Mount Lebanon was the spiritual center of the Shaker community. It was inhabited by Shakers continuously until 1947. At its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, it encompassed over one hundred thirty buildings and six thousand acres of land. In 1880, 283 Shakers lived there. Mount Lebanon Shaker Village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mount Lebanon Shaker Village
P.O. Box 628
New Lebanon, NY 12125
ph.: (518) 794-9500
For nearly two centuries the Shakers, or Shaking Quakers as they were first called, provided living proof of the viability of communistic living in America. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, as the Shakers officially called themselves, was founded by a working-class, illiterate woman from Manchester, England, in the late eighteenth century. The Shaker settlement in New Lebanon was the second settlement to be founded, though it soon rose to preeminence among the subsequent Shaker villages. It was the largest settlement and assumed the role of central ministry for the entire Shaker movement. From the days of the national expansion of Shakerism until the movement’s decline and demise in the twentieth century, the ministry at New Lebanon–or Mount Lebanon as it was increasingly referred to after 1861–offered guidance, both practical and spiritual, to all Believers.
The Shakers called themselves Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or Believers for short, and in the early days of the movement they considered removal and distance from the “World,” the world of non-Believers, necessary for spiritual purity. The religious roots of their beliefs are obscure, but the fundamental tenets of Shakerism are celibacy, communal ownership of land and resources, and the public confession of sins. They also believed in the equality of the sexes and, drawing on the biblical texts and the sayings of their founder Ann Lee, they believed in the motherhood of God. The personality of Ann Lee assumed theological importance to them: They believed she had herself manifested the Second Coming.
The Society was organized into groups of Believers called “Families,” comprising anywhere from thirty to ninety members. After the Society’s initial decade in America, during which many new converts were scattered across New England, families were grouped together to form villages, and each family appointed its own representatives. Each village appointed elders and eldresses to preside over spiritual issues and deacons and deaconesses to form a governing board on temporal matters. Adjacent villages formed bisphorics. All villages came under the central control of the ministry at New Lebanon. At its height in 1839, New Lebanon itself comprised seven families consisting of 480 members.
The documentary evidence for the inception of Shakerism is scarce and little is known about its founder, Ann Lee. Partly, this scarcity can be attributed to Ann Lee’s own illiteracy and consequent faith in the power of the spoken word as opposed to that of the written text. In the early days of the society, education was considered a corrosive force and was discouraged. Only in the mature phase of the movement, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, can extensive and elaborate record keeping on the part of the Shakers be found in the form of business records, journals, letters, and Society regulations. It is also during the mature period that the Shakers began to rewrite their early history and embellish what little was known of Ann Lee.
Ann Lee was born in Manchester, one of the earliest industrial cities of England, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. She was baptized in 1742 and married to Abraham Standerin, a blacksmith, in 1762. Together they had four children, none of whom survived. In the late 1760’s she became involved with a small group of religious enthusiasts who became known as Shakers due to the trembling that their worship induced. The Shakers sang and danced, screeched and succumbed to fits, generally disturbing the neighborhood and inviting antagonism. Ann Lee and her brother William both feature in the police arrest records of the time for intentionally engaging in confrontation with the public to call attention to and spread their belief.
Religious zealotry and sectarianism were not confined to the Shakers. In England at the time there were several millennialist groups that derived considerable inspiration from the French Protestant Huguenot refugees in England. In 1774 Ann Lee, her husband, and a few fellow Shakers decided to leave England and head for the less repressive environment of North America. However, developments in the American colonies were hardly auspicious for a small band of English pacifists. While the colonies celebrated the Boston Tea Party and declared their independence, Ann Lee and her companions sought work as domestic help and curtailed their sectarian activities for a few years.
In 1779 the Shakers reemerged, with Ann Lee now separated from her husband, and purchased some land northwest of Albany in New York State, at a place called Ressaerwyck, or Niskeyuna by the local Indians. This first site later came to be known as Watervliet. Although this remote location allowed Ann Lee and her followers to worship freely, they did not enjoy their isolation for long. That same summer evangelical fervor had gripped the nearby town of New Lebanon, home to the New Light settlement under Joseph Meacham. There were high expectations of an imminent millennium. News of the millennialist Shaker settlement reached New Lebanon, and Meacham decided to pay his neighbors on the other side of the Hudson River a visit. He returned to New Lebanon favorably impressed, and soon he and several others from New Lebanon had converted to the Shaker faith and given Shakerism a foothold in New Lebanon.
