This is the second 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 that support the research, who join the core team and an invited Builder to discuss it on token-gated channels before publication.
This week our invited Builder was Kenji López Rivera, CEO of Urvita, a network of co-livings in Mexico powered by a tokenized fractional real estate model. The discussion with Kenji and our collectors took us through ways in which the real estate market is broken; aligning values and investments; selling results over political agendas; collapsing worldviews into products; bootstrapping IRL communities through crowdfunding; the ‘third generation problem’ of all cultural endeavors; correlations between fertility and innovation; cultural versus genetic contributions of citizen classes; alternative structures of familial obligation; and more…
If you’d like to join the next conversation, or know more about the Atlas Urbium pilot season, read this.
In last week’s article, we covered several topics that we think are essential to understand the foundational moments of Shaker society. We described where the movement comes from; what the story of its founder was; the basic value proposition behind Shaker beliefs; and some of the practices that facilitated early recruitment of members. The Early Collector discussion of this material yielded a series of reflections that we think are worth mentioning as a prelude to this article.
The first is that although our objective is to dissect much of the mechanics behind the development of community building movements, we cannot discount the sincerity behind the actions that we are describing in the history of the Shaker religious society. As outsiders, we are very curious about the design behind what took place. However, even just a close look at what we know about founder Mother Ann reveals that sincere belief and conviction played a much more fundamental role in the rise of Shakerism than calculation. The full arc of Shaker history shows us that the preservation of a balance between these two forces is key. There was something organic and profoundly human about the rise of Shakerism, even if a lot of calculation would go into its consolidation as a social unit.
The second reflection worth mentioning is that we cannot undervalue the power of building on top of a strong institutional framework. For as much as governance in Protestant faith is a rather decentralized affair–forking a church is easy by most other standards–it represented for Shakers a thick ideological, religious and cultural floor upon which to build a new form of consensus. This is less obvious to us today. Maybe it is because the ground is less stable–although in the case of the Shakers the disruptive Enlightenment was in the backdrop as well. Maybe it's because whatever this ground is today, it is less overt or apparent.
These two points raise several questions about community building projects in the present. What are the implicit cultural foundations that create social cohesion amidst a community? How much of it can be designed or constructed in human rather than historical timeframes? What projects will succeed at capitalizing on new coordination tools first? Ones with cleverly designed ideological constructs? Or ones that manage to put these tools at the service of pre-existing cultural compacts? Building an innovative purpose for a novel tool can be revolutionary. But giving a powerful, new tool to a group that already has its own cultural and political objectives could catalyze revolutions themselves much faster; with all the opportunities and horrors that lie down this path.
In the first few years of the 1780’s, Mother Ann was able to amass a following in the thousands across American colonies that were in the process of independence from England. To some degree, we can attribute this to her strategy and messaging. However, there is also a timing component.
Mother Ann Lee began to actively spread her message in America just a couple of years before the spread of the Second Great Awakening, an ecclesiastical reform movement and period of American spiritual revival. Great Awakening movements advocated for a more direct relationship between individuals and God, but they also emphasized the role of institutions in the process of salvation. It was a period in which new churches attracted important followings, and where a common sentiment that unified people across the colonies resulted in a more fragmented landscape of religious organizations.
There are a lot of parallels between this description of the Second Great Awakening of the 1790s and the Shaker experiment of the 1780s. We interpret this as a sign of being early; whilst sentiments brooded, but the proliferation of competing projects had not reached escape velocity. Shakers were on the one hand premonitory of this religious revival. On the other, they represented a more consolidated experiment within an American lineage of communal utopianism based on Millenarian visions.
The Millennium is a place at the end of time, when good has conquered victory over evil. By the time Shakers arrived in America, there had been at least a hundred years of experiments to live communally in relation to a Millennial event. Whereas some–premillennialists–expected a brutal catastrophic event, others–postmillennialists–believed in the need to progressively achieve this victory through worldly labor.
