Chapter 15: The Spiritual Roots of the Women's Movement
Female historians of the women's movement, as well as their male counterparts, have created the fiction that for want of a better alternative the "official" beginning of modern feminism can be traced to a meeting that took place in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. But that historic meeting was held more than seventy years after the struggle for female equality had begun in America.
The women's movement actually began on August 6, 1774, when a woman named Ann Lee and a small group of her followers arrived at the port of New York aboard the sailing ship Mariah. They left their native England because Ann had a vision of Christ in which she had been told to go to America. She was told that in the New World a new Christian dispensation would begin--a dispensation that Ann was to initiate. It would be an era of male and female equality.
She founded her church in order to begin that work. It was called the Millennial Church because it taught that the millennium which so many Christians anticipated, would not take place until women had achieved equality with men. But the name that was so carefully chosen was never popular. From the beginning, everyone referred to it as the Shaker Church. And from the beginning, it was a target for the enmity that many of its practices stirred up in the general populace.
The first community was established in Watervliet, New York, near Albany and by 1780, the first of many Shaker imprisonments had taken place. Three men were jailed for espousing pacifism and were sentenced to prison by the Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies in the State of New York.
In the courtroom, one of the defendants took the opportunity to make a long statement of his beliefs. He said that now, and in the future, he planned to ignore any rules regarding war that were set up by the civil courts. He told the Commissioners that he would try to convert others to pacifism; that he would discourage all men from bearing arms. He would do this, he said, because such action was in accord with God's will.
The commissioners were not happy with his declaration, since they felt that those who were killing enemy soldiers were already doing God's Will. They declared the principles espoused by the Shakers to be "highly pernicious and destructive to the Freedom and Independence of the Nation," and sent the men off to jail.
Ann Lee's pacifism was also called treason, and because she was the Shaker leader she was sent to prison in Poughkeepsie, New York. She remained in jail for at least three and a half months before some of her followers were able to intervene with the governor, George Clinton, and secure her release.
But pacifism was not the only principle for which Shakers continued to be jailed. Although they maintained a strict celibacy, they were frequently accused of scandalous and licentious conduct because unmarried men and women lived together in the same communities. They also were persecuted for declaring themselves abolitionists when the issue of slavery was being debated. And long before that bitter debate erupted, Negroes were welcomed into full fellowship in all Shaker communities; that non-racist policy had been in effect from their inception.
The Shakers taught that "as things are above, so below." Those principles that necessarily are the rule in a heavenly existence must be approximated on earth. Peace, racial equality, and celibacy were to be put into practice in this world, in preparation for life in the next world. And because they believed in the equality of the Godhead--in Mother/Father God--it was necessary to practice sexual equality in their own lives.
Shaker communities were structured to model that equality. For every male who administered or led any phase of the community's operation, there had to be a female counterpart. Every elder necessitated an eldress; every deacon, a deaconess. The Shaker handbook stated that its hierarchial structure must "consist of male and female...generally four in number, two of each sex." And in their publication "The Practical Order of the Society", they spelled out the duties of the various assignments that were made.
At the highest level of leadership, "the visible head of the Church of Christ on earth, is vested in a Ministry, consisting of male and female." At the next level were a number of ministers, "both male and female" and their duties were "to bear testimony of the faith and principles of the society to those without, and give information to candid enquirers; also to receive and instruct those who visit the society for that purpose....and are also sent abroad to preach the gospel to the world of mankind as duty may call, and the way be prepared for it."
The very public nature of the duties given to these ministers insured that anyone who knew anything about the Shakers knew that women were equal to men in spreading the gospel.
The internal routine of daily life was also structured to insure the equality of the female. "In every society, elders are appointed and established in each large family, consisting of two persons of each sex. These are considered as the head of the family...it becomes their duty to teach, exhort and lead in spiritual concerns."
The material welfare of each community was entrusted to females, as well as to males. "The management of temporal concerns...is entrusted to the deacons and deaconesses, as trustees of the temporal property of the society or family to which they belong. To these pertain the duties of providing for the support and convenience of their respective families, of regulating the various branches of business in which the members are employed, and of transacting business with those without [i.e., the world outside the Shaker communities]."
The Shakers did not make the mistake of trying to establish a matriarchy to overcome the patriarchal structure of society. Instead, they understood that men as well as women of good will were engaged in a joint effort to insure the equality of both sexes.
The Shakers never intended to be an elite society, protected from the larger world. They saw themselves as a beacon for the rest of humanity; as the forerunners of a way of life that would ultimately take root in the world beyond their communities. They believed that the pacifism, the racial equality, and the nonsexual relationships between men and women that they practiced, as well as sexual equality, would become ways of life that would eventually be reflected in the laws and institutions of the secular world.
