The Shaker Experience in America


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A History of the United Society of Believers

Stephen J. Stein

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The Shakers, once a radical religious sect whose members were despised and harassed by their fellow Americans, have in recent years become celebrated—and sentimentalized—for their communal way of life, the simplicity of their worship, their belief in celibacy, pacifism, and equality of the sexes, and not least, their superb furniture and handicrafts. This monumental book is the first general history of the Shakers from their origins in eighteenth-century England to the present day.


Drawing on written and oral testimony by Shakers over the past two centuries, Stephen J. Stein offers a full and often revisionist account of the movement: their charismatic leaders, the early years in revolutionary New York and New England, the expansion into the West, the maturation and growth of the sect before the Civil War, the decline in their fortunes after the war, the painful adjustments to society Shakers had to make during the first half of the twentieth century, the renaissance of interest after 1950, and the “forbidden topic” within contemporary Shakerism—the conflict between the two remaining villages at Canterbury, New Hampshire, and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Stein provides many new interpretations of the Shaker experience. He reassesses the role of founder Ann Lee, emphasizes the impact of the western Shaker settlements on the course of the society’s history, and describes the variety of cultural enterprises that have obscured the religious and historical dimensions of the Shakers. Throughout Stein places the Shaker experience within the wider context of American life and shows how the movement has evolved to deal with changing times. Shattering the romantic myth that has been perpetuated about the quaint and peaceful Shakers, Stein portrays a group that is factious, practical, and fully human.

Stephen J. Stein is professor of religious studies, adjunct professor of history, and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University.

"I consider this book to be of great value for students of Shakerism in particular and religious communalism in general. It contains a wealth of new information derived from careful research in an impressive quantity and variety of manuscript and rare printed sources. It greatly enlarges our understanding of Shakerism's historical evolution over two centuries—its political life and religious culture as well as its better known industrial and social achievements. . . . In sum, a very important, comprehensive and demythologizing study of Shaker culture, politics and religion from the origins to the present."—Jean M. Humez

"A major book—stunning in its sweep and comprehensiveness—that will stand for years as the definitive history of one of America's most intriguing religious groups."—Jon Butler, Yale University

"Stein has written a comprehensive history of the Society of Believers—the Shakers—from its beginnings in England and its arrival in America around the time of the American Revolution to the present."—Janet Alice Long, Magill Book Reviews for Dow Jones News/Retrieval

"The Shaker Experience in America is superb history—lively, judicious, comprehensive. Stephen Stein's great achievement is to cut through the sentimentalized image of the Shakers and to reconstruct the evolution of their community life in all of its diverse expressions."—Nathan O. Hatch, University of Notre Dame

"The first general history of the Shakers."—Publishers Weekly

"The first general history of the United Society of Believers. [Stein] traces the evolution of the Shaker movement through its classic period in the late eighteenth century to the resurgence of cultural interest in Shakerism today. . . . Stein's history will intrigue and inform all readers interested in Shaker culture, religion, or artifacts."—Mary Deeley, Booklist

"An unusually comprehensive and eminently readable chronicle of more than two centuries of Shaker life, from its rough beginning in the late 18th century to its diminished yet still significant presence today. . . . Clear and well-researched: an invaluable history for those interested in one of the more fascinating forms of the American religious experience."—Kirkus Reviews

"The first book to cover all Shakerdom from the 1700s to the 1980s, this work of scholarship will also prove accessible to the nonspecialist. . . . Given the inaccuracies and overemphasis on material culture of most popular books, Stein's coverage of post-1948 Shakerdom, and the debate that will follow publication of this title, it is an essential purchase for all public and academic libraries."—Library Journal

"Stephen Stein has written the first comprehensive history of the United Society of Believers. While anxious to explain the current popularity of Shaker artifacts and lovingly restored historic sites, Stein is also determined to recover the original message of Ann Lee. . . . From an obscure millenarian movement in revolutionary America to a popular icon in the contemporary United States, the Shakers have travelled far. Stephen Stein charts their journey well in a lively book which should stand for years as the history of one of America's most intriguing religious sects."—Louis Billington, The Times Higher Education Supplement

"In this comprehensive academic history Stein . . . provides a revisionist account of Shaker expansion and decline, describing schisms between Shaker enclaves, doctrinal differences and the influence of several charismatic leaders."—Publishers Weekly

"[A] remarkable book. . . . A complex story that Stein analyzes with sober intelligence."—R. Lawrence Moore, The New England Quarterly

"This is the first general history of the United Society of Believers ever published. It is certainly the best book I have ever read about the Shakers."—Geoffrey Elan, Yankee

"The first major work on the Shakers that brings their history from their origins in 18th-century England to the present. Stein introduces his reader to a new perception of the society as a community with a common purpose and shared beliefs, yet one that experienced the challenges of creating and maintaining a sense of common welfare...should be required reading as it challenges us to take into account the problem of separating myth and reality when studying the past."—Wendy L. Kenerson, American Studies International

"This beautifully written account succeeds in placing the Shaker experience in the context of American society."—James Bradford, Journal of the Early Republic

