This is the third 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 Angelo, from build_republic, a community first, real estate second approach to co-working that brings together members with a vested interest in the cities that they live, work, and play in. The discussion with Angelo and our collectors explored creating incentive ladders; stewarding community commons; debt as a measure of trust; exit costs and their role in building community; concentric circles of responsibility and privilege; embracing incompetence in member-centric rather than user-centric projects; developing and retaining community talent; ascetic governance; cultural conventions as regulation; nostalgia for a home we don’t belong to anymore; 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 explored the contextual conditions that enabled Shakers to build out a strong following across New England in the first decade of the movement’s American presence. We touched upon some of the organic ways in which Believers began organizing into IRL communities across the countryside. This allowed us to think about what the Shaker case has to teach us regarding the relationship between worlding narratives and governance models whilst a community is still young.
Articles 001.1 and 001.2 were mostly dedicated to understanding this worlding narrative of the Shakers and the reasons why it represented a compelling value proposition. This article looks at the other side of the coin. It delves into what we broadly term the ‘governance’ structures that developed out of the Shakers’ impulse to build out a socio-economic model that made their utopian vision a sustainable reality. The article will lay the foundation for us to discuss the reasons why Shaker communities became so financially successful, as well as some of their cultural and technological contributions to greater society.
We’ve already established that joining a Shaker community was a high-commitment. Their moral standards were implemented into a rigid form of practice. It was only because of serious spiritual, social and material promises that the sacrifices that came with this were worthwhile for Believers. We will explore several of the mechanics that characterized Shaker life across their network, starting with the practical path drawn out to ease people of the world into the community. If you are interested in the ritual thresholds into Shaker life, read article 001.1.
Shakers depended on constant recruitment in order to retain and grow their population, given their commitment to celibacy. In order to lure people into their strict lifestyle, they avoided an all or nothing approach. Shakers allowed people of the world to benefit from association with them according to progressive levels of commitment, which minimized the degree to which they had to use force or insistence to grow their flock.
Believers in a Shaker village came together once a week to celebrate the Sabbath in their Meeting House–a building similar to Quaker meeting houses, and the closest equivalent to a church in their faith. This was a joyous moment of prayer and worship through dance, even if all behavior was highly protocolized. It was also the only time in which people of the world were welcome to the community, allowing them to get first hand exposure to the Shaker culture they had probably already heard or read about.
Shaker worship on the Sabbath came to be an event of touristic dimension, with people coming to see them from all over the world. Presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson came to see the Shakers; so did writers like Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper; educators like Reverend Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College and founding member of Brown University; social theorists like Harriet Martineau, one of the first female sociologists; and so on. Whether people came to satiate their curiosity, mock the Shakers, study them, judge them, criticize them, or consider joining their ranks, these rituals were one of the Shakers’ most powerful forms of propaganda. Shakers leaders were aware of this. In fact, Believers rehearsed their dances and choreographed behavior throughout the week in anticipation of the Sabbath.
Coming to these ceremonies was step one. It was also a reason why Shakers became part of early American popular culture, even inspiring characters in literary classics like Melville’s Moby Dick.
Giving people a limited taste of what joy and order looked like in a Shaker community inspired curiosity for what else lay beyond. Step two in the journey to membership was coming to live with the Shakers for a sort of probation period. People of the world were housed in separate dwelling quarters from committed Shakers, but they were invited to follow the community’s daily routine, and instructed on the Shaker faith. This gave prospective members a real sense of what practicing Shaker life was like, and it gave Shakers the chance to vet their willingness to commit to the community in good faith. If probationers wished to progress, they were moved into junior orders of the community, in which they donated their work to the common interest of the church, but could retain all worldly ties.
For those that chose to, and were deemed able, the third step was dedicating themselves to the Shaker way of life. This implied signing a covenant–a legally binding agreement–in which they committed themselves and all their labor to the Shaker church according to its principle of joint interest. This made recruits true Brothers or Sisters. As long as they lived by the rules of the community, they were entitled to a share of its wealth proportional to their need. Believers were allowed to give their worldly property to the church, but this was not required of them.
