Hearts to God, Hands to work – the Shakers by Eleanor Kuhns

Although the Shakers are not front and center in The Devil’s Cold Dish, they are devils-coldnonetheless very important to the plot.

Lydia, my primary female protagonist, was once a Shaker and is therefore suspect in Rees’s hometown because of it. And when Rees and his family must flee for their lives, it is to the Shakers that they run to for refuge.

Who are the Shakers?

Most people now connect the Shakers with furniture but this group is so much more than that. They were probably one of the most successful communes ever: there is still an active Shaker village in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Four living Shakers remain.

An offshoot of the Quakers (the name Shaker is derived from Shaking Quaker from their physically active form of worship), their official name is The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.  In a sense, the Shakers were the evangelical arm of the Quakers.

It was a woman, Mother Ann Lee, who provided most of the spiritual core of the faith and set the major tenets such a celibacy. She led a small band to the colonies in 1774 They made their way to upstate New York where they set up a colony called Niskyuna. Near Albany, many of what had been their fields now lie under the Albany Airport.

They were almost immediately objects of suspicion. They were celibate, pacifists, and believed in equality of the races and the sexes. In a time when a woman could not inherit from her deceased husband unless he specifically indicated her in his will, the Shaker Sisters had an equal voice in the running of their community. During the War for Independence, both the British and the Americans persecuted the Shakers, believing them to be spies and supporters of the other side. In 1783, when Ann Lee and some of her supporters made a missionary trip from Mount Lebanon, New York to Boston, they were harried all the way. Ann Lee was arrested and charged with blasphemy and would probably have been hanged as a witch or devil worshipper in an earlier time. But, in New York – and one hundred years later than the Salem witch trials – she was released and continued her journey.

If they were celibate, how did they survive as a faith?

They accepted anyone who wished to sign the Covenant and join. This was a hard time with no safety net. Starvation was an ever-present threat. So many adults joined in the fall, knowing they would have food and a place to sleep all winter, and then left in the spring that the Shakers coined a special name for them: Winter Shakers.

The Shakers always attracted more women than men. There were few options available for a woman other than marriage at this time. If they did not or could not marry joining the Shakers gave them a place, a job, a family, and a purpose.

Also disease, accidents and infections killed scores of both adults and children. There was no place for the orphans without family.  (The first orphanage was not set up until 1793 in Charleston, South Carolina, and it was for white children only.) The Shakers accepted these orphans, as well as other children whose parents could not care for them, into their community. Although the children were not required to sign the Covenant, and ‘make a Shaker’, many did. And many of those children who married out of the Shaker communities remained in the surrounding area. The children who were raised by the Shakers greatly benefited. They learned everything they needed to know to survive. The boys learned farming and the girls learned all the domestic tasks.

The children were also taught to read and write, even the girls in a time when female illiteracy was rampant. The girls went to school in the summer, the boys in winter.

As a faith they were remarkably successful. At their peak, they numbered anywhere from 6000 to 20,000. What happened? Why have they declined to four elderly souls?

Well, they were essentially set up to function in an agrarian world and by the end of the 1800’s that world was changing. The United States was shifting away from farming to industry. People, especially women, had more options for supporting themselves. Instead of joining the Shakers they went into factories. The government, moreover, began taking over more of the responsibility for supporting the orphaned or indigent. When the government passed a law in 1966 forbidding the Shakers to adopt any more children, the avenue of attracting young Believers was closed. Unlike the Amish, who support their numbers with a healthy birthrate, the Shakers numbers, already dropping, declined precipitately.


Photo Credit: Rasa Faure

Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York.


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6 thoughts on “Hearts to God, Hands to work – the Shakers by Eleanor Kuhns

  1. Welcome, Eleanor. Thank you for visiting. I spent part of my childhood on my great grandparent’s farm in upstate NY not too far from the Shaker Village. I was fascinated by them and their lifestyle. Never knew the shaking Quaker part, though. Interesting. Even as a child their sense of unquestioning acceptance made an impact. What a wonderful setting for a story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. It seems they did a lot of good things for people and were advanced in their ideas of equality. However the celibacy part kind of defeated their purpose since they have dwindled. I’m not surprised their were more women involved in it than men. Good luck with the book Eleanor. Nice cover.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an intriguing and informative post, Eleanor. I’d heard of the Shakers before, and thought they were somehow related to the Quakers, but I wasn’t knowledgeable about their history. They sound like a rather eccentric but benevolent group. It’s a shame that government (and “progress”) seem to have put them on the road to extinction. Wonderful history lesson. Many thanks, and congratulations on your writing career! 🙂


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