At the same time, the Shakers received the unwelcome attentions of authorities looking for conscripts for the Revolutionary War. The Shaker tenet of pacifism and the Believers’ British heritage were seen as treacherous and as sufficient reasons for arrests and fines. During the life of the movement the Shakers were to suffer often for their refusal to fight.
Undeterred by official disapproval, Ann Lee and a few companions set out in 1781 on a two-year journey throughout New England to gather new converts for the movement. By the time of her death in 1784, Ann Lee’s small group of Believers had swelled to many families scattered across the region. Her successor as leader of the movement, James Whittaker, recognized the need to consolidate some of these new members and gather them at a few well-chosen sites. As part of this effort he marshaled the resources with which to build the Society’s first meetinghouse, at New Lebanon in October, 1785, on land owned and donated to the Society by the recent convert George Darrow.
When Whittaker died it was Joseph Meacham who assumed the leadership of the expanding Society. Meacham based himself in New Lebanon, and under his leadership the settlement there assumed its preeminence among the Shaker villages; its position as central ministry lasted until the demise of the entire Society. Partly, this shift from Niskeyuna to New Lebanon was due to its easier access to other parts of New England, making travel to the other Shaker settlements less arduous. Under Meacham the Shakers constructed their village on the mountainside above the town of New Lebanon.
The buildings that made up the Shaker settlement at New Lebanon were constructed to serve a practical purpose. One of the Shakers’ great legacies is the emphasis on well-designed, simple, and functional buildings and furnishings. After the First Meetinghouse, with its symbolic significance for New Lebanon and for the Society as a whole, the next important project was the construction of the Great House in 1788. This building was designed specifically to accommodate the Shakers according to their communal ideal. The younger members of the Society were segregated and housed in the newly constructed Brick House and Bake House. More buildings were added in 1791 for the Second Family and for the elderly Believers. A spinning house, two shops, an office, and a kitchen were also added. The Second Meetinghouse, large enough for five hundred believers, was not built until 1824, after Meacham’s death, and was given a rounded roof and distinctly different character from that of the surrounding buildings. The architecture of the settlement caused one visitor to comment that every Shaker building “has something of the air of a chapel.”
Having made practical arrangements for the facilities at New Lebanon, Joseph Meacham laid down certain guidelines for the structure of the village, based on families with elders and eldresses. With this system firmly in place he released several well-regarded elders and eldresses from New Lebanon, appointing them to positions of leadership at other nascent Shaker settlements. In this way the New Lebanon template was repeated all over New England, and the central ministry retained clear control over and cohesion with the scattered Society. True to his conviction in the division of leadership between men and women in the community, Meacham appointed Lucy Wright as his counterpart at New Lebanon. Wright was to have a profound influence on the evolution and establishment of the Society.
Meacham was himself responsible for the first formal regulations governing the temporal affairs of the Society. Thus, meal and rest times were fixed, and certain standards of quality, simplicity, and beauty were set as goals for crafted goods, produce, and buildings. More importantly, a covenant for admission to the Society was drawn up. Ostensibly, this was devised to avoid legal action over the communal ownership of property and the pooling of labor in the Society. Already in the early days of the Society its elders faced issues of reimbursing disenchanted members who wanted to leave. This problem would continue to dog them, especially in the case of young male Shakers seeking to leave the Society in which they had been raised.
Meacham’s desire for order and for stated objectives extended to the spiritual realm too. Departing considerably from the oral tradition of Ann Lee and her companions, Meacham outlined the salient points of Shaker belief and worship in a tract entitled Concise Statement. A later document entitled The Sacred and Divine Roll also played a crucial part in establishing the Shaker creed. It was reputedly “dictated” to Philemon Stewart by an angel, who summoned him to the Holy Fountain at New Lebanon. Many Shakers reported visions and other intense spiritual experiences, and for a time Stewart was held in favor by the elders of New Lebanon; thus, his Sacred and Divine Roll was widely circulated in the mid-nineteenth century and was sent to heads of state all over the world. Later Stewart fell from favor, however, and his document diminished in significance.
