December 30, 1841

Harvard Shakers Record Spiritual Visit

PRIMARY SOURCE: Journal, 1841
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On this day in 1841, the Shakers in Harvard reported a spiritual visit by their long-dead founder Mother Ann, "Holy Angels," and "ancient Saints and departed spirits." Shaker communities across New England were receiving such strange manifestations, called "Mother Ann's Work." This brief period of intense spiritualism peaked in the early 1840s, as Shakers reported spiritual visits from prophets, Indians, and historical figures such as Napoleon and Washington. These visitations inspired unusual songs, dances, and art. After 1845, the spiritual intensity of Mother Ann's Work began to wane; by the end of the decade, this remarkable period in Shaker history had closed.

The population of the Shaker community in Harvard peaked at about 200 during the period of Mother Ann's Work.

The United Believers in Christ's Second Appearing — commonly called the Shakers — first came to central Massachusetts in 1781. A small group of missionaries followed their leader, Ann Lee, as she searched for a place she had seen in a vision. There, she believed, she would find converts to her religion.

Ann Lee was 21 when in 1757 she joined a group of Shaking Quakers in her hometown of Manchester, England. She adopted their unorthodox practices, including communion with the spirits of the dead and trembling or shaking from the presence of the spirit during worship. Members of the sect were regularly harassed, and Ann Lee was jailed. During her imprisonment, she had a revelation that she was the Second Coming of Christ, the female incarnation of the dual deity God the Father-Mother. Persecuted for these heretical claims, Ann Lee and nine of her followers left England for the colonies in 1774.

Their timing was poor. On the eve of the Revolution, English heretics did not find a warm welcome in America. After two years in New York City, the group moved to Niskayuna, seven miles north of Albany. In 1781 accompanied by eight other Shakers, she embarked on her first missionary trip. In a small village in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, they found the place Ann Lee had seen in her vision. It was occupied by a group of disaffected religious seekers whose leader, despite claiming immortality, had recently died. Just as she had envisioned, Ann Lee found receptive listeners and made many converts there.

In 1781 accompanied by eight other Shakers, Ann Lee embarked on her first missionary trip. In a small village in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, they found the place she had seen in her vision.

Three years after Ann Lee's death in 1784, the Shaker leaders who had taken the reins decreed that the Shakers should gather into "families" and live communally away from "the world." In 1791 the converts Mother Ann had made at Harvard would form a "family," or communal society, thus becoming the first Shaker community in Massachusetts.

The Harvard Shakers were one of the most successful and spiritually active of the 19 Shaker communities in the U.S. They embraced the duality of God and the divinity of Mother Ann. While believing that the sexes should live separate, celibate lives, they treated men and women equally. They owned all property in common, built their villages apart from "the world," and ordered their lives around sacred and spiritual work. Eventually outsiders came to admire (and buy) the simple, well-designed, and useful goods they produced.

In the late 1830s, a new era began. A powerful spirit overcame a group of Shaker girls in New York; they began to shake, whirl, sing, talk about angels, and describe visits to heaven. The elders interpreted the girls' behavior as "Mother Ann's Work." With the last of the original Shakers dying off, she was sending her spirit to revive and refresh the faith of a new generation.

They owned all property in common, built their villages apart from "the world," and ordered their lives around sacred and spiritual work.

"Mother Ann's Work" reached Harvard early in the 1840s. Journals describe Shaker sisters and brothers speaking, singing, or acting in the name of a discarnate person during worship. Often a worshiper would be seized by great trembling, or whirl like a top, or begin to jerk uncontrollably, sometimes falling to the floor and either struggling in distress or laying as dead until the message of the spirit came. Then he or she would deliver "gifts" — assurances of love, messages from the dead, directions on correct practices, or visits from Jesus or Mother Ann, departed believers, Native Americans, or famous figures such as Alexander the Great, Benjamin Franklin, or William Penn.

These spirit visitors would share sacred wisdom or bestow a "spirit gift" such as a ball of love or a basket of peace. When one instructed the community to sow seeds of peace before planting their crops, the Shakers were seen marching through their fields, sowing and watering invisible seeds. Some gifts involved songs, dances, or intricate, symbolic "spirit drawings."

By 1845 this tide of intense Shaker spiritualism had begun to ebb. The population of the Shaker community in Harvard peaked at about 200 during the period of Mother Ann's Work. Membership gradually declined after the Civil War, but the community did not disband until 1918. Their burying ground and a number of their buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Central region of Massachusetts.

Sources

The Harvard Shakers Book of Days: Echoes from Shaker Diaries, Notebooks and Journals, 1791-1918, by Janet Street Fowke and James McMurtry Longo (Hill Country Press, 1995).

The Shaker Holy Land: A Community Portrait, by Edward R. Horgan (Harvard Common Press, 1987).

The People Called Shakers, by Edward Deming Andrews (Dover Publication, 1963).

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