Simple gifts: celibacy and communism

Simple gifts: celibacy and communism

ESSA Writers
April 12, 2014

On the 6th of August 1774, a ship called the Mariah arrived in New York harbour, completing its tumultuous voyage from Liverpool, England.[1] Aboard the ship was a group of nine ill-treated ‘Shakers’ led by the religious mystic, Ann Lee. This group were pursuing an apparition of a new Eden upon Lee’s vision of “a large tree, every leaf of which shone with such brightness as made it appear like a burning torch, representing the Church of Christ, which will yet be established in this land”.[2] Arriving virtually without “purse or scrip”[3], Ann Lee, a free-spirited woman of humble origins, was to establish a religious communion that rejected the outside ‘World’ in favour of a simple, secluded life in anticipation of Christ’s Second Appearing.

The ‘Shaking Quakers’, or simply the Shakers, originated from Manchester, England, where the political and religious establishment consistently tried to punish them for their unorthodox religious practices, which entailed hysterical scenes of shaking, dancing, and singing. As well as their religious rites being wild displays of spiritual ecstasy, their doctrines were equally radical. They rejected Calvinist Protestantism and its notions of selectivity and predestination, and much of the formal religious establishment in general. They doggedly pitted themselves against the outside ‘World’, seeing it as largely corrupt and ungodly.

As one would expect, the Shakers lived in characteristically ascetic and modest communes in provincial locations such as Watervliet in New York, eventually spreading as far as the ‘bluegrass’ region of Kentucky at Pleasant Hill. The communes were meant to translate the Shakerist spiritual equality into a viable social organisation, hence their adoption of communism. The Shakers, however, were certainly not the first of Judeo-Christian heritage to practice communism, the Essenes being a prominent example of the historically close association between practical communism and the Judeo-Christian tradition – communism belongs to this tradition as much as it does to Marxism.

Celibacy and communism were the two cornerstones of Shakerism. Their very establishment was founded upon a strict adherence to both. From this they sought to exist ‘simply’, to pursue rudimentary lives against the frittering whims and details of an ever-complicated outside existence. For the Shakers, the allure wasn’t of a naturalist’s life amongst the scarlet oaks and white pines of Appalachia or the romanticism of gathering upon unspoiled banks of huckleberries and mountain laurels to discuss philosophy – these were the Transcendentalists. Rather, the Shakers were inspired by abstract faith and willing religious conviction. Yet it was this celibate, communist way of organisation that contributed a lot to the eventual decline of the Shakers.

For the most part, the Shakers were farmers, though they were proficient at other things. They gained a reputation for the prodigiously practical design of their furniture (Shaker rocking chairs still being popular collectors items today), profitably selling seeds and herbs, and cashing in on the popularity of Shaker cookbooks. So despite the purported lifestyle isolated from the outside World, they actually did have commercial relationships with it. They exported much of their produce, and had to import products they couldn’t produce themselves, such as staple goods like daybooks, shirting, pins, cups and plates. They could never be entirely self-sufficient and independent of the outside World.

The demographic shift over time ultimately shaped the destiny of the Shaker communes. Such demographic changes originated both internally and externally. An inherent problem with the United Society and its form of Christian communism was that less ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ Shakers were being admitted to the communes due to the openness of its admission policy, so-called ‘winter Shakers’ or ‘bread-and-butter Shakers’. If I may use some economics jargon, the total equality of the communes’ compensatory schemes was an incentive for people with lower marginal productivity to join.[4] Moreover, as the communes’ economic activities expanded (not to mention the increasing membership and number of communes around the country), the communes became harder to manage, and greater management and leadership skills were required of the trustees.[5]  With Shaker communes becoming refuges for less able outcasts from the outside, such talent was not readily available.

Externally, the increasing opportunities presented in the ‘World’ were too strong an allure for many in the communes, resulting in high rates of adult apostasy by the 1830s and 40s[6], something expected if we invoke rational choice theory. People who were more skilled and productive  (people with a higher marginal productivity) left the Shaker communes. Again, as the communes expanded, leadership became increasingly important, and as the more talented people apostatised and rejoined the outside World, there was less and less leadership talent amongst the Shaker membership. If there were greater advantages outside the communes, people would leave, and if for others there weren’t, they would stay.[7]

Both these internal and external forces were adversely impacting upon the membership composition of Shaker communes. By the mid-nineteenth century, the world had changed, and the Shaker utopian ideal became much harder to maintain. The rise of finance capitalism and complex industry meant that living a ‘simple life’ was seemingly unfeasible.[8]

What we see with the demise of these Shaker communes is that some of the demands of religious and social doctrines are incompatible with the dominant worldly, economic ones. The very ideals upon which the Shaker communes sought to practice were unsustainable. Celibacy, for instance, raised obvious problems as the average age of people in Shaker communes increased because the only ‘fresh’ people admitted were usually failed old-timers from outside. This particular demographic trend probably resulted in the eventual discarding of the Shakers’ former eccentric religious rites. Gone were the days of wild scenes of singing and dancing – the oldies weren’t as up to it as they used to be! Thus Shaker worship became indistinguishable to normal Protestant practice. The uniqueness was gone.[9]


American history is a story that is inextricably intertwined with the story of religion, post-Reformation. In early America especially, the issue of religion was at the core of people’s lives. However, the opportunities opened to people by the New World led to significant social changes over time as regards people’s religious practices. Of the creeping commercialism that gradually affected the early Americans right up until (and arguably beyond) the Gilded Age, the Shakers were not exempt. They were imbued with this tension throughout their history.  Nonetheless, fleeing to America upon the mystic Ann Lee’s miraculous vision, the Shakers were hugely influential in American culture, leaving a lasting cultural legacy, punching way above their weight when one looks at their comparatively small numbers.

Religious and social utopias are hard to sustain in an interrelated world of trade and globalisation. No matter how hard one tries to lead a simple, secluded or ‘unique’ life, they are always in and a part of a much broader material and epistemological social structure. This is a problem faced by many reactionary social or religious movements that turn their backs on the rest of the world. In my next article, I will be looking at the American Transcendentalist movement, which suffered this exact problem.


[1] CE Robinson, A concise history of the United Society of Believers called Shakers, East Canterbury, N.H. : Robinson, c1893, p. 18

[2] FW Evans, ‘Shakers: Compendium of the Origin, History, Principles, Rules and Regulations, Government, and Doctrines of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, with Biographies of Ann Lee, William Lee, Jas. Whittaker, J. Hocknell, J. Meacham and Lucy Wright’, D. Appleton and Company, 1859, p 138 (found at

[3] Luke 22:35

[4] Murray, J. E. “Human Capital in Religious Communes: Literacy and Selection of Nineteenth Century Shakers.” Explorations in Economic History, Volume 32, Issue 2, April 1995, p. 218

[5]  Stein S.J., The Shaker Experience in America, Yale University Press, 1992, 142-143

[6] Brewer P.S., ‘The Demographic Features of the Shaker Decline, 1787-1900’ The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Summer 1984), p. 44-45.

[7] Cosgel M.M., and Andrew B.B., “Membership in a Reigious Commune: The Shakers, 1850-1870”, Explorations in Economic History, Volume 38, Issue 2, April 2001, p. 292

[8] Stein S.J., The Shaker Experience in America, Yale University Press, 1992, 148

[9] Murray, J. E. “Human Capital in Religious Communes: Literacy and Selection of Nineteenth Century Shakers.” Explorations in Economic History, Volume 32, Issue 2, April 1995, p. 232