Formally breaking all ties with the world and relinquishing all property was a fourth step that was a prerequisite for anyone that wanted to hold a leadership position within Shaker society. This was a way of relinquishing anything that could come to present a conflicting responsibility or allegiance, and a maximum demonstration of commitment and faith. It was a way of getting closer to the Shaker way; an ultimate denial of a Believer’s worldliness that allowed him or her to walk the earth no longer as a mortal, but rather some sort of fleshy angel.
The first decade after Mother Ann’s passing was a period of refining the Shaker understanding of joint interest, and its formalization into a legally binding written covenant. The idea of a ‘joint interest’ was something inherent to Mother Ann’s message of shaping their society in the image of a family. This archetypical structure implies that equity amassed over time is always given in the interest of a bloodlines’ perpetuation in time. Shakers understood that they could only live out their purpose by standing as a joint community. This meant giving their property, themselves, and their services freely to the institution of the church, to be stewarded by its trustees for the mutual support and benefit of one another, as well as for charity.
Membership in the church was not like holding a share of stock in a company; it was not a form of joint tenancy. The property of the church was a ‘consecrated whole’. It simply entitled membership holders ‘Just and Equal rights and Privileges, according to their needs, in the use of all things in the Church’. All time and talent expended by members accrued to the church as equity.
The first written covenant was signed in 1795 in New Lebanon, the ‘Center Society’ of the sect, right before the death of the Shakers’ social architect and leader, Joseph Meacham. It was the formalization of a series of practices that had already been upheld through oral agreements for close to a decade, and can be summarized into five points:
This covenant would be refined over the years and adapted to the circumstances of Shaker villages across different state lines. At the beginning, Shakers also prepared their own wills to guarantee the proper transfer of property to the church upon their death. However, the covenant eventually became a rock-solid legal tool; one which stood up in the face of litigation over the next century and a half every time Shakers were taken to court.
The care that the Shakers took in ensuring the means through which property was transferred to the church, as well as the clean nature of what they were receiving, was a fundamental component of their claims to autonomy. They only accepted gifts that they believed they could defend whilst upholding their pacifist values. Not a single defecting Shaker was able to retrieve the property or labor they had given out of free will when they signed the covenants. And no external agents were ever able to lay claim on this property, be it by accusations of misappropriation, monopoly, civil misconduct, or otherwise.
Part of the effectiveness of the Shaker covenant as a legal instrument was that belonging to a Shaker community was always a voluntary form of commitment to the church. Regardless of their place in the church, Believers were free to walk away from it at any moment. This is probably why, apart from some incendiary claims by defectors that took the church to court, there is limited evidence of misbehavior or mistreatment within the communities.
In collective living experiments where a strict denial of basic human behaviors took place, one would expect some share of misconduct. In the case of the Shakers, some degree of sexual misconduct would not be shocking. After all, they lived in a coordinated fashion under one roof, barely able to speak to one another. But if two young Shakers fell in love, and thought their passion was stronger than their faith in the path, they could just walk away and pursue that lifestyle in the world. Consent was an everyday choice, and perhaps with the exception of black Believers, most held a decent set of rights guaranteed by the new American nation that they could exercise elsewhere.
That said, exit was still much more expensive than entry, as is the case with a lot of similar organizations. Leaving a Shaker community after having lived under the principle of joint interest meant you could only take with you the clothing and food necessary to make your way to the next place. If you were middle aged, or past your prime years of productivity, it was not in your interest to leave your community. It was the only place at that point where you had certain chances of being looked after in accordance with your necessities during old age. Doubling down was surely a better way to capture your current investment in the society than walking away to start from scratch somewhere else.
To this reality we need to add the social cost of exit. If you lived in a Shaker community, you had renounced your worldly family, or brought it into the community–at which point it was separated and dissolved. Everyone you interacted with was a Shaker. You were then only allowed to forge bonds with about 50 to 100 people within the society. This meant that exiting the society required obliterating your entire social safety net. You re-entered the world uncertain of whether you would be taken back by the world. The average Shaker had so little direct contact with the outside world that leaving must have been a daunting proposition.
Many defectors willing to pay these costs in fact fled in the middle of the night, so as to avoid facing their Brothers and Sisters. These defections were hard blows to the community. In a condition in which mutual self-dependence was so central to their way of life, defections challenged the faith of these communities, and caused its members to experience shame.