Other groups before them had espoused pacifism and celibacy, and in some places there was racial equality. But in demanding equality for women, the Shakers were social pioneers. And in demanding that equality because it was divinely ordained, they were theological pioneers.
The Shakers declared: "In searching the records of scripture we find that, in past ages, there were females, as well as males, raised up and qualified to do the will of God....which evidently shows that women, as well as men, were not only designed to enjoy the special favor of God; but also that they were originally designed to have a correspondent share in teaching and guiding the human race, in directing the destinies of nations and governing the world."
The Shakers also taught that the ministry of "Mother" Ann Lee was the sign that the Second Coming of Christ had begun. They did not believe she was a reincarnation of Jesus, but they did teach that because he was the second Adam, there was obviously the need for a second Eve. And that need was fulfilled in the person of Mother Ann. The ministry of Jesus was the cornerstone of Christianity; Ann's ministry was to be the capstone.
In spite of the fact that the Shaker lifestyle entailed a radical socialism, a radical feminism, celibacy, and racial equality, they began to make many converts. The opportunity to live out the highest ideals in their daily lives attracted many people to the Shaker community. It was the kind of appeal that primitive Christianity had: the appeal of an extended family of co-workers and co-believers, dedicated to a common spiritual ideal and working towards a common goal.
By 1781, people were coming to Watervliet from all over the Northeast. Many who had traveled long distances to learn more about the Shakers asked them to come and establish communities in the places where they lived. It was under these circumstances that Mother Ann began what her followers referred to as her "missionary journeys." For 2 1/2 years she traveled all over New York State, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, making converts--and making enemies. Many people viewed Shaker doctrines as dangerous and they tried to stop Ann and her followers. There was a lot of physical violence directed at them and a record of the kinds of abuse they suffered are preserved in the historical documents of the Millennial Church.
"Every evil report and every wicked device that falsehood and malice could dictate, were called forth to calumniate and debase the character of Mother Ann and her companions....In consequence of these accusations, they suffered much personal abuse....the people also, who embraced the [Shaker] testimony, often suffered a large share in these abuses; being scourged with whips, beaten with clubs, stoned, kicked and dragged about by their legs and arms, and sometimes by the hair of their heads....so that many of them but narrowly escaped with their lives; and numbers carried through life, the scars and marks of abuse which they received from their cruel and inhuman persecutors."
Yet in spite of abuse, persecution, and imprisonment, Ann's missionary efforts were successful. In all the places to which she journeyed, groups of people began the work that would establish thriving Shaker communities all over the Northeast.
After more than two years of arduous missionary work, Ann Lee returned to Watervliet. She came back to a large, thriving community that had continued to grow and prosper under the leadership of those who had stayed behind. But within a year of her return, she was dead. She was forty-eight years old. She died just ten years from the time that she first set foot in America.
When news of her death became public, everyone thought that the movement she began was over. Shaker records describe that time. "Mother Ann's decease being publicly known, it was generally and confidently believed by the world around them, that the Society would be dissolved and the people would return to their former course of life; so that (as they often expressed themselves)'the delusion would soon be at an end.'"
But the Millennial Church did not die with Ann Lee. In the years following her death, the Shakers experienced a phenomenal growth. In the beginning of 1780, the only converts to Shakerism had been the original twelve who had immigrated to America with Mother Ann. But by 1787, the Shakers were calling themselves the United Society of Believers. They had grown to form a coalition of the many large and thriving communities that were forming in various parts of the country. By l792, there were eleven Shaker Villages in the Northeast. There were two communities in New York state; four in Massachusetts; one in Connecticut; two in New Hampshire and two in the state of Maine.
But from 1792 until 1805, the Shakers did not try to establish any new communities, and their "testimony was withdrawn from the world". The leadership of the church decided that they all needed time to assimilate their rapid growth; "to establish their principles by the test of actual experience."
Having done this to their own satisfaction, the Shakers once again started giving their "testimony" to the outside world. In 1805, a number of believers began missionary efforts in places west of New York state. They established five more Shaker communities: two in Ohio; two in Kentucky, and one in Indiana.
By 1807, their villages numbered sixteen and there were more than 4,000 persons living in them. Their growth had been phenomenal, but even the number of villages they established, and the number of committed men and women living in them, were only part of the story. The Shakers became an American institution.
