Upstate New York is a hub for spiritual cults and experimental societies. Many do not know that there is a small town in Albany County where the remnants of a revolutionary Christian sect are found – the Shakers. Famous, the novel by John Fowles, a maggot, is based on the supernatural mythology of the Shakers before they fled England for the New World. Visit Watervliet to see the fruits of unwavering religious fervor and conviction (pun intended).
Who were the Shakers?
The Shakers were officially called the “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing”. The name “Shaker” comes from outsiders who observed the cult’s bizarre rituals. During prayers and sermons, Shaker leaders claimed that the Holy Spirit would communicate with them. Supposedly, the presence of the Holy Spirit was so intense that the shaman’s mortal flesh was submerged. From the outside, it looks like the Shakers, as conduits of God’s energy, had seizures, which is what the label “Shaking Quakers” or “Shaker” refers to. It is not uncommon for religious figures to exhibit similar behaviors during high spiritual states. Shamans from animist tribes around the world go into hysterical states to contact ancestors, spirits and deities. Likewise, charismatic Christians, with an overemphasis on the Holy Spirit, believe that miracles and faith healing can occur through violent shaking during prayer.
In the early 1700s, in the North West of England, a group of spiritual purists drifted away from the Quakers, officially known as the “Religious Society of Friends”. The main point of difference concerned marriage and millennialism.
- Fact: Millennialism is the religious or metaphysical belief that society will be radically transformed by the inevitable and predestined forces of nature and time.
England’s mainstream Anglican Christians did not like this eccentric group, who openly claimed that all mainstream Christian denominations would be swept away along with unrepentant pagans and sinners at Christ’s second coming.
Fleeing violent mobs, the Shakers emigrated to the United States in 1776. The first settlement was in upstate New York. At its height, there were at least 2,000 Shakers. Unfortunately, their beliefs were so controversial that they drew criticism and derision wherever they took hold. Additionally, since the Shakers avoided marriage, practiced celibacy, and espoused egalitarian values, the population was bound to decline over time.
What did the Shakers believe?
In short, the Shaking Quakers believed in biblical literalism, which in practice involves adopting the triple vows of Jesus: poverty, chastity, and obedience. They also believed that the end times were near.
One might be inclined to ask, where do the Shakers get their beliefs from? The answer to this is probably the most controversial and subversive aspect of the band. They believed that their leader, Mother Ann Lee, was the carnal embodiment of the messiah in female form. She would have communicated directly with the Divine and affirmed that society was about to be totally transformed. The 19th century was to be “the era of protests”. What’s crazy is that she was pretty much right. After his passing, the world order changed dramatically, the industrial revolution blew up the world’s population, man became one with machines, and mankind was changed forever with no way back or repentance to contain the forces that have been unleashed.
Where are the Shakers now?
After the demise of the Shaker spiritual leaders, most followers left the faith or moved to Maine and Puritan New England, where scarcity of land would allow them to practice their faith in peace. The original settlements in upstate New York were sold to Albany County and exist today as museums.
According to Wikipedia, there are two Shakers left in the world. The last Shaker colony, if it can even be called that, is located in the state of Maine, in a small town called Sabbath Lake, near New Gloucester.
Tour of the first Shaker establishment in New York
The first settlement was next to the prominent town of Albany in upstate New York. Back then it was called Watervliet. Today, the city is called Colonie. There is plenty to see in the historic Watervliet Shaker district. Many of the original structures were demolished by the government, but nine buildings still stand today. As well as this, visitors can pay their respects to the Christ figure Ann Lee, whose final resting place is at Shaker Cemetery in Watervliet.
While marriage was not permitted, Shakers believed that spiritual relationships were enough to form family bonds. The Shaker “families” lived quite comfortably in three-story houses with attics, basements and arable backyards. Some buildings have burned down or collapsed, but those that have survived are fine examples of Shaker architecture, which is quite impressive and ironically decadent. In each family home, men and women slept, communed, and basked in separate areas with separate stairways. Another notable attraction is the Shaker Meeting House. It is a relatively simple wooden house that was rebuilt in 1848 to replace the original 1791 meeting house. At various times in Shaker’s history buildings had to be replaced as the originals were built at haste by a group of poor and persecuted immigrants.
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