Shaker society was a sort of communistic experiment. Although we are neither experts in the history of communism–nor do we aspire to be–we see two fundamental differences between Shaker society and our contemporary understanding of communism. The first is that Shaker socio-economic organization was a structure in service of a religious and spiritual project. The secular conception of communism makes its socio-economic structure and theories the object of religious worship themselves.
The second difference is that whilst in communism property ought to be held in common by all members, in Shaker society property was a ‘consecrated whole’, as we mentioned earlier. It was held by none of the members, and its stewardship was managed by a religious elite that elected its own successors. Shaker society was a theocracy. The common denominator between Shakerism and communism is perhaps more so in the intent to produce a materially egalitarian society, without social classes, and through which common interest could be dedicated exclusively to common goods. In the case of Shakers, this was Christian charity. In this last regard, Shakerism was a pretty successful model. It perhaps shares an origin story with communism in that it was motivated by the early proletarian experience of Mother Ann, who lived in one of the most industrialized cities on the planet at the time.
It is relatively easy to say we agree on these kinds of ideas in theory, but it is another thing to find models that validate them through practice. For us this is the make-or-break moment of a system of thought, particularly since we are interested in thinking about the capacity of ideologies to manifest a superior vision of the good life IRL. We will see degrees to which this is true in Shakerism.
Shakerism drew the attention of a lot of early socialists and communists. Friedrich Engels was well aware of the Shakers, even if he was repulsed by their religious ways. He saw in it a proof of concept for some of his ideas, even before Karl Marx or himself published some of their major works. Leo Tolstoy was also quite interested in the Shakers during the late 19th century. He maintained correspondence with Shaker Elder Frederick W. Evans until his death, exchanging ideas about religion, justice and society.
However, in our assessment of some of the testimonies of students and critics of the Shakers during their apogee, we’ve come to think of a couple of questions worth mentioning so we may better assess the replicability of their model:
Shakers came to be several thousands at a time, distributed across the entire network of settlements. It was their distribution across many nodes, and the power balance struck between the society’s institutions, that allowed them to sustain demographic and economic growth for almost a century with the ownership model.
The basic social unit of the Shaker network was what they called a ‘family’. Each family was made up of 50 to 100 Brothers and Sisters that lived in a single Dwelling House. This group coordinated amidst itself to perform all everyday tasks. Each family was led by two Elder Brothers and two Elder Sisters that established and enforced all protocols of behavior for Believers, and settled disputes amidst them. The family tended to its plots of land, kept its own beasts, managed its own workshops, ran its own kitchen, and so on. The coordination of some of these tasks was delegated by the Elder Brothers and Sisters to a pair of Deacons, and a pair of Deaconesses.
These families usually existed in clusters of three to eight, and together they made up a Shaker village. Within each village, there was always a ‘Church’ or ‘First’ family, which had usually been the first to settle in the area, and around which the rest had spawned. As families clustered around the Church family, they acquired a hierarchical order according to their level of commitment, or proximity to Shaker values and faith. Each village then had an Office of the Trustees, where two male and two female Shakers served. These Trustees managed all of the village’s relations to the world, as well as all of its economic affairs, shielding the average Brother or Sister from ever having to come into contact with the outside.
The Church family also had the only Meeting House of each village. This was the only structure where all Believers came together on the Sabbath and other special festivities. The Meeting House was also home to two Elders and two Eldresses–different from Elder Brothers and Sisters. These four Believers oversaw a series of Villages across a region that the Shakers called a Bishopric. The Elders and Eldresses rotated between the villages of their Bishopric year round, and returned to Mount Lebanon at least once a year to report to the Central Ministry. This Ministry was the chief religious institution of the church, in what was considered its ‘Central Society’. Much like the rest of the offices described, it was led by two Ministry Elders and two Ministry Eldresses, with the only difference being that one of them served as the Chief Elder.
Mother Ann had a rigid dualistic vision that shaped her entire worldview; whether it regarded good and evil, the relation between the sexes, or the nature of God. When Joseph Meacham began to formalize the Shaker church, one of the first moves he made was to take his role as head of the church and split it into two. Christ had come the second time around in the female form of Mother Ann, and having created both men and women, Shakers interpreted Him as having dual manifestation: male and female. Meacham appointed Lucy Wright to occupy the role of Eldress, and as the social units of Shakerism developed, all offices became appointed to two men and two women.
