Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shakers vs. Quakers

People often confuse Shakers and Quakers, and I’ve noticed a tendency for people to identify Sister Georgia---the character at the center of my novel Stranger Here Below--as a Quaker, when in fact she is a Shaker. The difference is pretty significant, as I’ll try to explain here. But this confusion is completely understandable. To shake = “to move irregularly to and fro”; to quake = “to shake or vibrate”; “to tremble or shudder” (in the words of my old Webster’s New Collegiate). And both are religious groups with roots in eighteenth-century England.

The Quakers came first. Known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers trace their founding to the year 1652 in the English Midlands, where founder George Fox persuaded members of another religious group, the Westmorland Seekers, to become Friends (or Friends of Truth). Quakers, or Friends, put continuing divine revelation ahead of church or scriptural doctrine, and individual conscience ahead of state authority. Not surprisingly, they were considered heretical by both church and state in England.

Quakers worship together in silence; there was (and is) no minister who leads a service. When a Friend feels the spirit, or the light, within, he or she may rise to speak to other Friends assembled for worship. The name Quaker refers to the apparent trembling or quaking of early Friends when they experienced the spirit and rose to speak during worship.*

Shakers, or members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, actually have roots in a group of Protestants in France, known as the Camisards, who fled to England in 1706. William C. Ketchum, Jr., author of Simple Beauty: The Shakers in America, writes that “There they found new adherents among disaffected Quakers, Anglicans, and Methodists, and forged a religious community referred to as the ‘Shaking Quakers’--a reference to the exuberance of its ritual expression.”

The Shakers found their way to the United States by way of a poor English woman, Ann Lee, from industrial Manchester, who arrived in New York with several of her followers in 1774. Eventually “Mother Ann Lee” and her followers settled in upstate New York, near Albany (in what is now Watervliet). Though persecuted in the U.S. (as they had been in England), they also attracted followers, including radical Baptists from New York and New England, establishing “America’s most successful communal sect,” according to Priscilla J. Brewer, author of Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. They grew in numbers through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, establishing western communities like the one at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, where portions of Stranger Here Below are set.

Do the differences between Quakers and Shakers really matter, in terms of understanding the novel? In my mind, they do. The Shakers, at their height (and at their most mystical), apparently danced with great gusto at their worship services; that kind of shaking strikes me as pretty far removed from the quaking of someone who feels called by the spirit to rise and speak into a silent gathering.

That kind of shaking has also been connected, in my mind (since I first learned about the Shakers long ago), with the Shaker practice of celibacy. Just a bit of sublimation going on there, surely. And I’ve always wondered what might have happened, later, in secret, outside the Meeting House, when a young brother and a young sister might have found each other in the nearby woods, after a round of worshipping--that is, dancing--with abandon.

Well, that’s the stuff of a novel--though not specifically of Stranger Here Below. By the time my Shaker character, Sister Georgia, signs the covenant of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, she is one of only three remaining Shakers at Pleasant Hill. The other two are very old, and Sister Georgia dances in the Meeting House on her own. She has chosen a life of celibacy for her own very sad reasons.

The Shakers didn’t last, though one community continues today, in Maine. The Quakers--who are not celibate, and who do not require the surrendering of all worldly goods and living together in community--continue as a religious organization today, thriving particularly in and near the city of their founding in the United States, Philadelphia. Full disclosure: I am a practicing Quaker, an attender at the Lehigh Valley Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends in Bethlehem, PA. I’m not celibate, and I don’t think I have what it would take to live communally--though sometimes I wish I could accomplish the latter (the former, not so much).

But I’m fascinated by those who made the choice to follow Mother Ann, whom they perceived as Christ come to the world again, appearing for a second time, this time in the form of a poor woman who had lost four children in infancy by the time she was thirty. And that fascination is, in many ways, at the root of Stranger Here Below.

*In preparing this post I’ve drawn on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends’ Faith and Practice (PYM, 2002), Priscilla J. Brewer’s Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives (UP of New England, 1986), and William C. Ketchum, Jr.’s Simple Beauty: The Shakers in America (Smithmark Publishers, 1996).

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