The Shaker is called to reveal by his life our Lord to the world, a world in which the will and purpose of God are largely forgotten. God calls by many ways, but all men and women, whatever their occupation, whatever their profession, are called to that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. To anyone who knows the history of Shakerism it is extraordinary to what fruitful and manifold purpose God has used the very small groups of humble men and women who have constituted our order. Truly, He has “chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.”
To Believers God is the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Great First Cause. It is He who called into being all things visible and invisible. He has existed from the very beginning of time and will exist into all eternity. God is pure spirit and as such quite naturally incorporeal. Having no body, God has no sex in our human understanding of the term; yet being pure spirit He may best 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, yet it is not a Shaker concept, but rather one as old as the Judaeo-Christian tradition itself. We find it again and again in the Old Testament. It is to the writer of Genesis that we may attribute the first written record of the idea. In the 27th verse of the first chapter of Genesis he writes: “So God created he him; male and female created he them.” The Shaker emphasis upon God’s dual nature was never intended to convey anything but the fact that God, being pure spirit is possessed, within the terms of our human power of discernment, of the characteristics, of strength, power, compassion and mercy.
We have already alluded to a marked degree of misunderstanding of Shaker views about the duality of the Godhead. Certainly there is no area in which there is greater, more fundamental misunderstanding, than Shaker Christology. If we may engage for a moment in the odious practice of labeling, we might say that mainstream Shaker Christological thought is adoptionist of the view that Jesus was not the Christ or the anointed of God from his birth, but rather from the occasion of his baptism by John in the Jordan. To the early Shakers as well as to other Christians before them the descent of the dove at Jesus’ baptism symbolized the anointing spirit of God whose voice is heard to say: “Thou art my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” The divine nature of Jesus, the Christ, was freely recognized by Believers. The adoptionist theory affected in no way their attitudes towards his birth or earlier life. We find in Shaker thoughts no attempt to challenge the virgin birth or any of the other miraculous occurrences surrounding Jesus’ beginnings. These were to Believers a sign of God’s prior choice of Jesus as the recipient of the anointing spirit. Jesus’ life and ministry, his teaching, his sacrificial death became for Believers their holy rule. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they did not look for the return of Jesus Christ in the flesh. They sought his return in the spirit–the Christ Spirit–the anointing spirit of God, the spirit of love and truth. To Mother Ann Lee was given the inner realization that Christ’s Second Coming was a quiet, almost unheralded one within individuals open to the anointed of His spirit.
Mother Ann was not Christ, nor did she claim to be. She was simply the first of many Believers wholly embued by His spirit, wholly consumed by His love. Mother’s attitude toward her own role is related more than once in her own recording sayings, “It is not I that speaks; it is Christ who dwells in me,” she says, testifying both to the indwelling of Christ and her subservience to Him. The closeness of her bond to Him whom she ever called her Lord and Savior is reflected by her having said, “I have been walking with Christ in heavenly union. Christ is ever with me, both in sitting down and in rising up; in going out and in coming in. If I walk in groves and valleys, there He is with me and I converse with Him as one friend converses with another, face to face.” She solves conclusively the question of her own role when she remarks at Ashfield, “The second appearing of Christ is in His Church.”
The desire to die to self leads the Shaker quite naturally to the pooling of goods. The Christian’s task is to live in the present moment and not to store for tomorrow the bread that comes from heaven. Those who give up all material things for the sake of the Gospel learn by that same Gospel that they may learn to live without assurance of the morrow in joyous confidence that they will lack nothing. The spirit of Christian poverty is more than the absence of wealth. The New Testament never condemns wealth as such, only when a person’s possessions come between him and God is there any real danger. A Christian who wishes with all his heart for money to use selfishly is violating the spirit of community; a man who regards all that he has as a trust from God, and uses it for His glory is living in the true spirit of Christian poverty.
We strive daily to put into practical terms, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The central teaching of the New Testament is quite simply love, the love of God for man and that of man for God as evidenced in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This same love was always and is today the very cornerstone of Shakerism. For us as followers of the Christ we feel we show that peace as pacifists. This does not mean merely refusing to bear arms against another, it also requires us to never feel bitterness, never to feel any desire for revenge, but always to seek only the highest good of every person no matter what they may do to us. We further believe in the practice of universal Brotherhood as well as equality for all, the Shakers being forerunners in applying this to our daily life over two hundred years ago.
Shakerism is not, as many would claim, an anachronism; nor can it be dismissed as the final sad flowering of nineteenth century liberal utopian fervor. Shakerism has a message for the this present age–a message as valid today as when it was first expressed. It teaches above all else that God is Love and that our most solemn duty is to show forth that God who is love in the World. Shakerism teaches God’s immanence through the common life shared in Christ’s mystical body. It values human fulfillment highly and believes that we fulfill ourselves best by being nothing more nor less than ourselves. It believes that Christian love is a love beyond disillusionment, for we cannot be disillusioned with people being themselves. Surely God would not have it otherwise for it is in being ourselves–our real selves–that we are most like Christ in his sacred oneness.
Please feel free to write for more information to the following address:
The Shaker Society
707 Shaker Road
New Gloucester, ME 04260