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A sturdy history of Shaker ideology and social life. This much admired American religious sect was born when Mother Ann Lee, uneducated daughter of a blacksmith, landed in New York in 1774. Kind, simple, charismatic, she carried with her a radical religious vision: that men and women could lead sinless lives if they separated themselves from the outside world, established their own communities, and practiced pacifism, celibacy, obedience, confession of sins, and communal ownership of property. Thousands of people responded to this message; a goodly number believed Mother Ann to be the second coming of Christ. Shaker communities sprouted throughout New York and New England, each organized around an austere life of physical labor and communication with the spirit world. Shaker products--furniture, seeds, and brooms, all made as perfectly as possible--were acclaimed and avidly sought after by outside society. For a while, Shaker life indeed seemed like ""heaven on earth,"" but in time, a snake entered the garden. ""Lukewarm"" converts repeatedly violated the edict against celibacy; the rate of defections increased; worried leaders began to relax the strict roles set by Mother Ann and her immediate successors. Debates about beards, musical instruments, vegetarianism, and other trivia sapped the believers' vigor. Some Shakers were snatched from their communes by concerned outside family members in an eerie prefiguration of modern-day deprogramming. While 18 Shaker villages thrived in the middle of the last century, only two cling to life today. Brewer's prose has a simple, clean, well-wrought Shaker quality to it. A former museum interpreter and research assistant at Hancock Shaker Village, she clearly loves her subject matter and knows it thoroughly. A dozen photographs of 19th-century Shakers--looking stern, proud, self-reliant--and hundreds of excerpts from early Shaker diaries, notebooks, poetry, and letters help make this a vivid anecdotal history of one of America's most intriguing religious groups.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1986
Publisher: Univ, Press of New England