Who are the Shakers?

Shakerism and the God Head

Great Stone Dwelling, Enfield New Hampshire
The Great Stone Dwelling, Enfield, New Hampshire. Built by the Shakers 1837-1841.
Photograph courtesy of Enfield Shaker Museum, Enfield, NH.

Shakerism and the God Head

By Arthur Gagnon, Jr.
Interpreter, Enfield Shaker Museum, Enfield, NH

Individuals from all walks of life visit our museum. Their questions are varied and sometimes complex. Many are interested only in the furniture, while others are interested in Shaker history and theology. It has been my experience that Shaker theology is the one area least understood by our visitors, especially the concept of the Godhead. In an effort to better explain the Shakers and their beliefs, I looked at Shaker texts, both early and contemporary. I offer the following comparisons between the traditional Christian Godhead, the Holy Trinity, and the dual deity of the Shakers.

Central to any religious belief system is a definition of the Godhead. The traditional Christian Godhead—the Holy Trinity—is revealed in Old and New Testament scripture. The Oneness, or unity of the Godhead, is illustrated by Deut. 6:4:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.

The three distinct Persons of the Trinity are readily seen in Matthew 28:19 of the “Great Commission”:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

The following example of the Trinity is often used as a benediction: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen. (II Corr. 13:14)

The preceding passages of scripture illustrate the mysterious nature of the Trinity. Within the Oneness and the unity of the Godhead, there are three distinct and coequal persons.

Any discussion of Shaker beliefs must include Mother Ann Lee, the seminal figure in Shaker history. Historians Anna White and Leila S. Taylor, also members of the Mt. Lebanon, NY, Shaker community, highlighted Mother Ann’s importance in a single sentence:

Among the revelations to Ann Lee and imparted through her life and teachings, were ideas new to the Christian World (White &Taylor 1905:255).1

Central to the teachings was the duality of God. Mother Ann Lee taught the Believers that God was a duality of Father and Mother, and not an all male Trinity (as defined in “God is Dual” below). White and Taylor felt compelled to vigorously examine the concept of the Trinity. In the following carefully worded definition of the Shaker Godhead, it is obvious that they were defending their unorthodox beliefs:

God is Dual

Shakers believe in One God—not three male beings in one, but Father and Mother. And here the Bible reader turns at once to Genesis 1:26.
“And God said”—in the beginning of creative work, whether by fiat or evolution matters not—“let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Did three masculine beings appear, in contradistinction to every form of life heretofore known? Nay! Verse 27 says: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him, male and female created He them” (White & Taylor 1905:255).

The above definition uses Genesis 1:26-27 to illustrate their belief that male and female are mirror images of the maleness and femaleness of God, the Father-Mother progenitor.

The following is a clear and concise contemporary explanation of the Shaker Godhead. It can also be found at the Sabbathday Lake website:

Having no body, God has no sex in our human understanding of the term; yet being pure spirit He may be thought of by man with his limited power of comprehension as having the attributes of both maleness and femaleness. This duality of attributes within God’s oneness is one of the Shaker theological concepts most misunderstood by the world (Johnson 1969:6).

Most of the misunderstanding regarding the Shaker Godhead may come from “the world’s people” who assume that Shaker beliefs are the same as orthodox Christianity. However, there are clear and profound differences.

Hervey L. Eads, a Shaker Bishop of South Union, Kentucky, defended and promoted Shaker beliefs in an 1889 publication called Shaker Sermons: Scripto-Rational. The following is a spirited examination of Trinitarian concepts:

I am well aware that your divines (?) when closely pressed, acknowledge the Unity of the Supreme Being . . . . and so interpret words as to make you believe that the terms unity and trinity are synonyms. . . . . . . But these divine reasoners, whilst they declare that the Son is the Father still hold that there is a Father aside from the Son . . . . . But the defenders of the triple-God doctrine say the three are combined in a “mysterious yet all harmonious union” . . . (Eads 1889:14-16).

The notion that the Trinity is a great mystery is answered by Eads in the following statement, “God is no mystery to those to whom He is revealed” (1889:17).

A booklet, Plain Talks, published by the Shakers at Watervliet, New York, circa 1882, states under the section titled “Are the Shakers Spiritualists?”:

By our Spiritualism we are become confirmed infidels to the foolish Bodily Resurrection theory; to the untrue and disappointing Atonement doctrine; to the monstrous Trinity scheme; to the cruel Predestination belief, and to all the man-made creeds of the popular churches professing Christianity (Lomas 1882:12).

In this strongly worded booklet, the Shakers leave no doubt about their opinion of the Trinity and firmly state their position as Spiritualists, believing in the Second Coming in spirit rather than in flesh. This booklet reveals other Shaker theological concepts that should be studied as well. 2

The belief that God is dual, both male and female, is fundamental to the development of Shaker theology, which is reflected in the organizational structure, the architecture, and the sacred imagery of Shakerism. One’s appreciation and understanding of Shaker gift drawings is greatly enhanced by knowing that the symmetry and unity have theological foundations. In his publication The Testimony of Christ’s Second Appearing, Shaker theologian Benjamin S. Youngs expounds on the idea that the dual essence of the Godhead is reflected in Jesus and Ann Lee, Father-Son, Mother-Daughter. Thus the notion of the dual Godhead, as well as the dual messiahship, completes the symmetrical and spiritual balance. Youngs writings will be further examined in a subsequent article.3

The Shakers have a long and remarkable history. We, as interpreters, answer questions about our displays, discuss the millennial laws, and inspire our visitors to marvel at the inventions and products that the Shakers produced and sold. Our interpretations should be balanced and responsive. When we answer questions about Shaker beliefs accurately and contrast them with other communal societies in a meaningful way, visitors leave with a deeper understanding of the Shakers as a radical religious sect.

Works Cited

Eads, Hervey L. Shaker Sermons: Scripto-rational. Containing the Substance of Shaker Theology. Together with Replies and Criticisms Logically and Clearly Set Forth, Fifth edition. rev. and enl. (South Union, KY: 1889). [ A digital edition of the Fourth edition of this book is now available on line.]

Johnson, Theodore E. Life in the Christ Spirit: Observations on Shaker Theology (Sabbathday Lake, ME: United Society of Shakers, 1969).

Lomas, George Albert. Plain Talks: upon Practical Christian Religion; Being Answers to Everrecurring Questions Concerning the Shakers Prominent among which is the Answer to “What Must an Individual Do to Become a Shaker?” (Watervliet, NY: The Shakers, [1882?]).

White, Anne and Leila S. Taylor. Shakerism, Its Meaning and Message (Columbus, OH: Press of Fred J. Herr, 1905). [ A digital edition of this book is now available on line.]

Youngs, Benjamin S. The Testimony of Christ’s Second Appearing Containing a General Statement of All Things Pertaining to the Faith and Practice of the Church of God in this Latter-day, Second edition, Corrected and Improved. (Albany, NY: E. & E. Hosford, 1810). [ A digital edition of this book is now available on line.]

1. See White and Taylor 1905:255-270 for further study.

2. Held in the Rauner Rare Book Collection, Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, NH.

3. See Youngs 1810 for the role of Ann Lee as Messiah.

Copyright © 2005 Enfield Shaker Museum. Used by permission.