Shakerism landed somewhere on the spectrum between these opposing poles. As Desroche puts it, Shakers lived in a concrete utopia; one that occurred right now; one that was real, but not in this world. Life in Shaker communities was a denial of our earthliness. It was an exercise of constant work, like that of postmillennialists, but not to give birth to the millennium at some point in the future. By living a pure life, Shakers could prove that the catastrophic event of the premillennialists had already occurred. Desroche summarizes the Shaker mentality as follows: “Live like angels, and insofar as you do so, you shall see that the end of the world is already here.”
This ‘third way’ of the Shakers proved to be a successful conception, but it did so precisely because it was answering to a sentiment that was already on the ground. As we described earlier, it capitalized on pre-existing demand, and provided an answer that was spelled out in a language that had a solid, legitimate foundation. Shakerism was a re-articulation of Protestant belief, not an ex-novo proposition.
In the right moment, and with the right value proposition, Mother Ann reaped a field that had already been sowed by another. She rolled up a piece of a market that was ripe for the taking more than she built it herself from scratch.
Mother Ann spent four years traveling the American Northeast in order to spread her message and build a membership, armed with the tools discussed in last week’s article. Alongside some of her earliest followers, she recruited individual members, but also leaders of local congregations in small communities.
This tactic allowed Shakers to scale their growth faster, since local shepherds brought their flock with them. However, it also meant that Shakers picked up members that had a higher degree of religious literacy and liturgical talent. In fact, the third and perhaps most important leader of Shaker society after Mother Ann was one such convert: a Baptist elder named Joseph Meacham. Mecham was skeptical of this unknown English woman that had come out of the woods of Niskayuna. However, Mother Ann’s magnetic personality and persuasiveness ultimately convinced him that she was the long awaited Second Coming of Christ from the scriptures, presented in female flesh.
Shakers experienced a fair share of resistance during their New England tour. They were called heretics, accused of Catholicism, trapped by mobs inside buildings to be stoned, and like in Manchester before that, imprisoned. However, different to the irreverent instigation of conflict that characterized Mother Ann’s Manchester years, Shakers dealt with this resistance through pacifism.
As a cotton worker in one of the most industrialized cities of the world at that point, Mother Ann understood violence as intrinsic to the modern world and the human condition. She lost her mother to childbirth in the family smith shop, and her own four children in the industrial workplace. She lived a proletarian existence, devoid of privacy in a home overcrowded by offspring, and according to Desroche, likely abused at work.
In America, she had seen the opportunity for a life beyond that. For a ‘family’ structure free of the violence of procreation, and for an existence free of pain from the world, achieved through the creation of a pacifist retreat on the frontier; away from the societal malaises of the urban world she came from.
Embracing the violence that the world threw at her during her mission with solemn inaction cost Mother Ann physical toil, but it was also probably advantageous. It tightened the social bonds between Believers, further convicted by exposure to strife. It also played into the Shaker aura of a community of people living beyond the earthly human condition; unmoved to conventional forms of self defense.
In a context in which the American colonies were engaged in a great struggle for freedom, Shakerism passed under the rug as a harmless sect in a way that may have otherwise been different. The polemics that Shakers stirred wherever they went only fed the degree to which Americans across New England were exposed to their project.
As the main community grew and organized itself in Niskayuna, Mother Ann’s mission left new nodes across New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island. Although there were few organizational protocols, new members self-organized in these nodes, with the participation of Shakers that came and went from Niskayuna, or stayed behind as Ann Lee moved onto the next location.
Growth of the society exceeded its organizational ability, so the young church depended on donations of food and money to survive. Believers with means would consecrate their goods to the cause–in the form of land, buildings, businesses or money–and offer what these could procure to other converts free of cost. Wherever she went, Mother Ann left behind ‘families’ that organized around these donations, trying to interpret her preaching into a form of practice.
Mother Ann is not responsible for giving Shakerism the social structure to become self-sufficient, but she did not see the organization as having strictly religious functions. She emphasized the need for socio-economic organization around the principle of the family:
“It will be like a man’s begging in the world, raising up a family of children, gathering an interest and then dying, and leaving his interest with his children, who will improve thereon and gather more.”