"Stein's eminently readable prose makes his work accessible beyond a purely academic audience. Appropriately, the volume is beautifully illustrated. This book cannot be recommended highly enough for anyone interested in American religious history."—David S. Azzolina, University of Pennsylvania, Multicultural Review

"The first work to give a detailed history of the entire Shaker movement from its beginnings down to the present. . . . Undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive history of the Shakers and will long stand as the definitive history of Shakerism."—Adris Newsletter

"Contrary to what one would expect, a comprehensive history of the Shakers has never been written. Stephen Stein . . . has at last filled this lacuna. His fascinating study will no doubt increase interest in the details of Shaker history. Stein's book is to be recommended."—International Review of Biblical Studies

"There has long been needed a comprehensive account of the United Society of Believers, . . . a study which would demythologize without debunking. This need has now been fully met by Stephen Stein's The Shaker Experience in America. It would be difficult to praise this book too highly. . . . He succeeds not only in his graphic presentation of individuals . . . but also in his discernment and analysis of the pattern of the long sweep of the Shaker story as a whole."—Anne Murphy, The Way

"Throughout this skillfully written narrative history, Stein explores the role of women within the Society, the tensions and accommodations between the Believers and the larger society, and the constant transitions and adjustments within the movement itself, demonstrating that Shakerism was a more complex and more compelling movement than previously thought. This definitive history belongs in every college library."—Rodger M. Payne, Religious Studies Review

"This monumental book is the first general history of the Shakers from their origins in the eighteenth-century England to the present day."—Theology Digest

"Certainly the most complete historical work to date. . . . [Readers] will be much better prepared to understand Shaker life after reading Stein's work."—Harry Boonstra, The Christian Century

"Stein's study was worth waiting for. . . . Masterful, detailed, critical, and thorough. . . . As pleasant to read as it is erudite. . . . Stein's history will be the standard one for decades to come. We are richer because the Shakers have lived among us, and we are richer because Stephen Stein has taken the care to produce a definitive history of one of America's most important alternative religions."—Timothy Miller, Syzygy

"Stein's compelling and lucid narrative will stand for many years as the best comprehensive study of the United Society."—Priscilla J. Brewer, Journal of American History

"[This book] offers a model denominational history that is usable and enlightening for all students of American culture. . . . Stein's treatment has several outstanding strengths: his prodigious research, his analysis of major phases of Shaker history in relation to a broader U.S. history, and his insistent distinction between myths about Shakerism and Shaker realities."—Louis Filler, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

"This book is a major research achievement. Time will pass before another scholar finds the need to retell the Shaker story in so fully documented a fashion."—Louis J. Sirico, Jr., Journal of Church and State

"The definitive historical study of this small but fascinating and significant group and constitutes a major contribution to American religious and social history. . . . Stein has rendered [the Shakers] accessible to contemporary historians and general readers. . . . Those interested in Shakers as a community will find it an invaluable resource."—Samuel C. Pearson, The Historian

"A landmark of scholarship, The Shaker Experience in America . . . supplies the first comprehensive treatment of Shakerism in forty years. With its publication Shaker studies has come of age as a field in American historical research. . . . [Stein's] work bears the distinguishing marks of a definitive work: it is comprehensively researched, cogently argued, and capably presented."—Stephen A. Marini, Reviews in American History

"A forthright, evenhanded, and thought-provoking reassessment of the society's history. It will stand as a definitive work and deserves to be read with care by historians of religion and all those interested in the Shakers' remarkable past."—Richard Godbeer, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Stephen Stein's account provides an impressive synthesis which challenges many of the assumptions central to existing Shaker scholarship. . . . Stein recalls a history complete with doctrinal strife and the frequent intrusion of worldliness. In the process of restoring the full sweep of that history, he has managed to find a place for the Shakers within the larger fabric of American Protestantism."—Nina Reid-Maroney, Labour (Le Travail)

"This is a superb study which numerous scholars have dubbed the 'definitive' work on Shaker history. . . . It is an invaluable resource for students of Shaker history and American religion."—Bill J. Leonard, Review and Expositor


"For those who know the Shakers chiefly from visiting museums and from examining their arts, crafts and herbs, most of this book will come as a revelation. Such museumgoers will find out how long a road they must travel to reach a genuine understanding of this religious group; they will also be grateful for the exceptional guidance that this volume extends. . . . Marvellous notes, over seventy pages of them, lead wherever one has the talent and time to follow. After this book, Shakerism may remain the same, but no-one's understanding of it will."—Edwin S. Gaustad, Ecclesiastical History

"The Shaker Experience in America promises to be the definitive history of the United Society that all other publications will be measured by. This comprehensive history represents an important contribution to a real understanding of the Shaker scene past and present."—James C. Thomas

Received Honorable Mention of the Seventeenth Annual Awards Program in the Philosophy and Religion Category given for excellence in Professional/Scholarly Publishing

Winner of the 1993 Philip Schaff Prize given by the American Society of Church History
ISBN: 9780300059335
Publication Date: February 23, 1994
574 pages, 6 1/4 x 9 1/2
57 b/w illus.
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