The Shakers: Oneida Community Part 1

by Randall Hillebrand
(Part One)

The Shakers and the Oneida Community were contemporaries for approximately 31 years from 1848 to 1880. This was the approximate length of time that the Oneida Community lasted (1848-1881). The
Shakers lasted the longest between the two groups, from approximately 1774 until the present, 1830 being their peak year for membership, declining thereafter. I have been told that there are about seven female Shakers still living today by a woman named Jeannie Stine who is a history buff of the Shakers from Seattle, Washington (Stine).

Both the Shakers and the Oneida Community were striving for the same thing: the bringing in of the millennial kingdom. But, they both had different ways in which to do it. The Shakers felt that sexual
intercourse was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and that by eliminating it, God would bring in the kingdom. The Oneida Community on the other hand thought that living as if one where in the
millennial kingdom already, would bring it in. So, as a result of that, the Oneida Community lived a life where “complex marriage” (where all men and all woman were jointly married to each other), or as some would call it, free sex, was practiced. This was practiced since they believed that in the millennium this would be the norm.

What is interesting about the Shakers and the Oneida Community is that even though they were at opposite ends of the pole from each other, the Shakers and the Oneida Community not only knew of each
other, but on occasion the Shakers would come and visit the Oneida Community. They had a certain amount of respect for each other (Noyes 144). John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida Community, “declared that his approach and that of the Shakers were the only two possible in the resurrected state.” But he further stated that: “If I believed in a Shaker heaven I would be a Shaker  now.” (Foster 89).

Both the Shakers and the Oneida Community profited from the revivals that were taking place during their time. ” The revivals left many people distraught and torn by anxiety; and having tried without success to gain a sense of assurance in their own churches, they were in a receptive mood to listen to new prophets who offered definite guarantees of spiritual security.” (Hudson 183). So the revivals played a key role in their success because of the ideas, attitudes, and hopes which they fostered (Hudson 183).

Another fact about the two groups was that they both adopted “communism,” or in other words, communal living. Both groups lived in a communal setting where large groups of people lived corporately in mansion-size living quarters. They shared the responsibilities as a group, where both men and women worked side by side with total equality as their goal.

Also, both groups were persecuted for their faith. This is quite interesting when we remember the fact that one group believed in no sex and the other group believed in “free sex.” The general population did not agree with either extreme. They were both extremist groups that did not fit in with the main stream of society at that time, even though both groups went as far as isolating their communities from the general population.

The Shakers and the Oneida Community were in some ways very similar, but in other ways very diverse.



. The founder of the Shakers was a woman by the name of Ann Lee Standerin who is known as Ann Lee, or Mother Ann. She was born in Manchester, England on February 29, 1736. It is said that as a child she did not have much of a desire to play, but that she was a serious young girl that had a great interest in religious things. It is even said that during this time of her life that “she was favored with heavenly visions, and became strongly impressed with a sense of the deep depravity of mankind.” (Holloway 55).

Ann was known to have begged her mother “piteously” to be kept from having to get married (Ferguson 321). But on January 5, 1762, she was finally married to a blacksmith by the name of Abraham
Standerin. Over the next four years Abraham and Ann had four children which all died in infancy. Ann looked at these deaths “as a series of judgements on her ‘concupiscence’ (sexual desire; lust).” (Andrews
TPCS 7,8). So she began to stop sleeping with her husband so as not to stir up his affections. She was even afraid to sleep at night because she thought that she might awaken in hell. She even used to pace the
floor at night in anguish about her struggle against the flesh. It is said that her anguish was so great that “bloody sweat passed through the pores of her skin, tears flowed down her cheeks until the skin cleaved off, and she wrung her hands until the blood gushed from under her nails (Andrews TPCS 7,8).

In the summer of 1758, she joined the society of Shaking Quakers, a sect in England under the control of Jane and James Wardley. (The Shaking Quakers are an offshoot of the Camisards which are otherwise
known as the French Prophets.) (Ferguson 322).

