001.5 The Shakers | Together but Apart
May 16th, 2022

Relations With the World

This is the fifth of six 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.

The Congregation of Strangers After Leaving the Church, June 30th 1878, Kimball Studio of Concord, NH.
The Congregation of Strangers After Leaving the Church, June 30th 1878, Kimball Studio of Concord, NH.

Shakers had a utopian vision for life in community that revolved around egalitarianism and peaceful relations. They looked for space to pursue this vision by taking distance from centers of power, and took care in managing their relations with these centers as they amassed power themselves. In a moment in which the world order is in the midst of yet another tumultuous shift, it is encouraging to come across a case like the Shakers, who somehow managed to develop a distinct cultural identity and socio-economic model for themselves without having to resort to violence. This is, however, a reality that we should avoid over-simplifying.

Shakerism was an experiment nested within the early rise to power of the United States. In America, Mother Ann found the frontier territory that was ready to hear her message, and within which there was more tolerance for her experiment in social organization. That said, she also found a place that was willing to bear the brutal, violent costs necessary to develop a strong claim to sovereignty; one that could allow citizens to promulgate certain values and ways of life. Early Shakers, unconcerned with the ways of the world, took a back seat in the American struggle, which played out right when they landed in New York. However, they were direct beneficiaries of its outcome.

There are many reasons why it makes sense to look at Shakerism as a system in itself. But Shakerism can also be seen as one very distinct expression of the ways of life that were enabled by the early American republic. Much early Shaker autonomy came from the exercise of economic power, as we discussed last week. However, Shakers also cleverly used legal, political and social tools to build up their communities. The agency that they exercised in these realms was rooted in the institutions born out of the American Revolution. The Shakers’ retreat from the world did not make them immune to its forces. Their nested condition still required actively managing their neighbor and host relations. As pacifists, Shakers used nonviolent means to do this. However, they were able to do so because they operated within a large nation with recently acquired Westphalian sovereignty; a nation that was willing to defend the frontiers of its federation with arms.

Our goal with this article is to take this basic understanding to explore several aspects of the Shakers’ relation with their neighbors and host states. Shakers lived according to a set of radical values that differed from those of their context. We will thus assess how their ways created suspicion, tension, or conflict with other parties. With this, we will then track the changes in how Shakers dealt with the world across the arc of their history. This will allow us to see at the different ways in which Shakers negotiated with their neighbors and hosts in order to advance the cause of their membership and protect the interests of their network of communities.

What caused tensions between Shakers and their neighbors/host?

Shakers engaged in a variety of practices that could be interpreted as affronts to the status quo. Outlining them will help us understand some of the strategies that they developed to deal with worldly relations. The list below also evidences in concrete ways the degree to which the Shaker experiment deviated from normative society and can thus be understood as a distinct experiment in collective living.

New York Tribune news clipping relating a forthcoming Shaker Peace Conference at Mount Lebanon in 1905
New York Tribune news clipping relating a forthcoming Shaker Peace Conference at Mount Lebanon in 1905


Shakers avoided engaging in any sort of violence, even when subjected to it themselves by the hand of skeptics or suspicious individuals. This happened often during the early days of Mother Ann’s proselytizing, but also throughout the life of the Western villages. Set in America’s frontier territory, the Western communities found themselves time and again in the crossfire of conflict with Native Americans, and in many cases had to retreat from the lands they had settled.

Shakers also refused to be involved in wars. This caused suspicion during the American Revolution, in which Shakers were often accused of being British collaborators for encouraging people to take a moral high ground and not fight. Mother Ann and some of her collaborators were imprisoned on this charge. This issue would once again come up during the Civil War, at the peak of Shaker prosperity and demographic expansion. Shakers resisted serving in the war, and even refused to pay taxes that had been established in support of the war with the South.


To some, Shakerism represented an affront to the institution of marriage and the nuclear family. Shakers were celibate, and condemned sex even within marriage. The degree to which they were zealous and condemnatory towards these realities in the world changed over time. However, skeptics were threatened by this attitude and the ‘family’ model under which Shakers lived; where as many as one hundred men and women lived together as sisters and brothers, rather than husband and wife. Particularly during the first century of Shakerism, in which the sect experienced demographic growth and rapid economic development, people were concerned about their ‘unnatural’ way of life. Allowed to grow out of hand, this celibate model for all–different from the celibacy of clergymen in the Catholic church–represented a threat to the self-perpetuation of human society itself.

