The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers, were spiritual seekers from Manchester, England, who fled to America in 1774 to escape religious persecution. Their founder, Ann Lee, was an illiterate textile mill worker who sought a more personal faith than was offered by the official Church of England. When Lee and her followers arrived in the Albany area in 1776 and began building their Watervliet community near the current site of Albany International Airport, the small group was regarded with suspicion. They were persecuted for their religious beliefs and accused of being British spies.

The Shakers, however, persevered and passionately worked to create “heaven on Earth” through the practice of celibacy, pacifism, communal ownership of goods, and confession of sin. They believed that God was dual in nature, being both male and female. The Shakers practiced gender and racial equality within their communities and established a complex hierarchy of authority in which men and women shared power equally.

The Shakers made a significant contribution to American and European artistic traditions. Their expressions of spirituality included thousands of pieces of music, dance forms, and many works of art such as the famous Shaker tree of life. Today, they are best known for their elegant furniture and architectural style, and they continue to be a source of inspiration for artists, musicians, writers, choreographers and designers.

The Shakers of several communities made the iconic oval wood box and sold them to visitors and merchants from outside the community. This box, probably made at the Mount Lebenon, New York, community, includes the pencil inscription “William P. Van Rensselaer/Manor House/Albany N.Y./September 2nd, 1825.” William may have acquired the box from a peddler or from a local merchant.

 

Magnifying Glass
Oval Shaker Box
Probably Mount Lebenon Community, New York
c. 1825
Maple and pine
Albany Institute of History & Art, gift of of Bernard and Jeanne Brown in memory of James Gwynn, 2016.13
Magnifying Glass
Watervliet Shaker Village
Unidentified photographer
c. 1870
Albumen photographic print on card