This form of leadership, like the dual heads of state in the Republic of San Marino, is interesting to us for several reasons:
If we have to summarize the basic units of aggregations that the Shakers were experientially nested in, they would be: the family, the village, and the society as a whole.
Shaker society was very hierarchical. From what we have explained so far, it would seem as though it was a very centralized system. However, in practice this played out rather differently. The Central Ministry determined the religious, moral and behavioral codes that unified Shakers into a monolithic project, even if spread out across what was then the United States. It was also, in theory, an omnipotent theocracy. However, it was really the small family unit that managed with some autonomy the implementation of these codes, as well as all of its own economic affairs.
Although property was held in joint interest, each family was responsible for its own survival. They worked and stewarded the land that they brought into the joint interest. They developed their own industries, products and business, with the help of Trustees to interact with the world. And they practiced their own forms of charity.
Shakers had to abide by the principles laid out by the Central Ministry in order to retain allegiance to the community. This boiled down even to the most mundane of matters. We will cover how the Central Ministry even recommended certain production standards that made ‘Shaker’ a national brand that benefited all families. But what did not concern moral and theological directives, was given to families as a sort of guide. These rules were eventually compiled into what the Shaker called their Millennial Laws, which went as far as explaining how different colored ink ought to be used in documents. However each set of family Elder Brothers and Elder Sisters could then tweak these rules in order to abide by the basic principles of the faith in light of local circumstance.
Operationally, Shaker society looked more like the federated system, where the Central Ministry concerned itself with developing the structure that a single family node would have struggled to figure out, and without which life would have been harder. Shaker culture then grew through the proliferation of family spores and their repetition across different territories. This is what we consider one of the most clever features of their organization, spreading new nodes across the territory rather than scaling existing ones.
There is limited evidence as to how the Central Ministry settled on the average family size. However, it was a number that could be housed under one roof, even if Shaker Dwelling Houses were some of the largest housing complexes in the United States at the time. Believers in the family knew and collaborated directly with every other Brother and Sister at one point or another. This created social bonds and reputational risk, which deterred behaving as a bad actor in all the activities that concerned the common interest of the family. There was a feeling of mutual responsibility, like in a nuclear family, that would have been lost if family nodes grew instead of multiplying.
This typical scale, beyond which a new family had to be founded, was not unlike that of Greek city states–at a different scale of course. There were a series of cultural and contextual conditions for which it made sense to found new settlements instead of continuing to expand existing ones.
In the case of the Shakers, celibacy surely played a role in making this family size work. It is otherwise hard to explain why they were able to export to the communistic nature of a conventional family beyond its usual scale. A father or mother must act in the interest of a bloodline first. A Believer could instead transfer that instinct of transcendence to the next scale up the ladder: a community that, although part of a larger cultural project, remained always the size of a clan in which you could trust and individually keep tabs on people. The basic trust networks, those that affected survival, were consolidated at the bottom of the Shaker power pyramid.
However, there is one final caveat that we think is worthwhile mentioning in relation to the power dynamics of these different units of organization. This balance between centralized directives and decentralized operations worked smoothly because it was not stress tested by bad actors at the top. To our knowledge, there were no real backstops that could have limited a Chief Elder, for instance, from subverting the way Shaker communities coordinated in practice. However, it was perhaps thanks to the successional model of power positions that Shakers never came across such a challenge. All the evidence we have come across points towards a remarkable degree of piety in the exertion of temporal power within Shakerism.
Within Shaker families, every aspect of human behavior was regulated, and your life played out under the constant surveillance of your peers. Shakers were never alone. Buildings had large windows for the time and the climate. This was not only tied to the value Shakers gave to natural light, which when best taken advantage of extended their work day. It was also so you could see into every room from the outside or across another building. Up until very late in the Shaker story, there were no curtains anywhere.