The scaling logic of Shakerism was one of the first challenges brought up by skeptics that came into contact with Believers. If Shakerism was the right way, and it was open to everybody, then wasn’t its natural conclusion the dissipation of humanity? All sorts of arguments were developed to respond to these concerns, some more satisfactory than others.

One of the best arguments that Shakers came up with was that people were organized in a sort of pyramidal class system that was determined by how faithful and pure they were. Shakers, towards the top of this system, were sorts of angels on earth. Freed from childbearing and sin, they could concern themselves with society’s larger problems, helping improve the lives of all. They came up with toil-reducing inventions, created excess wealth, helped the destitute and so on.

Group of Shakers on Meetinghouse Steps, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1888. Collection of the Shaker Museum
Group of Shakers on Meetinghouse Steps, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1888. Collection of the Shaker Museum


Having extirpated childrearing and other gendered responsibilities that came with a normative family, Shakers were able to organize a society in which men and women had equal rights and decisional power. This was a clear affront to social order in the late 1700s, over a century before women’s suffrage in the United States. Shakers lived in admiration of a female idol that represented Christ’s second coming–Mother Ann–and thought of God as an entity that had both masculine and a feminine sides. This is why God had created both men and women; because they completed His/Her entire image. Although labor and other everyday roles were gendered, all offices in the sect were held by two men and two women.

Frederick William Evans, one of the most politically active Elders in Shaker history, would publish articles promoting this model for the world. He argued in favor of turning the presidency of the United States into a gendered dual seat, as well as making the upper body of Congress all-female and the lower body all-male. These positions and practices obviously challenged the religious, social, political and economic conventions of the patriarchal society in which Shakers found themselves. It was yet another reason why people of the world judged Shakers as living ‘unnaturally’. However, it is also why their communities were in some ways sanctuaries, particularly for women trapped in unhappy circumstances or failed marriages.

Schoolroom at Canterbury Shaker Village, MI, with Shaker teacher Mary L. Wilson
Schoolroom at Canterbury Shaker Village, MI, with Shaker teacher Mary L. Wilson


Shakerism grew through the constant entry of adults and children into the sect. Since the early days of Mother Ann, accepting and recruiting children was one of the main motives for violent protests against Shakers. Over and over, people from nearby communities came to the doors of Shaker villages to picket, requesting that they release the children under their care. Because people were skeptical of Shakers in general, they saw children as innocent souls that Believers brainwashed to grow their numbers without reproducing themselves.

Much like they did with property, Shakers were careful to take in children only when both parents, or other responsible caretakers in the case of orphans, agreed to leave them in a Shaker family. Children lived in their own houses, and Shakers spent important shares of their resources rearing and educating them. Part of what fueled this tension with neighboring communities is that as Shaker land ownership grew beyond their ability to farm it, Believers sought out young teenagers that could be accessioned so that they could also work the land. At 14, teenagers were moved into the family's Dwelling House with the rest of the Believers, where they followed the same way of life as adults. This ‘greediness for vulnerable souls’ is one of the factors that led to inquisitions by the American states on Shaker property and revenue.

Despite neighbor concerns, rearing children to grow the society proved less useful than everyone thought. Children were free to stay or leave once they reached maturity. Particularly after the Civil War, as many as 9 out of 10 of these young adults left Shaker villages. The problems of the world called them. Not having experienced the pains that came with its pleasures and rewards, they didn’t really have the perspective to appreciate Shaker life. In fact, most Shaker families after the Civil War stopped accepting children altogether. They focused on recruiting young adults in their late twenties that had already tasted forbidden apples, and knew what it meant to be expelled from a blissful state of innocence.


Shakers believed that living closer to God meant each Believer worked together towards a joint interest, and used no more of its output than he or she needed. Like a father and mother work to leave the fruits of their labor to their children, in the expectations that their children will do the same in their turn, so the Shaker church tried to create a system for its Believers. We explored how and to what degree the Shakers managed to scale this idea in article 001.3. In essence though, Shaker society was a theocratic, top-down system where a few decided for the whole. Individual identity was suppressed in favor of egalitarian conditions, which facilitated working in the interest of a common good. Property being governed in common, individual Believers were inclined to remain in the Shaker network and behave according to the expectations of the Central Ministry.