In the summer of 1770, Ann had been imprisoned for taking part in a noisy religious service in Manchester England. While in jail, at the age of thirty-four, Ann had a vision that radically transformed her life. She had a vision of “Adam and Eve in carnal intercourse”. (Foster 21,22). She at last knew without a shadow of a doubt that the very transgression which had resulted in the fall of man in the Garden of Eden was sexual intercourse. After this traumatic discovery, Ann had another vision where the Lord Jesus appeared to her in all of His glory. Jesus then supposedly comforted her and told her that her new mission was to spread her newfound knowledge to the world (Foster 21,22).


“As lust conceived by the fall
Hath more or less infected all;
So we believe ’tis only this
That keepeth souls from perfect bliss.”
(Hudson 185)

As seen from this Shaker hymn, the Shakers held to the visions of Mother Ann, and made it their purpose to spread their newfound message to the ends of the earth. Mother Ann herself prophesied that “This
gospel will go to the end of the world, and it will not be propagated so much by preaching, as by the good works of the people.” (Morse xxii).

After Ann’s release from jail, she shared her visions with the group of Shaking Quakers to which she belonged. Because of these visions, John Wardley, the leader of this group, saw Ann as the fulfillment to his prophecy. His prophecy was that “Christ’s spirit would come again and that the second time it would be embodied in a woman.” (Ferguson 323). The group then “hailed her as Mother in Christ and Bride of the Lamb; and she was known thereafter as Mother Ann or Ann the Word.” (Holloway 57).

As Ann developed her sense of overpowering conviction that lust was the basis of all human corruption, her religious mission increased until she finally took over leadership from Jane Wardley. Then Mother Ann, during this time, added a distinctive element to the group which was celibacy. This distinction was what made the Shakers different from other revivalistÿgroups of this time. At this time there were approximately thirty believers in her following (Foster 25,26).

For a time the group tried to live out their faith in England, but ran into much social pressure (Gonzalez 244). Then, when Mother Ann was examined by four scholars of the Established Church in England on the charge of blasphemy, “whom she confounded by speaking in seventy-two distinct and separate tongues, it was plain to her that the Millennium had begun.” (Ferguson 57). Following this, a vision came to either Ann (Ferguson 57) or her associate James Wittaker (Foster 26) of a tree that according to Ann talked to her, telling her that they were to come to America to set up their church (the Church of Christ’s Second Appearing). In Wittaker’s vision, the tree did not talk to him, but he saw a tree with ever-burning leaves in America which represented the Shakers’ church. Because of this vision, the Shakers felt it their divine call to go to America. So in the spring of 1774, with all temporal affairs settled, arrangements were made to
go to the new world (Andrews TPCS 18). In May of 1774, Ann Lee and eight followers sailed from Liverpool for America (Andrews/Andrews 13). The band of nine sailed on the Mariah, a ship headed for New York.

Included in the group besides Mother Ann herself were several of her family (Neal 2): “her husband, her brother William, …, James Wittaker, … John Hocknell …, his son Richard, James Shepard, Mary Partington, and Nancy Lee, a cousin.” (Andrews/Andrews 14).  The early Shakers believed that the gospel of celibacy “could never take hold in the old world, where the stolid, conservative minds of the common people did not open readily to the new, strange doctrine.” They believed that in the new world, God was going to flourish it (Sasson 4).

The story is told that while they were not yet very long out to sea, the captain became very outraged by the Shakers’ manner of worship. He disliked it so much that he told them that if they repeated the performance again, they would all be thrown overboard.  On the following Sunday they did repeat it. As the story goes, when the captain attempted to put his threat into action, almost at once, a storm of tremendous violence arose and knocked a plank lose whereby the ship started to take on water. All hands tried to pump out the
water with no avail. When the captain announced that nothing could save the ship and that the ship would sink by morning, to the contrary, Mother Ann told the captain that she had seen two angels on the ship that told her that it would not sink. It is said that scarcely had she spoken it when a great wave arose, the last of its size, that knocked against the ship so precisely that the loose plank was forced back into place. After this, the captain allowed the Shakers to worship any way they pleased (Holloway 58).

On August 6, 1774, Mother Ann and her followers of eight arrived in New York (Andrews/Andrews 14). The group split up into smaller groups in order to earn money (Sasson 6). Ann took in work doing washing and ironing while her husband was working as a journeyman in the blacksmith trade (Neal 3,4). But soon after arriving, Abraham became very sick. Ann had to support the two of them as she nursed him back to health. After this, Shaker history reports that Abraham got involved in wickedness and refused to do anything for Ann unless she would decide to “live in the flesh with him, and bear children.” (Sasson 6). She totally refused his proposition which is what caused their final separation. Then in September of 1776, the group
reassembled in Niskeyuna, New York, on some land purchased by John Hocknell (Sasson 6).

