Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Shakertown Taught Me About Bad Theology

Last weekend, the husband and I escaped into a different world in only four hours. No kidding. We stayed at the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village in Harroldsburg, Kentucky--a place that at one time boasted a community of 500 individuals of the Shaker religious faith. Inevitably, they eventually died out. That's what happens when members are required to take a vow of celibacy.

Kentucky historians chose to restore these simple, beautiful buildings, starting in the 1960s and 1970s. Things are peaceful there: with wood pegs surrounding your room to hang all your earthly possessions on, useful and beautiful furniture and implements, and cows, horses, and goats grazing. You can pretend that the world is not insane, even if your room does boast a small flat-screen television (without cable).

The Shakers sustained themselves over the years by taking in widows, widowers, and orphans--often the "least of these" in their society. 

They were kind and charitable to many, efficient and practical in every endeavor, and known for their expressive worship. Houses here contained what came to be known as "families"--women staying on the left side, men on the right. They did many things right--and a few things very wrong, from what I can see.

Ann Lee, exhibiting perfection!
You see, starting the whole deal in England in 1747 was the obscure founder, a Quaker woman by the name of Mother Ann Lee.  Her views were rejected the the Quaker Society of Friends, so Ann determined she'd start a new religious order. This is where things get scary. From then on, Ann was known as the "daughter of God" in the same sense that "Jesus is the Son of God." They took the New Testament principle of giving up their goods and having everything in common extremely seriously. Ageism was not a worry--every member was valued. Since they believed they were already living in the Millennial Kingdom on earth, marriage was not allowed. There were healings, prophecies, revelation, and for Ann herself--a clairvoyance that seemed to allow her to predict the future.

The order moved to the States and continued to grow, spanning multiple locations. As with all great tragedies illuminated by history, the rise of Shakerism grew from bad leadership. Ann's theology was a mix of biblical truth, ecstatic fury, and even a mean perfectionism. There was something to be said for communal living, something that seems laughable to Americans today. But how God must have wept as a woman named Ann tried to exalt herself as divine, sought to desecrate marriage--a relational reminder that illstrates God's love for His church, and tried to fashion each Shaker into a person who only does any task with absolute perfection.

I believe I know why she did it. And bad theology has everything to do with it.

She wanted people to see that Christ's image needed to be displayed "in the female." From their "Millennial Church" booklet, a case is made that women prophetesses and leaders in the Bible proved that Jesus must have a divine female counterpart who just happened to be Ann. (God does offer fatherly and motherly care for each of us--but Scripture doesn't indicate an additional "female" representation of Jesus. She made that part up.) What started as one woman's yearning for equality evolved into a twisting of theology. Heaven help us, men and women alike, that we discern God's Word correctly, and rightly divide the Word of truth. The over 150 years of Shakers history are proof: it can be tough to "shake" bad theology. Thankfully, we have the assurance that God's Word never changes. I, for one, pray for wisdom to truly accept it and obey it.

How has your life been impacted by bad theology? How has correct theology set you free in Christ?


  1. Very thoughtful analysis... I had no idea of some of the more heretical aspects of Shaker background.

    Also: even in the midst of tragedy, you managed to find a little humor. Nicely done.

  2. Ah, bad theology. Yes, I have experienced it. Two pastors in a church focused almost exclusively on man's position before God as a wretched sinner. Even those washed with the blood of Jesus were still wretched and needed weekly reminders of their position. Without grace and love as a counterbalance such an emphasis leads to legalism, defeatism and is injurious to those who already struggle to fully receive God's love. While truth was present in the teaching, unbalanced theology is" bad" theology.

  3. Thank you for this informative post, Suzanne. I think sometimes Christians try to ignore the "bad theology" examples. In reality, the Bible is clear that sheep and wolves, wheat and tares will grow up together. When we spot bad theology, we should not be afraid to call a wolf a wolf. - Natasha

  4. Thank you for taking the time to comtemplate about this movement and come to these truths. This is exactly why I love studying theology for myself. It brings to light so many false teachings on the part of individuals. We constantly have a tendency to make our faith and religion in our image instead of God's. Isn't that what Eve was doing? Becky

  5. Thanks, all. Making our faith in our own image is our constant struggle. And yes, it started with Eve. She wanted to usurp God's position. We've found a million ways in our world to do that, haven't we?

    And Kim, your perception of a highly Calvinistic sermon is interesting. A friend of mine spoke of attending a church like that--where each sermon ended with the same conclusion--"I am a worm." He spoke of considering attending a Wesleyan congregation for that reason. In my humble opinion, I'd like to see a balance where we remember how we fall short and are quick to admit our failings, but lean into God's greater grace and restoration as our guide. The problem: everyone wants to put us into a category. When I hear someone say, "Calvin said...." or "Wesley said...," it makes me wonder..."But what did God say?"

    Let's keep conversing!

  6. It's great to find you! Love your site and your journey. You go girl!

    I'm headed off to find you on Twitter. Found this post on Kyria.

  7. Sweet! Susan, I'm at See you there!

  8. While today, the views and beliefs of the Shakers may seem to be radical, we must remember that the Shakers appeared at a time in history when many new religions appeared or were revitalized, the Second Great Awakening. Mother Ann Lee may have falsly claimed she was "divine", but the truth is that she was a very influencial women for the time period when women were just starting to make any sort of progress in their fight for sufferage. The Shaker communities were based off of equality and confession as well as celibacy, so there were aspects in the communities that were positive. If you have a problem with the religion, don't adhere to it, for it gave some enlightenment to members and was actually a wonderful step forward in the fight towards equality of the sexes.

  9. We also visited this Shaker village this year. I found it interesting and enlightening as I did not know what they believed. They certainly did take scripture out of context and make it say what they wanted to...It was so far from the truth of the Word of God. I enjoyed reading your article. You summed it up very well.