When Joseph Meacham died, leaving behind him a young but cohesive society, his appointee Lucy Wright assumed overall leadership of the Shakers. Under her stewardship the Society saw its greatest expansion and its transition from a small, East Coast sectarian movement to a national church, with villages scattered from the far northeast in Maine to the American frontier in the Ohio Valley and Kentucky. This remarkably successful westward expansion gained many new converts for the United Society and, despite the initial trials associated with establishing settlements on frontier territory, soon added several villages to those in New England. These western villages gained a considerable local foothold and survived well into the Society’s later period of decline. West Union in the Ohio Valley assumed a particular importance as the central village for the western settlers.
Part of the success of this westward expansion can be attributed to Wright’s shrewd imitation of Meacham’s earlier tactic: She placed trusted New Lebanon elders in positions of leadership in the new villages. Despite the expansion’s undoubted success, this deployment of New England Shakers in the West strained and weakened the Shaker settlements on the East Coast. From the outset the western villages assumed a distinctive character, attributable in part to the differences in climate and agricultural possibilities and in part to the external circumstances of the Shakers on the frontier. Removal from the World receded in relevance here, as issues of survival for the Shaker settlers alongside their “Worldly” neighbors became more important. There was no conscious attempt to break away from the central ministry at New Lebanon, and yet the sheer distances and consequent difficulty in communication between the central ministry and the western outposts made New Lebanon’s authority over these villages tentative and remote.
This geographical expansion illustrated to the Shakers that they could not rely on regular visitors from New Lebanon to each outlying village for the transmission of information and the maintenance of central authority. By overland travel, more than one thousand miles separated New Lebanon and South Union, Kentucky; in the opposite direction, New Gloucester, Maine, was 225 miles from New Lebanon. Out of necessity, then, the more distant villages evolved a more federal relationship to New Lebanon’s central authority.
The second crucial development in addressing the challenge of communication was the increased use of written correspondence between outlying villages and the central ministry at New Lebanon. These letters provide historians with a priceless source of information on the daily operations of the United Society. In addition, New Lebanon sought to cement its central supervisory role by issuing a profusion of rules. A central bureaucracy was emerging. Lucy Wright, however, resisted the compilation of these many edicts into one reference; only after her death in 1821 did the first systematic manual for the Society appear, later referred to as the Millennial Laws of 1821.
The Millennial Laws addressed all aspects of Shaker life, from their religious beliefs to attitudes toward clothing and ornamentation, food, the care of plants and animals, business transactions, and specific “house rules.” These rules gave a precise definition to Shakerism, thus distinguishing it from American life at large and lending formality to the members’ separation from the World.
This desire for withdrawal from the World also underlay the Shakers’ attempts at economic selfsufficiency. Many of the Shaker crafts and industries grew out of the need to provide village members with practical commodities and food. Nevertheless, as the Shakers moved into a more established phase and contended with less external hostility, they realized that for certain items it was impossible to be self-sufficient; limited trade with the World was unavoidable. Out of this necessity they drew on their extensive pool of cheap labor, and created such famous Shaker industries as seed cultivation and the manufacture of such items as chairs, brooms, baskets, and the beloved oval wooden boxes. In 1833 New Lebanon recorded sales of seeds totaling ten thousand dollars. From seed cultivation the Shakers at New Lebanon turned to the extraction of herbal essences for cooking and medicinal purposes, and in 1860 invested considerably in semi-industrial equipment for this purpose. Baskets were another source of income at New Lebanon, where up to seven hundred were made per year in the 1840’s. Later sources of Shaker prosperity were the mills and weaving looms installed in the villages.
This commercial activity gave the Shakers increasing contact with the outside world, and their enthusiastic embrace of mechanization, of steam power, and of modern modes of transportation, namely the railways, have often been commented on. Mount Lebanon received its first steam heating in 1876 and its first steam laundry in 1890. In 1883 the first telephone was installed there, revolutionizing Shaker communication. Electricity came to Mount Lebanon in 1921, and the first automobile was purchased in 1918. In 1923 the radio was introduced to the village, perhaps the most symbolic bridge between the Shakers and the World. Nothing in their creed precluded the Shakers from employing the most efficient methods in their farms and in their manufacturing businesses, and their prosperity enabled them to enjoy the latest technological improvements.
In the mid-nineteenth century everything seemed to be going well for the Shakers. Several famous men visited the Shaker settlements, including Charles Dickens and Friedrich Engels. The latter was particularly interested in the successful application of the Shaker principle of communal ownership. An article by Benson John Lossing about the Shakers appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1857 and substantially enhanced the general attitude toward the Shakers.