Over the next four years, very little progress was made in spreading Ann’s gospel. But finally, in 1780, because of a New Light Baptist revival in New Lebanon, New York, the Shakers received a number of new converts who felt that the Shakers had a definite way to salvation which they themselves were seeking. “There they found a fellowship literally following the example of the primitive apostolic church: men and women living together in celibate purity, holding all goods in common, working industriously with their hands, speaking and singing in unknown tongues, worshiping joyfully, preaching that Christ had actually come to lead believers to a perfect, sinless, everlasting life – the life of the spirit.”(Andrews TGTBS 4). It was even believed by the early Shaker converts that the Revolutionary War was the beginning of a new age. And then on May 19, 1780 came the day that Mother Ann knew that the time had come to proclaim the gospel to the New World, because on that day, New England turned black. This was due to a solar eclipse which Mother Ann knew was a sign from God to proclaim her gospel (Sasson 7,8). Shortly after, Ann and her elders were imprisoned on the charge of pacifism and treason. After their release, they left on a two-year mission through many parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, trying to convert people to
their faith (Andrews TGTBS 4). They returned to Niskeyuna in August of 1783. The following July, Mother Ann’s closest companion died, her brother William. Not long after that, Mother Ann’s health started to
decline, and on September 8, 1784, at the age of forty-eight, Mother Ann died.

At the time of her death there were approximately 1000 converts to Shakerism who were scattered throughout New England (Sasson 8). It is said that “at the time of her death, one of the elders who was
greatly ‘gifted in vision’ testified that when the breath left her body he saw in vision ‘a golden chariot drawn by four white horses which received and wafted her soul out of sight.'”(Neal 5).  After Ann’s death, James Wittaker “saved Ann’s faith from passing with her.” (Sprigg 7). For the next three years Wittaker propagated the faith until his death in 1787. Then leadership was assumed by the first American, Joseph Meacham from Enfield, Connecticut. He then picked Lucy Wright from a town in Massachusetts called Pittsfield as the leader over the women (Sprigg 7). This step of putting Lucy Wright in leadership was something that was just not done at this time period in history. Even many Shakers did not like this move (Foster 37). At this time in the Shakers’ history, Joseph Meacham brought together and organized the scattered and disorganized members into an ordered union (Andrews/Andrews 23). “He drafted the constitution of the United Society, and elaborated and systematized Shaker doctrine.” (Hudson 185,186). Meacham regulated everything, even the Shakers’ violence of the physical manifestations was subdued to dance and song (Hudson 185,186). He made the move from a primarily charismatic organization to a more stable and routine fellowship. During this year, Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright (who were known as the parents of the church) decided that it was now time for the true Shakers to separate themselves from the world (Andrews TPCS 56).

This separation was due to two things: the first was that of “persecution and religious conviction,” and the second reason was that only with separation from a sinful world could one “realize the hope of salvation and perfection, complete freedom to obey the laws of God.” (Andrews/Andrews 24). So Meacham decided “to make New Lebanon the first ‘gathered’ Shaker community, the model upon which all subsequent
communities would be patterned.” It was also made the first headquarters of the English Shakers (Foster 36).

Under Meacham’s leadership, the Shakers experienced a surge in membership with the onset of the Second Great Awakening (Hudson 186).  Within seven years, eleven communities with over 2000 members had been formed. These communities were in Watervliet (Niskeyuna), New York (1787); Mount Lebanon, New York (1787); Hancock, Massachusetts (1790); Harvard, Massachusetts (1791); Enfield, Connecticut (1790); Tyringham, Massachusetts (1792); Alfred, Maine (1793); Canterbury, New Hampshire (1792); Enfield, New Hampshire (1793); Shirley, Massachusetts (1793); and Sabbathday Lake, Maine (1794) (Morse xvii). A second period of growth started in 1805 when Shaker missionaries were sent out to the West to reap converts from the Kentucky revivals. Throughout the Shaker history, twenty-four communities were established. Of the twenty-four communities, twenty-one of them were established by 1826 (Morse xvii), which was the peak of Shaker membership totaling around 5000 people (Sasson 10). The last Shaker community to go out of existence was the third one, (Hancock, Massachusetts) which went out of existence in 1960. Mount Lebanon, New York (1947) and Watervliet, New York (1938) were the first two colonies established, and two of the last three to close (Morse xvii).


