Comparative Studies in Society and History

Utopia and Family

“All the Flesh Kindred that Ever I See”: A Reconsideration of Family and Kinship in Utopian Communes

Christoph Brumann a1
a1 Institut für Völkerkunde, Universität zu Köln

As demonstrated by the above lyrics, the Shakers (known officially as the “United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing”) were not favorably disposed toward the bonds of marriage, family, and kinship. Started as a Quaker splinter group under the charismatic leadership of Ann Lee in Manchester, they emigrated to the United States, gathered further adherents there, and became a communal sect in 1787. Within the next sixty years, they grew to more than 4,000 members in sixteen villages in New England and the Midwest. 1 True to their view of God as androgynous, and their founder as the female equivalent of Jesus Christ, women had a comparatively strong position in the sect, and there were equal numbers of male and female office holders on all hierarchy levels. 2 Genders, however, were strictly separated, and celibacy was obligatory in the “gospel relations” between members. 3


1 Stein 1992:87–89.

2 The question of how much gender equality existed among the Shakers is subject to some debate. The division of labor as well as many gender stereotypes remained conventional (Brewer 1992), and after the death of the initial leaders Ann Lee and Lucy Wright, male members dominated the leadership (Stein 1992:132–33, Brewer 1986:51) until they became a small minority in the later years (Stein 1992:339). Brewer concludes that true gender equality was not achieved, nor even aimed at (1992). Compared to their female contemporaries, however, “Shakeresses” were able to keep their private lives free from male interference to a considerable degree (Humez 1991). Besides, male Shaker complaints about “pettycoat government” do not only suggest a patriarchal striving for power, as Humez argues (1991), but also the imperfect realization of these tendencies. Female Shakers also made important contributions to the early women's rights movement (Stein 1992:258–68, 310–12).

3 Brewer 1986; Stein 1992.