They were at the height of their popularity by 1820, and still adding to their numbers. During the time of their greatest influence, visiting a Shaker Village became one of the most popular and long-lasting American fads. In the nineteenth century, a day's outing to one of their communities was just as much a part of the social scene as going to a band concert, picnicking, or attending a church function. A contemporary observer noted that "everyone knew them and were more or less acquainted with their doctrines and practices."
From the very beginning of their history, the Shakers had been a source of interest and curiosity to the famous as well as to the unknown. The French general Lafayette was the first among many. During the Revolutionary War he was on a mission for George Washington and was passing through Albany with several of his men. The Shakers were already a main topic of conversation and the general was intrigued by what he heard. He went to Watervliet to meet with Ann Lee, whom people were calling the "Woman in the "Wilderness." According to the records of that event, he and Mother Ann "spoke at length" and it is reported that she prophesied some of the events that would take place in his life.
As time passed, "The Shaker communities became one of the American marvels, visited by almost every systematic observer." And those who were unable to visit in person corresponded with the leadership of the society. Shaker historians preserved a record of those encounters, and of the correspondence. The records show that Europeans as well as Americans were fascinated with the Shaker lifestyle.
People as diverse as de Tocqueville and Harriet Martineau visited Shaker settlements and Leo Tolstoy maintained a long exchange of letters and ideas with Shaker leaders. He was especially taken with the fact that the Shakers had successfully put into practice the beliefs about which he, himself, was writing. Tolstoy's ideal life included pacifism, renunciation of wealth, and self-improvement through a simple lifestyle that included manual labor. In his letters, he asked many questions regarding their practical application of those principles.
Friedrich Engels was also interested in the success of the Shaker villages. In his own writings, he commented at length on their structure. He was especially interested in the communal lifestyle and in the equality of women as it was demonstrated in the variety of tasks they performed and the responsibilities that they shared with men. Engels was impressed with the Shakers because their communal and cooperative lifestyle had eventually given them a prosperous and well-ordered existence. He saw Shakerism as offering a positive affirmation of what communistic ideals could accomplish in a society. Of course, like so many others, he considered their religious beliefs (including pacifism) to be a regrettable aberration that had no bearing on their success.
But others were interested in the religious content of their lifestyle. Thomas Jefferson wrote, "if their exegesis of Christian principles is maintained and sustained by the practical life, it is destined eventually to overthrow all other religions."
Abraham Lincoln was aware of the Shakers and of their pacifism. When he was president, he wrote that it was unfortunate that they were pacifists because it was their caliber of disciplined, dedicated, and godly men who were needed to help bring victory in the war between the states.
Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, had spent time at the Shaker Village in New Lebanon, and after reading some of their publications commented "there is more true religion in it" than in any book he had ever read.
The Shakers were also a factor in the popular literature of their day. Nathaniel Hawthorne's book A Canterbury Tale used the setting of a Shaker village to unfold the story line. And men as diverse as Emerson, Robert Owen, and Alfred Noyes visited and commented on the Shaker phenomenon.
But the most far-reaching and continuing effect of Shakerism was the women's movement. Generations of Shaker men and women dedicated their lives, and all their resources, to the establishment of female equality, and to the message of its foundation in the integrity of the male/female Godhead.
The Shakers were faithful to their mission in spite of the violent and continuous persecution they endured for many years. That faithfulness prepared the way for the Seneca Falls convention that took place in 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who convened that meeting, was born and raised near Albany, New York. It was an area that had been saturated with Shaker teachings for more than sixty years--a place where "everyone knew them and were more or less acquainted with their doctrines and practices."
Elizabeth Stanton was not the only feminist leader who grew up in that Shaker environment. Almost all the early leaders of the women's movement were from the Northeastern part of the United States, where the Shaker presence was an integral part of the scene.
After 1860 an obvious decline set in among the Shakers, although they continued to be the subject of much study and imitation. Scholars have explored possible reasons for the declining membership, but have been unable to find a satisfactory explanation. But the Shakers understood the reason for their decline and preserved an explanation of it in their own records.
They related that decline to the rise of the secular arm of the women's movement. One of the most important Shaker beliefs was the conviction that the principles by which they lived must eventually be integrated into the world's social, political, and cultural institutions. And after the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, when Ann Lee's message of the need for sexual equality finally took root in the secular world, Shakerism had
accomplished its most important task. Others now took up the work that they had begun--the work of establishing the equality of the female principle in all areas of life.
In 1904, two members of the society wrote: "Ann Lee arose in the dawning of the morning; she is the first among many sisters. The women of the nations are following in her wake, asserting themselves equal to their brothers...they will acknowledge her and confess her name when they find out the Spirit that is leading them."
And perhaps they will.