Mother Ann insisted on industry as part of the path to emancipation, trying to reconfigure work from the drudging experience she must have undergone in Manchester, into a ritualized form of worship. For her Shaker life meant putting “hands to work, hearts to God”. Whilst she lived, her followers began to develop a principle of joint interest amongst all Believers in the church, even if it would only be formalized much later.
Like many early startup founders, Mother Ann had a series of wild ideas that most were skeptical of, but enough were curious about. She had boundless energy to give to the project. She knew how to pitch to people that could bring their labor and talent to the project, as well as people that could contribute financial resources to buy the project time until the economic model was figured out. All on the promise of future value of some sort. And she happened upon the right time to build for her crazy ideas.
Mother Ann died a year after her return to Niskayuna, shortly after the Treaty of Paris was signed, putting an end to the American Revolutionary War. After less than a decade since her arrival in America, she left a network of early settlements across New England full of convicted members, but lacking organizational protocols and a roadmap through which they could outlive the charisma of their leader. This became the task of a next generation of Shakers that consolidated the nodes of the network; expanded their missionary efforts all the way to Georgia, Florida, Cuba, Haiti, England and even Sweden; and ultimately managed to consolidate a prosperous set of additional nodes across the frontier territories of the American experiment in the Midwest–in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
In less than fifty years the Shakers were able to bootstrap a prosperous, extremely socially and ideologically cohesive membership of about 5,000 people that pledged allegiance only to the society, even when distributed across some 20 network nodes. And they did so without resorting to violence or debt-financing.
One of the peculiar qualities that we will explore in the next article, is the governance and coordination protocols that Shakers developed. They are different from many other networks of settlement in that even though they had a ‘central society’, it wasn’t able to mature before Shakerism became a dispersed set of settled nodes in need to coordinate with one another. This made it so its organizational structure emerged directly as a network, rather than out of reforming the charters of what used to be a geographically contiguous domain, as may have been the case of many colonial powers.
The real architect of Shaker society was Joseph Meacham, the Baptist elder we mentioned earlier. After Mother Ann’s death, one of the followers that came from England with her, James Whittaker, was appointed head of the church. Although he made several structural contributions to Shaker society–chief of which was moving the ‘Center Society’ from Niskayuna to New Lebanon, N.Y.–he also passed away after a few years. It was Meacham who then took over and spent almost a decade consolidating the Shaker faith into a system of geographically dispersed settlements that were highly coordinated and had strong collective claims to the forms of autonomy that they held in the United States.
Meacham’s leadership is the phase that we think makes the Shakers a form of collective organization that was able to hold on for over two centuries. Shakerism experienced a quick transition from being led by a charismatic leader with an effervescent set of ideas, to developing a very structured system for itself. One that allowed single members to give their energy and talent to the project effectively. We think that this is one of the most determining factors of Shakerism’s success.
The ideological and spiritual contribution of Mother Ann was the society’s rocket fuel. It was what motivated Believers to give their everything to the society in exchange for the opportunity to transcend. The precepts behind the Shaker narrative steered members clear of other time-consuming transcendence projects, like faith in country or a bloodline.
Good Protestants that they were, the Shakers believed that they could only maintain and improve their emancipated status from the world through hard work. This is not unlike how many in the post-war generation felt about professions in a newly secularized world. It is also quite similar to our quasi-spiritual convictions nowadays that our work is the means through which we can achieve the impossible; the way we change the world for the better and find meaning in life.
The main advantage of the Shaker understanding of work, is that the society was every single member’s exclusive project. There was no other faith, no other country, no other father or child to live for.
This narrative alone fueled the Shakers for a while, but its utility was sustained because the average Believer was able to find a clearly delimited space for him or herself within the society. This was the work of Joseph Meacham. Shakers understood the boundaries that determined how they could and couldn’t help, as well as what they could expect in exchange. They also felt that the energy put into the project would be efficiently channeled into its larger advancement, meaning their individual effort was not in vain.
This is something that most of us have experienced working in an organization of any kind. Our motivation to contribute to a project larger than ourselves is directly tied to the degree to which we think the system rewards us for it, and is itself tangibly affected in a positive way by our effort.
