“Pre-Civil War America became a laboratory for religious experiments,” writes Nancy Koester. “Even though the great majority of people stayed within more conventional forms of Christianity, they were always some who thought they could discover, restore, or invent ‘True Religion.’ Available land helped to make these experiments possible” (P. 63).
The Second Great Awakening had inscribed a kind of “utopian proclivity” in much of the American consciousness. Generally, this led to the kind of progressive reforms for which nineteenth century activist Christianity is best known. But it also produced “separatist” communities who sought the live together, cloistered from the outside world, embodying to the best of their abilities the terms of “God’s new order.”
One such “early Utopian community, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (known more familiarly as the Shakers) arrived in America from England in 1774 under the direction of mother Ann Lee,” writes Edwin Gaustad. “Lee taught that procreation was unnecessary since the kingdom of God was near at hand. This being so, Shaker men and women should live apart, living celibate lives. If a married couple joined the Shaker community, the marital relationship ended as the common life began” (P. 150).
These enclosed communes “included both men and women, but celibacy was strictly enforced through indoctrination and careful regulation of day-to-day activities,” writes Barbara MacHaffie. “Men and women ate at different tables, worked separately, used separate stairs to their living quarters, and sat on opposite sides of the room for worship” (P. 124).
According to Gaustad, Shakers saw themselves as “reviving the Pentecost church in their own time, one feature of that church being the commitment to live a virgin life” (P. 150).
Procreation was not simply unneccesary, though. “Lee came to believe that sexual intercourse was the source of all sin and that the family was based on carnal lust,” writes Koester. “Therefore, the perfect community must practice celibacy, which alone could bring equality between the sexes” (P. 63).
It is easy to forget how many of the early Christian communities held celibacy to be the optimal or even normative mode of Christian sexual expression. Works like the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla reflect this mindset. For the communities that produced the fictitious narrative, compulsory abstention from sexual relations owed less to the dominant culture’s Platonic unease with “bodies” and “material” than with an essentially feministish protest against the broad exploitation of women in Greco-Roman sexual practices.
As I’ve written elsewhere, “There was no ‘recreational’ sex for women in Rome – at least in the mainstream. Sex was not a game in the Empire Aeneas built – it was a tool, specifically, to dominate others. Affairs were not unheard of, but they were rarely for fun: Rome was entrenched in a rigid class system in which upward social mobility was nearly impossible. Sexual favors were often doled out in exchange for gifts, both monetary and otherwise,” but if you were a woman, sex was not about your pleasure – or your consent.
So when Thecla, an engaged noble woman from Iconium, hears St. Paul delivering a sermon, she devotes herself to chastity – much to the dismay of her mother and the chagrin of her fiance. When she will not back down, her loved ones (and eventually all of Rome) team up to martyr her, first with fire, then with lions, and finally by means of a whole array of Wile E. Coyote tricks and gadgets. In each case, the Lord rescues her, cementing, for those early Christian communities out of which the work emerged, God’s solidarity with womankind, who, in God’s new order, will not submit themselves to exploitation.
It is difficult for those of us born after the era of “sex positivity” to grasp the extent to which compulsory celibacy could have been liberating rather than stifling, both for women and for men, not only in the years immediately following the Resurrection of Jesus but even in the Shaker communities.
“Child-rearing became a shared responsibility,” writes MacHaffie. “Orphans and the children of new converts among the Shakers were cared for by a group of adults” (P. 125). According to Koester, “Their basis for Christian Community was the village, where property was held in common and all duties were shared. They built villages in which men and women lived separately and everyone contributed to farm work or crafts” (P. 64).
“Women generally did the indoor work and men did the heavier outdoor tasks but there was no indication that one type of work was superior to the other,” writes MacHaffie. “There is also evidence that men in Shaker communes carded wool and picked fruit, duties normally assigned to women” (P. 125).
They “multiplied in the first half of the 19th century as these ascetic visionaries moved into Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.” Though a fringe group, the sheer breadth of their reach suggests that their communities struck a chord with the populace (Gaustad, P. 150).
“The group began to attract revival converts who sought a radically new way of life,” writes Koester. And according to Gaustad, they “grew to about 6,000 by mid-century” (P. 150). But if “The Shaker rule of celibacy freed women from child-bearing and child-rearing,” Koester goes on, “it also meant that without new converts or the steady adoption of orphans, the movement would eventually die out” (P. 64).
Shakers not only “altered basic ideas in the Victorian ‘Cult of True Womanhood,'” writes MacHaffie, “But also challenged the traditional theological concepts” (P. 125). Although some Medieval and many “Modern” theologians had popularized the idea that God was literally male, the Shakers reclaimed something akin to the early Christian notion that God is neither male nor female, but that both maleness and femaleness are derivative from the nature of God. Although we speak of Him often in masculine language, the Patristics thought, this was chiefly a practicality: No one, they would say, should be deceived into thinking that God was male.
And so “The Shakers used their belief in the ‘androgynous’ nature of God as a keystone in the life of the community.” And more: “They built into their theology and group structures an equal rule for women. The Shaker ministry, which presided over the community, was made up of two women and two men. An equal number of Elders and Eldresses supervised the spiritual life of the Shaker families (30 to 90 people) while deacons and deaconesses attended to the practical details of communal life” (P. 126).
But the pathway that the Shakers took to get there was almost irredeemably problematic. “Mother Ann’s children had died in infancy, and in her grief she received visions that she believed were from God,” writes Koester. “In these visions, she saw herself as a female incarnation of God, a counterpart to Jesus” (P. 63). The logic ran that “God had first appeared incarnate in a male, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, the Divine Essence had its second incarnation in a female, mother Ann Lee” (Gaustad, P. 150). Previously, the human face of God was Jesus – a man. But “with the coming of the female Messiah,” writes MacHaffie, “The original equality that women had with men was restored” (P. 126).
Eventually, their commitment to celibacy doomed their communities to “a slow decline and ultimately near extinction,” says Gaustad. “When revivalism and utopian experimentation waned, so did the growth of the Shakers” (P. 150). According to Koester, “At the close of the 20th century, only one Shaker village remained, with just a few believers” (P. 64).
Nonetheless, in their day they were remarkable. “Studies of some Shaker communities in the last century show two female members for every male on average,” writes MacHaffie. This is noteworthy and it isn’t. In its earliest stages, the “Christian Revolution” was a peaceable uprising of women (and the men they’d won over with their otherworldly vision for a world put to rights).
By the nineteenth century, however, Christianity in America was largely the domain of “Godly (or ungodly) Men,” with women by default relegated largely to the background. Thus, it is possible that “Women may have been attracted to the sectarian communities for reasons directly related to their status in church and society.”
She continues: “Evidence taken from direct testimonies” suggest that “The revival spirit created in the atmosphere of intense religious feelings and yearnings which were satisfied for some women in sectarianism. Also, contact with other women, especially in communal sects, seemed to provide some women with a much-needed sense of ‘sisterhood.’ Testimonies from Shaker women, for example, reveal their intense enjoyment of conversation with women in their own communities and visits and letters from sisters and other locations. By joining the sectarian groups, however, women may also have been unconsciously rebelling against their status in the Protestant churches and in American culture” (P.127).
Works quoted above:
Gaustad, Edwin S., and Leigh Eric. Schmidt. The religious history of America. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004.
Koester, Nancy. Introduction to the history of Christianity in the United States. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
MacHaffie, Barbara J. Her story: women in Christian tradition. Philadelphia: Fortress Pr., 1988.
Meeks, Wayne A. Origins of Christian morality: first two centuries. Yale University Press, 1995.