Yet they were consistently plagued by one problem. Female Shakers began to outnumber men, with the greatest discrepancy manifesting itself in the younger generation. By 1874 there were 339 female believers under twenty-one years of age but only 192 male believers under twenty-one in the entire Society. The Shakers found it increasingly hard to recruit and keep young men, and some villages had to resort to hiring outside help to complete the manual tasks on their farms. This tactic only served to increase contact with the World, and some of the behavior and attentions of the external wage laborers upset the young Shaker women.
Other events also forced more contact with the World. The Civil War, which brought so much suffering on the young American republic, could hardly leave the Shakers untouched. They once again suffered fines for refusing to send their men to fight on either side. (However, Abraham Lincoln came to be regarded as a special friend by the Shakers for his favorable intervention on the issue of conscription, and they sent him a chair as an expression of gratitude.) Naturally, the events of the Civil War had dramatically different effects on the Shaker villages in different parts of the country. Villages in the West, for example, were repeatedly ransacked for food, fuel, and lodging by passing soldiers and never really recovered from this abuse. Villages in New England were spared such direct contact.
Toward the end of the century all the Shaker villages were beginning to suffer financially. Sometimes dishonest or foolish trustees of the villages borrowed or invested unwisely, and at other times natural calamities did their part. In 1875 severe fires caused immense damage to the property of one of the Mount Lebanon families, destroying the dwelling house and the herb house. Later, barn fires occurred. Each such fire had far-reaching consequences for the financial viability of the village, and the central ministry in Mount Lebanon would regularly send out appeals to other settlements to send cash and assistance to the afflicted village. The Society as a whole was not always able to respond adequately to such calls, however, and the financial circumstances of some settlements worsened.
As membership declined–in 1883 283 Shakers lived at Mount Lebanon, but by 1900 this number had declined to 125–the Shakers’ integration into the world around them seemed to increase. The North Family at Mount Lebanon in particular adopted a more progressive stance, both toward the Society and toward the Society’s involvement in the social concerns of the World. Among notable progressives from the North Family were several influential women, including Antoinette Doolittle and Catherine Allen. In 1905 a Peace Convention was hosted at Mount Lebanon to which representatives of a variety of groups interested in social reform and international peace were invited. The conference was the greatest step the Shakers ever took toward integration and collaboration with the World.
Despite such attempts to rejuvenate the Society, membership continued to decline and financial problems dogged the Shakers. One after another, the villages were closed; in October, 1947, the linchpin of the United Society, the village of Mount Lebanon, was closed, and the last few elderly Shakers moved to the adjacent village of Hancock.
Some of the land and buildings at Mount Lebanon have been leased to the Darrow School, a four-year, coed preparatory school. Other buildings are now privately owned, but some have been preserved as a museum open to the public. The Shaker Museum, in nearby Old Chatham, New York, houses a collection of furniture, artifacts, documents, and photographs assembled from Shaker communities nationwide.
The history of the Shakers is not quite over, however. In 1959 one prescient eldress, Emma King, set up the Shaker Trust Fund to which the proceeds from the sale of Shaker assets should be paid. That trust still exists, though the beneficiaries are now disputed. In Sabbathday Lake, Maine, there are still some elderly Shakers, and in recent years a few much younger ones have been admitted to the village. America’s most successful communal sect has captured the imagination of the public, and the Shakers are more famous than ever as a byword for simple and beautiful design.
Brewer, Priscilla J. Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986. Gives a detailed view of East Coast villages up until the beginning of the twentieth century. Desroche, Henri. The American Shakers. Amherst: University of Massachussetts Press, 1971. Translated from the French. Desroche focuses on details of Shaker religion and on their concept of socialism. Gifford, Don, ed. An Early View of the Shakers: Benson John Lossing and the Harper’s Article of July, 1857, with Reproductions of the Original Sketches and Watercolors. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989. Published for Hancock Shaker Village. Includes the text of “The Shakers” by Lossing and a foreword by June Sprigg. Sprigg, June, and David Larkin. Shaker: Life, Work, and Art. New York: Smithmark, 2000. Discusses the social life, customs, and decorative arts of Shakers. Stein, Stephen J. The Shaker Experience in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. One of the most recent studies of the Shakers. This work gives extensive information on the entire history and development of Shakerism, from its inception until its virtual demise.