The Shakers can be classified as charismatic in nature. The earlier Shakers, up until the leadership was taken over by Joseph Meacham, were a wild, unorderly, unorganized free-for-all. An average worship service was described as such:  “When they meet together for their worship, they fall a groaning and trembling, and everyone acts alone for himself; one will fall prostrate on the floor, another on his knees and his head in his hands; another will be muttering inarticulate sounds, which neither they or any body else can understand. Some will be singing, each one his own tune; some without words, in an Indian tune, some sing jig tunes, some tunes of their own making, in an unknown mutter which they call new tongues; some will be dancing, and others stand laughing, heartily and loudly; others will be drumming on the floor with their feet, as though a pair of drum sticks were beating the ruff on a drumhead; others will be agonizing, as though they were in great pain; others jumping up and down; others fluttering over somebody, and talking to them; others will be shooing and hissing evil spirits out of the house, till the different tunes, groaning, jumping, dancing, drumming, laughing, talking and fluttering, shooing and hissing, makes a perfect bedlam; this they call the worship of God.” (Andrews TPCS 28).

In such worship it is said that the participants were not in control of themselves, but were under spirit control. The Shakers felt that as they shook, sin would be shaken right out of their bodies.

After Meacham’s takeover of leadership, he changed the worship from what is mentioned above to an orderly, organized type of dance with song. The dances were symbolic; upturned palms represented the
receiving of divine blessings through the hands, where the shaking of downturned hands represented the shaking out of sin and evil through the finger tips (Ferguson 335,336).


(1) CELIBACY – Celibacy was to be followed since sexual intercourse was the root of all evil. As Ann saw in her vision in prison, the forbidden fruit in the garden was carnal sexual intercourse between Adam and Eve. This is what corrupted all of mankind, and until it is stopped, there can be no triumph over sin. They used Luke 20:34-36 to justify this (Foster 16).

(2) CONFESSION – The first step toward spiritual progress was the confession of sins which was done to either an Elder or Eldress. This was an oral confession, the very first one of which was done before the leadership. This was a very serious matter and confessions could take days or even weeks to finish (Sasson 11), and in some cases years (Holloway 69).

(3) REGENERATION – Regeneration was obtained by works (Andrews TPCS 20).

(4) SEPARATION – Only through separation could one “realize the hope of salvation and perfection, complete freedom to obey the laws of God.” (Andrews/Andrews 24).

(5) REVELATION – Believed in continuous revelation to members (Andrews TPCS 97).

(6) DUAL DEITY – That there is a Father-Mother God, or male and female sides of God of equal deity (Andrews TPCS 158).

(7) DUAL MESSIAHSHIP – That “Christ became the second Adam and Ann became the second Eve, thus restoring the race, both male and female, to perfect purity.” (Ferguson 324). She was Christ in female form.
“She was the one in whom dwelt the Divine Mother.” (Ferguson 324).  Mother Ann called herself “Ann the Word” and said that she was married to the Lord Jesus Christ (Andrews TPCS 12).

(8) EQUALITY OF THE SEXES – A logical attribute of male and female messiahship.

(9) MILLENNIAL KINGDOM – They believed that the millennium was imminent and that their good works could further the kingdom (Samson 10).

(10) MEMBERSHIP – New members had to follow the Millennial Laws.  People seeking entrance were put into one of two groups, either the Novitiate Order for those who had been married and the Junior Order
for those who had not been married. A one year waiting period or trial period was required to sever all matrimonial ties by common consent, and to settle all debts. Families were then separated from each other and parents of the children could only see them privately once a year for a brief time in the presence of an elder (Holloway 69).

(NOTE: The foregoing doctrines are the more important ones of many.  These doctrines were called by the Shakers “Millennial Laws” by which they were to live since they were in the millennial kingdom. These
Millennial Laws covered things from how to treat animals up to their gospel of celibacy.)