We see a lot of parallels between the Shaker experiment and a lot of what is going on in the world of tokenized communities nowadays. People come to crypto or web3 projects with an incredible sense of purpose, convinced that some of the world’s largest challenges can be addressed through these new social and economic coordination tools. DAOs and other tokenized communities have the pull that corporations must have had in the postwar period. However, it is even stronger because of the widespread disillusionment with the political leadership of aged nation-building projects that all of us belong to.
These emergent organizations are surely about coordinating labor and resources to build products or achieve specific results. But they are also places where people are trying to cook up new cultural projects, with their own kinds of identity, social compactness and political leverage. While much of our existing world order trembles, people working for tokenized communities have their minds in ‘another world’, not unlike the Shakers. We are only in the germination stage of a universe where crypto and web3 take over. This is kind of like a millennial event on the horizon. But when you enter the average Twitter space or Discord channel for a community call, you definitely get the feeling that this Millennial event is almost here, and that you are amidst people that are awake to its opportunity.
Tokenized communities also have similar coordination issues to those that the Shakers had during their startup phase. A core team can work relatively well together to get a project off the ground. As they build up a story worth telling, they start to get massive interest from people from all walks of life that want to commit time and talent to the mission of the organization, purely on the promise of a portion of its future value that is commensurate with their individual level of commitment. This is the moment when many DAOs experience a flop, because the rate at which people flock to their Discord channels far exceeds the core team’s ability to build structure for everyone to feel useful.
A lot of people come to tokenized communities claiming to want to be an active member, but not really being willing to put in the work. But there are also many cases in which these communities miss out on the contributions of incredibly talented members because these don't understand how they can work in a way that can make a difference and drive results. This kills personal motivation, as we all know.
Since DAO or tokenized community organizational structures are still being prototyped–think the use of guilds that is all the rage–it's hard for core teams to tackle these kinds of challenges. In the worst case, these flops we described earlier lead to the collapse of the organization's meme, and everyone moves onto the next hyped promise. In the best case, the organization shrinks or falls dormant, until governance models are more figured out. At this point, member activity starts to grow again, but much slower than during the boom event.
Our foray into Shakerism has led us to think that organizations that manage to get off the ground have at least one of two strengths. They can have a powerful narrative, one with such a large promise of upside that an inefficient management of the governance system is tolerable to members for quite a while. They attract so much talent in their direction that they can afford to mismanage it.
The alternative is that they can have a decent narrative, but with such a clear governance model that they can motivate the limited talent they manage to attract to give their maximum energy. This allows people to work collectively towards discovering a strong direction for the project. These organizations bank on producing a snowball effect that will eventually give them an escape velocity that they have been preparing for. In one case, the culture of the organization is very clear from the get go, attracting a more homogenous group of people. In the other the culture emerges over time as members discover where their values and interests overlap.
We think that the early death of Mother Ann and the arrival of Joseph Meacham to replace her puts the Shakers in a sweet spot of the framework just described. Mother Ann brings the explosive narrative that catalyzes mass enrollment into Shakerism; that enrollment which Meacham had not been able to achieve as a Baptist minister to the same degree. Mother Ann then leaves the organization early enough that her replacement is able to build up an incentive system that solidifies the commitment of the membership and the sustainability of the organization. This is something she would have probably not been able to produce herself, like many a founder CEOs.
Next week we will be looking into the ownership, governance and coordination protocols that Shakers developed in order to manage their geographically dispersed membership, and turn a massive amount of good will into a wealthy, long-lasting organization. We will shift away from understanding the events of the early Shaker chronology, in favor of developing an understanding of the society’s mature condition.
In the meantime, we leave you with a couple of of key takeaways that we got from the research for this article:
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
001.3 The Shakers | A Regulated Lifestyle: Ownership and Coordination Protocols
001.4 The Shakers | Debt Freedom: Funding and Revenue Model
001.5 The Shakers | Together but Apart: Relations With the World
001.6 The Shakers | An Ascetic Aesthetic: Cultural Consolidation and Decline
If you have any questions about the season or Atlas Urbium more generally, DM us on Twitter or join the conversation on Discord! If you’d like to support the research, become an Early Collector.
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