Features 2001

I thought they were all gone

 ... Collecting Shaker Books

by John Averell

My hobby is collecting original Shaker books. Today the Shakers are undoubtedly best known for their furniture -- so simple, so well-made, so perfect. But in fact the Shaker society is the oldest continuing communal group still extant.  In this country it all started in 1774 in what is now Schenectady, NY by Ann Lee and her followers. You may have thought that the Shakers have long since disappeared, especially since one of their best known beliefs was absolute chastity.  (One of the pamphlets I own is a twelve page booklet entitled "A Shaker's Answer to...' What would Become of the World if All Should Become Shakers?'")

You might also be surprised to learn that there is still one active Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine. The photograph here is part of my collection, one of 45 limited edition prints of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community in 1984. There is at present only one remaining Shaker woman (Sr. Frances Carr) who is part of the original "covenant" of the United Society of Believers, the proper name for the sect. (Sr. Marie Burgess died on June 18, 2001.) Over the years a number of young people have joined the community because they share the beliefs and goals of the Shakers and their way of life. So Shakerism is continuing for a small group, at least for now.

For those interested in reading more about the Shakers, the best and most readable book is: "The Shaker Experience in America. A History of the United Society of Believers" by Stephen J. Stein, Yale University Press (1992).

The Shakers published many books and pamphlets over the nineteenth century. I became interested in the Shakers about thirty years ago when I had a vacation home in Poland, Maine a few miles from the community. I visited and became acquainted with several of the Shakers over the years, and started collecting their literature as I was able. My interest is as much in reading about Shakerism as in collecting antiquarian books -- the content as much as the value.

Most of the formal "doctrinal" literature was written between about 1810 and 1850. The Shakers preferred not to stress a doctrinal creed, but rather tended to have a dynamic, pietistic personal view of the Shaker life on earth. Nevertheless, in order to clarify their views to the outside "world" they did publish detailed discourses. For example,
"Summary View of the Millenial Church" (1823),
"Testimonies, Concerning the Character & Ministry of Mother Ann Lee" (1827),
"Testimony of Christ's Second Appearing" (1810)
and several others.

Then during this period there were several dissenting books published by men and women who left the Shaker communities with tales ranging from mild dissatisfaction to lurid sensationalism about their unpleasant experiences. For example,

"A Portraiture of Shakerism" (1822) and
"Rise and Progress of the Serpent, with a Disclosure of Shakerism" (1847) both by Mary Dyer.

Another is,
"Shakerism Unmasked" (1828) by William J. Haskett.

The Shakers also used and published a number of music books. A very early book of hymn lyrics is "Millenial Praises, Collection of Gospel Hymns in Four Parts" (1813).

Shaker songs have persisted to this day, for example, "Gift to be Simple" in Aaron Copeland's suite "Appalachian Spring."

Numerous other books and pamphlets by and about Shakers are still available. Many of my books came from the Sabbathday Lake bookstore and from various antiquarian dealers in New England and New York. Now you can also find them on internet book sites or auctions. I enjoy my collection immensely, and am always on the lookout for new additions.

August 3, 2001


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