On the one hand, this utopian model attracted attention because it was in fact able to create a living standard for its Believers that could not be overlooked, particularly before the Civil War. However, more and more, American values were consolidating around individual freedom and individual property ownership. Shakerism was a way of life that explicitly opposed these values, and where an alternative was played out with extreme rigor. The society controlled every hour of a Believer’s day. Post-Civil War Shakers like Elder Evans became critics of American capitalism; the way it handled the labor problem and the distribution of wealth within it. This, in the long run, was a battle Shakers lost. Their popularity and numbers declined as market capitalism and centralized structures matured.


As we discussed in article 001.4, Shakers during their growth century were productive well in excess of their frugal needs. What was not used to reinvest in their businesses or charity went into the acquisition of agricultural and forested land. Land was still a good investment in the first half of the 19th century, particularly for Shakers who were skeptical of financial services and despised debt. Towards their Civil War peak, the constant acquisition of parcels and growing land empire made neighboring communities and host states fearful that Shakers would acquire regional land monopolies. This would have given them too much power. In fact, later Shakers like Elder Evans would criticize this period for its worldly greediness, in which Shakers were buying land beyond their ability to tend to it.

Portrait of Elder Frederick William Evans, Collection of the Shaker Museum
Portrait of Elder Frederick William Evans, Collection of the Shaker Museum

Courts in states like New York imposed limits on the land that Shakers could own and the revenue they could produce every year. However, whenever alarms were raised about Shaker wealth becoming dangerous, inquisitions showed that they always had less free cash flow than imagined. So much of their revenue was spent on internal affairs and charity. Nonetheless, the fears of neighbors and host states were to some degree justified. The struggle to keep up recruitment led many Shaker families to engage in alternative ways of working the land that were contrary to the basic principles of the church, and were similar to cases of more consolidated land monopolies.

Hired hands at Canterbury Shaker Village, NH
Hired hands at Canterbury Shaker Village, NH


When Shakers had more land than they could work exclusively with the hands of Believers, they had to resort to alternative means. They rented out fields to farmers; hired laborers that Believers directed or worked side by side with; or pursued potentially predatory recruitment of teenagers that could be accessioned to work in the interest of the Shaker Church, at least until maturity. All of these tactics, which were more worldly than other-worldly, caused social tensions with outsiders, who benefited proportionally less from work in the field than a Believer did.

One thing was for Believers to work the fields, process their output into products, and sell these to people of the world that paid a mutually agreed upon price. This was a transactional, clean relationship with the world. It was a whole other thing to pay a laborer to perform tasks that went into the value equation of Shaker products. When working side by side, paying an outside laborer also implicitly put a price on a Believer’s own labor. If instead Shakers directed the laborers, this created a hierarchical class relationship inside the domains of their villages that was mired with all the ills that had motivated Shakerism’s retreat in the first place. The combination of this labor problem with the diminishing returns of land and rising land taxes that followed the Civil War played an important role in the decline of Shaker society.

Race and Slavery

The relationship of Shakers with slavery is difficult to generalize, since villages in different states had different approaches to the topic. Eastern and Western communities had conflicting positions in general, which created internal tensions. These became exacerbated because the Central Ministry at Mount Lebanon, New York, had a hard time enforcing protocols in the distant Western villages.

In general, Shaker villages were sanctuaries, not just for women, but also black individuals. In some villages, black Believers had their own separate families, whilst in others they were integrated into regular families. This in itself was a point of conflict with neighbors, particularly in Western states before the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century. Shakers challenged a social convention around which there were important economic interests.

The ways in which Shakers dealt with slavery has too many variations across villages and time periods to deal with comprehensively here, but a few examples are worth mentioning. Some families bought the freedom of black Believers. Others rented their labor in perpetuity from the slaves’ owners. Yet others allowed slaves to buy their freedom over time by giving their labor to the church, paying them salaries significantly below those paid to white hired hands.

Eldress Rebecca Perot, who ran an African American family node in Philadelphia for over 40 years, Collection of of the United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake, Maine
Eldress Rebecca Perot, who ran an African American family node in Philadelphia for over 40 years, Collection of of the United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake, Maine

In some cases slaveowners came into Shakerism with their slaves, effectively emancipating them. However, some slave owners that backslid into the world took their slaves with them. Black Believers that left of their own accord in the western communities were also sometimes recaptured and sold back into slavery, even when their former slaveowner had relinquished them upon entry into the society.

The question of slavery also poured into the church’s acceptance of gifts from Believers. Although Shakers generally refused money related to the sale of slaves, they had to confront dilemmas related to inheritances amassed with the use of slave labor. Slavery represented a complicated issue overall for the egalitarian Shakers. It created conflicts within Shaker families, between Shaker families, as well as with the slave-owning world beyond.