Every hour of the day was then accounted for. Directives concerning what to do or think about were established even for rest periods. All tasks were performed in groups, and Believers slept in same-sex bedrooms, in groups of four to eight. These groupings were selected according to who worked together. Having workmates sleep in the same room allowed further coordination between these micro-units. However, Shakers were constantly changing trades. It was expected that everyone knew how to do everything–along gender lines. Believers were encouraged to always keep learning, and bring a fresh eye to tasks that could always be performed better.
The consequence of these constant changes of trade were that Elder Brothers and Sisters were always moving Believers around different bedrooms in the house. This made it so the micro-unit of Believers that shared a room were never allowed enough confraternity so as to lead each other into temptations; be they against the family’s best interest, or simply falling into carnal temptations of any sort. The Shaker routine ensured that loyalty was always first and foremost to the family unit.
The bedrooms of Elder Brothers and Sisters were placed flanking the entrances to the Dwelling Houses so they could keep an eye on the coming and going of the whole flock. The Elders themselves then kept an eye on one another. They always inhabited the same living, eating and working spaces as their same-sex partner. They were also kept in check by their equally powerful counterparts of the opposite sex.
As we’ve mentioned, Shakers had no communication with the outside world. The Trustees that handled affairs with the world had their own sets of protocol to ensure their good behavior and make sure they did not fall into worldly temptation. They were instructed how to behave when they had to travel, and never allowed to spend more than a couple of weeks outside the community.
Average Believers then were not only limited from talking to outsiders and members of other families in the village. Most of the Shakers’ day was spent in silence. Believers rested in silence, worked in silence, and ate their meals in silence. The main social event of the day was the moment of dance and prayer every evening, which took place in the main room of the Dwelling House. Shakers rehearsed their dances and prayers here for the larger gathering at the Meeting House on the Sabbath. The other social occasion of the day was a period in which Shakers could sit in a room with two rows of chairs, and talk to a person of the opposite sex that was sitting in front of them.
The interactions between sexes was another one of these highly regulated affairs. Men and women had asynchronous schedules since the time they awoke, which were then synchronized for meals, prayer and dance. Even during those moments though, men and women entered rooms through different doors, moved up and down separate stairs, slept on opposite ends of halls, and always, always avoided touching one another. In the Shaker system of thought, salvation was for everyone. Believers had to learn how to live with one another in freedom from sin, working towards the joint interest of their newly conceived Christian family.
In Shaker life, everything had a place and an order. Their buildings were replete with built-in closets, which were not the norm in American homes at the time. Every object had a place, and its location was carefully cataloged. All rooms, even the main space of the Meeting House was lined with rows of pegs that Shakers used to tidily hang all objects that were not currently in use so they were not lying around. This was true of coats and hats, but also chairs, clocks, candleholders, bookshelves, brooms, and anything else you can imagine. Shakers rooms were generally empty when not in use, which also facilitated cleaning them.
Perhaps because of Mother Ann’s Manchester experience, Shakers thought that dirt was evil. This might be one of the reasons why they developed an ascetic, utilitarian aesthetic that in many ways foreshadowed that of Modern architecture. Much of modern aesthetic comes from industrialization, but a big problem that many architects of the early 20th century were trying to solve was the insalubrity of urban dwelling quarters. This was a time when the transfer of diseases was not so well understood. Dark areas and dusty rugs were thought to be unhealthy, and the Modernist approach to natural light, material finishes and interior furnishing was responding to these concerns.
Shakers were in more than one way ahead of these conclusions. They were also able to imbue this idea of cities and building as ‘machines for living’ with a religious sense of purpose and meaning over a hundred years before Modernism. Perhaps this precept was more effective in Shakerism because Believers were much more intentionally and seriously concerned with the regulation of life itself; with its transformation into an increasingly perfect and stable paradise.
That said, it was only through this restrictive social surveillance system that Shakers were able to create their image of paradise. Life in a Shaker family was in many ways utopian. Not just in its other-worldliness, but also its standards of living. But there is something eerily dystopian about it too. This materially successful collective way of life came with its hefty share of submission of individual will, even if on voluntary terms. It leaves us wondering the degree to which radical forms of communal ownership, even within the particulars of this case, always requires a panoptic approach. Perhaps many of the structural aspects we have discussed earlier in this piece would not have been practicable were it not for the degree to which everyday human affairs were regulated.
This article was produced with the support of the following AU Early Collectors:
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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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