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The Shakers And Progressive Christian Community


Mike
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I picked up a book from the library called "The Shakers: Two Centuries of Spiritual Reflection." Immediately in the introduction I was impressed with the nature and structure of the Shaker community (the "Shakers" were/are an offshoot of the "Quakers"), and thought it might have a good deal of relevance for progressive Christian communities.

 

The Introduction chapter explains the history and social structure of the Shakers, and I was impressed with how modern (or postmodern?) it sounds. Also, instead of "believers", the Shakers considered themselves "experiencers", since they maintained that it is the direct experience of the living Christ that constitutes the Christian path. The whole chapter would serve a very interesting read, but this section I thought gives a good summation.

 

The Shaker Way is personally historical, that is, always concretely embodied in the real people who are the experiencers. It is not a structure or a doctrine, but all its often complex structures and doctrines reflect the creative light of the persons experiencing--in the simplicity of an old Shaker saying: ideas don't have people, people have ideas. The Shaker tradition, therefore, is not static but dynamic. There is no normativeness in any established form or formulation, for all such merely bear witness to the level of development and insight reached at that moment. The norm is to be found in the total living community-of-experience in its continuum of ongoing development. Or, more pointedly, the norm of Christianity is nothing other than the Living Christ as he now is: in-through-with all who member-for-member are the One Body of the Resurrection. (The Shakers p2)
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I read on the Shakers many years ago, so can't remember a lot of details, but do remember I was very moved and impressed with them. Hadn't thought about them in a good while, thanks for mentioning them, reminding me that reading about them probably helped influence my path since, and where I am now.

Jenell

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While i have had limited exposure to the Shakers, i am more familiar with the Quakers. The thing that baffled me concerning the Shakers was their focus on dogma that at times was quite extreme in my view such as their position on celibacy and against intercourse. A dogma that would certainly contribute to their shrinking size over time without the recruitment of a large number of new followers. One of their communities is here in Kentucky, not a long drive from where i live. While i think the terms "experiencers" rather than "believers" is most appropriate and their communal living and dedication to their teachings seems to me admirable, their views to me do not seem progressive but rather fixed.

Joseph

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Thanks for the link, Quaker Way. Someone wrote therein that,

 

The Shakers rose in England in the mid-eighteenth century, followers of Ann Lee, whom they called the "Blessed Mother Ann." Shaker teaching was that Ann was the female incarnation of Christ come to earth again.

 

I'm certainly not in a position to say who's right or wrong, I know very little about both the Quakers and Shakers, but there's definitely a conflict here with what I was reading.

 

 

As she [Ann] began to speak of her experience of Christ, all those at the meeting began to experience Christ themselves. They concluded that Christ indeed had come again, the parousia was now a fact in them all.

 

...

 

But they did not think of her as a new incarnation of Christ or as a female Christ or anything similar (though as we shall see in the texts, some of the expressions of their belief can be misleading in this regard). Ann inaugurated the consciousness of the parousia as the first one among many to be drawn in the unifying experience of Christ...She is the first one to awaken in experience to what ultimately all experience... (p12)

 

 

Joseph wrote,

 

 

The thing that baffled me concerning the Shakers was their focus on dogma that at times was quite extreme in my view such as their position on celibacy and against intercourse. A dogma that would certainly contribute to their shrinking size over time without the recruitment of a large number of new followers.

 

The celibacy is definitely an issue. On the face of it though I'm not sure whether such should be seen as 'dogma' since it is a matter of practice. Monasticism also requires celibacy but that's just part of what it means to be a monk or a nun. Again I'm not sure exactly how all this has played out in the Shaker communities because I don't know much of their history, though the fact that their numbers are extremely small today would seem to say much. I would say that as a religious community seeking converts, celibacy was definitely a most unfortunate and detrimental thing to require.

 

I think however, that if the person I quoted in QuakerWay's link is correct, that that dogma would just about overshadow the issue of celibacy.

 

But the emphasis on 'experiencing', the inherently dynamic character of their communities, as well as the emphasis on the "personally historical", I think are things we can very much learn from the Shakers as progressives.

 

Peace,

Mike

Edited by Mike
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It has be a good many years since I read about them, it was all 'old history', actually I didn't realize there were sitll active followers. As best I remember, two elements pretty much functioned as self-limiting, the celebacy, whichh precluded multigenerational family involvement, and a non-discrininate policy/practice of "Benedictine hospitality", which was often abused by opportunistic outsiders, keeping resources for the communty's own needs drained.

 

I have wondered if the Shaker's "experience" may have had some influence on some common practices among Pentecostals? Don't know, but seems possible.

 

Jenell

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