How did Shaker relations with the world evolve over time?

The degrees to which Shakers concerned themselves with the problems of the world beyond their communities changed over the two-century arc of their existence. We have attempted to sketch out a series of phases that can help us understand how their attitudes changed in time. Bear in mind that these are not categories that we have come across in the academic literature, but rather our attempt to make sense of this aspect of Shakerism in time.

Phase 1

First generation Shakers in the late 1700s were advocates. They traveled across New England spreading their message and actively recruiting fallen souls with the Shaker message (see article 001.1). However, aside from this, they kept to themselves. They pooled their own resources to support the church and slowly build means of self-sufficiency for each  village in the network. They asked little of the world, instead offering it a vision to move beyond its most structural problems. Shakers encountered localized resistance to their message in many of the places they visited. However, they handled violent affronts by putting their heads down, and moving onto the next place when they concluded their message was not welcome. Shakers in this first phase were feared for their fanaticism, and their power to entrance people into their vision. They did not represent a real economic or political threat though.

Phase 2

As Shaker began to build up their villages and amass an economic interest, they entered a second phase of relations. Shaker villages began to develop industries and sell goods produced by Believers to neighboring communities. Contact with the outside world was highly regulated within Shaker communities, and dealings with the world were transactional. Their ability to provide for most of their own basic necessities combined with these sales of goods put them on the upside of the trade balance. This made them essential to their neighbors, allowing the villages to acquire a consolidated position in the regions where they had been settled. Shakers consistently amassed wealth and land across this period, and became a relatively rich society.

Shakers during this phase were also able to make themselves essential to their neighbors and host states by scaling up their charitable activities. They built bridges, welcomed anyone to join them for a meal at their table, sent provisions to the poor, and raised orphans. Shakers also looked the other way when people would come to them in the early winter saying they were interested in becoming Believers just to receive food and shelter until spring, at which point they ‘changed their minds’.

Throughout this phase, Shakers bought social capital for themselves, demonstrating their sincere intentions to skeptics. Even though they were a religious non-profit organization entitled to tax exemptions, Shakers didn’t take them. They avoided depending on the good graces of the state, which could have become suspicious of a church that was highly involved in land grabbing, farming with Believer labor, and selling everyday household products.

Illustration of Alfred Shaker Village, MI
Illustration of Alfred Shaker Village, MI

Shakers reduced their proselytizing activities during this phase. If before they had to go out and sell a vision, now they had a tangible model that brought people to them. Their numbers started to grow organically. Shaker contact with the world was on their own terms. The curious could come one day a week to see Shakers at their villages, on the Sabbath. They could then see for themselves how Shaker beliefs and rituals bore the fruits that they promised. The villages were a wealthy testament in themselves, which encouraged the rapid demographic growth experienced during this phase in the first half of the 1800s.

From this position, in which Shakers had some tangible powers that they could leverage, Shakers also began to formalize the structure of the church in legislative terms, through wills and covenants. Now that they had property and wealth to defend, they formalized its tenancy in a way that was recognizable by courts in their host states. This was essential to avoid conflicts with the world that could harm them. From this phase onwards, Shakers would be repeatedly engaged in court proceedings with Believers that had dissented, inheritors of property that had been given to the church, and others. They had, however, the human and financial resources to address these problems with the world successfully.

Phase 3

Phase 3 corresponds to the years that sandwich the American Civil War in the mid-late 1800s. It aligns with the demographic peak of Shakers at around 6,000 Believers, and the beginning of their decline. Shaker prosperity led them to be over-extended. They were buying too much land–more than they could manage. Their network of villages covered a territory with distances that were too large to keep the interests and behavior of the sect coordinated. The world around them–politically, economically and socially–was changing faster than they could adapt themselves to it in the midst of dealing with internal affairs.

This combination of circumstances led to uncoordinated changes in the way Shaker villages were managed, many times in ways that were conflicting with the original principles of the church. These include the use of debt financing, the management of the slavery issue, as well as an approach to the land and labor problem that conflicted with the agrarian socialism of Shaker intellectuals. During this phase, Shakers engaged more actively in the political sphere in order to defend their interests as the world sought to impose restrictions on their wealth and power, and tried to force Shakers to conform to greater American social obligations, like military service.

