History 12 Reading Guide

Mother Ann Lee and The Evolution of Shaker Beliefs and Theology

  • Priscilla Brewer, "The Shakers of Mother Ann Lee," in Pitzer, America's Communal Utopias, 37-56.
  • Charles Nordhoff, "The Shakers," American Utopias, 117-151, (skim 214-231), read 232-256.

Further reading:

  • Stephen Stein, "Shaker Gift and Shaker Order:  A Study of Religious Tension in Nineteenth-Century America," Communal Societies 10 (1990), 102-113.


Note:  Mother Ann Lee and her original converts were English, and Shaker theology had English and French roots.  After the small company of English believers arrived in upstate New York and their "traveling ministry" began to spread their message, American converts populated the communities that they established in New York, New England, Kentucky and Ohio.  Unlike the Radical German Pietist communities established during the colonial and early national periods, whose members primarily were German immigrants, this was the first utopian community with a predominantly native-born American membership.

This is the first of two classes on the Shaker communities in America.  We will begin our discussion with an overview of Shaker history and Shaker theology.  In the next class, we will explore the Shaker revisions of the structure and function of community and communal living and of family and gender roles, and examine descriptions and evaluations by informed contemporaries.

  • How do the English origins of the Shakers compare with the German origins of the Radical Pietist Separatists? How do the similarities and differences account for the evolution of the various Shaker villages and the United Society of Believers?
  • How did Mother Ann Lee and the Shakers interpret the Scriptural justification of celibacy, and how did that interpretation, in its differences from that of Jacob Boehme, shape both the practice of celibacy and its implications for the community?
  • How do we understand and explain the extent and the limits of the Shaker practice of equality between men and women? How was their particular interpretation both related to and reinforced by their religious practice of celibacy?
  • How do Nordhoff's and Brewer's interpretations of the Era of Manifestations differ? What is the significance of that difference?
  • What can we begin to conclude about the North American continent and American society as an environment for establishing religious communal societies?