Tuesday, April 19th, 2022
  • RELEASE: Thursday, April 21st, 2022

001 The Shakers | Debt Freedom: Funding and Revenue Model

  • PRE-RELEASE: Friday, April 22nd, 2022
  • COLLECTOR DISCUSSION: 6:00 PM EDT, Tuesday, April 26th 2022
  • RELEASE: Thursday, April 28th, 2022

001 The Shakers | Together but Apart: Relations With the World

  • PRE-RELEASE: Friday, April 29th, 2022
  • COLLECTOR DISCUSSION: 6:00 PM EDT, Tuesday May 3rd, 2022
  • RELEASE: Thursday, May 5th, 2022

001 The Shakers | An Ascetic Aesthetic: Cultural Consolidation and Decline

  • PRE-RELEASE: Friday, May 6th, 2022
  • COLLECTOR DISCUSSION: 6:00 PM EDT, Tuesday, May 10th, 2022
  • RELEASE: Thursday, May 12th, 2022

If you have any questions about the season or Atlas Urbium more generally, DM us on Twitter or join the conversation on Discord!


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