In the decades that followed the War of Independence, military conscription varied from state to state. Shakers maneuvered around these laws, moving their young Believers across villages in the network to get them residency in states where Shakers were exempt from conscription, or could at least pay for their replacements. When the Civil War broke out, Shakers again refused to serve in the army. Some Shakers in the North were forcibly enrolled, and were thrown into jail for exercising passive resistance. However, Elder Evans made an appeal directly to President Lincoln. Many servants of the War of Independence and the War of 1812 had become Shakers, and as a consequence, refused to collect their war pensions. These pensions had accumulated over decades, and Evans offered them to Lincoln in exchange for freedom from service in the current war. This led Shakers to become the first conscientious objectors in 1863.

Letter to President Abraham Lincoln inviting him to Mount Lebanon from Elder Frederick W. Evans and Brother Benjamin, dated March 19, 1865, shortly before the President's assassination, Collection of the Shaker Museum
Letter to President Abraham Lincoln inviting him to Mount Lebanon from Elder Frederick W. Evans and Brother Benjamin, dated March 19, 1865, shortly before the President's assassination, Collection of the Shaker Museum

This was a phase in which Shaker involvement in politics allowed them to bargain for certain privileges, and in which their impartial status spared them from conflicts between North and South. Shakers didn’t partake in the Civil War, but they did furnish lodging, food and forage to either army when their villages were requisitioned in the conflict.

Several Shakers leaders that came to rise during this period had a critical and reformist approach. Chief amongst these was Elder Evans. Evans wanted to establish his own communal, socialist society in the 1830s, when he came across the Shakers and decided to join them instead. He represents a different generation of leaders that saw the Shaker network as more than an end in itself. For them, Shaker villages were a model for society more broadly, which they proceeded to advocate for by engaging the political and social spheres more actively.

Shakers wrote more publications than at any other point, they endorsed candidates in mayoral and presidential campaigns, and mounted a critique of the rising agrarian capitalism that was taking over America. They published theories for an international litigation courts and policing bodies that could preserve world peace through the imposition of trade sanctions. Shakers even hosted a convention at Mount Lebanon in 1905 to try to slow down the arms race, reduce taxes for the poor, and develop neutrality guidelines for commercial waterways. These actions by the progressive, worldly wing of Shaker leaders created internal conflicts with the more conservative wing within the sect.

Postcard of the Shaker Peace Convention at Mount Lebanon, NY
Postcard of the Shaker Peace Convention at Mount Lebanon, NY

We see this phase as an opening up by part of the Shakers, which was motivated by several reasons. There were the changing tides in their context that was forcing Shakers to react. There was also a generation of leaders that had come up in a context with different political and social realities. However, there was another factor, which is that Shaker society was beginning to decline demographically and economically. In the absence of the growth that Shakers had experienced in the first half of the 1800s, this turn towards the world was certainly another way to advance the Shaker mission. If Shakerism could not grow in numbers, maybe it could grow its influence over worldly realities, even if it was not positioned to do so as successfully as some leaders may have wanted.

Phase 4

Phase 4 constitutes the definitive decline phase of Shaker society, which we will be addressing more in detail in forthcoming article 001.6. It is of less interest to the topic of this article, since it constitutes the dissolution of a coherent order and direction for the society at all levels. This makes it difficult for us to assess an overarching attitude of Shakers towards their neighbors and host states.


  • Any attempt to rehearse a different way of living together will come with tensions with neighbors or incumbent powers. This can fuel the degree to which a place can operate as a sanctuary or breeding ground for new ideas. However, external resistance is bound to emerge, and will require active, careful management to avoid conflicts that threaten the goals of the project
  • Autonomy, self-sufficiency and internal social cohesion are not tied directly to isolation. Lack of exposure to alternative living conditions leads to community members undervaluing their own system. Self-sufficiency only leads to greater autonomy when it is tied to the capacity to exercise self-defense.
  • Leveraging neighbor relations in favor of a project is only worthwhile if you can retain the value acquired. When community members can easily walk away from the project with the fruits of collective investments, those that stay become disincentivized from investing in common goods. This happened to the Shakers with education, much like it happens to 2nd class economies within the developed world with public education today.
  • The reasons one is incentivized to demonstrate allegiance to a project need to be ideological, but also pragmatic. The line between rules that incentivize people to belong to a project, versus those that force them to, is fine.
  • There are corners of the world to which one may retire, and where there may be less resistance towards experimenting with new models. But there is no place in the world that can be hidden once it begins to produce tangible value. At this point, the ability and willingness of a community to defend the interest created is determinant to its success. Internal order is a constant effort of managing the chaos that makes its way to the borders.

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

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

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