Brother Arnold Hadd in the Shaker Meeting House, Maine
Filing into the Sunday morning service at Sabbathday Lake in Maine—men through the men’s entrance and women through the women's door—it's hard to believe that Shakerism is one of the world’s most endangered religions. On this bright late-summer morning, about 40 people take part in the meeting, led by the sect’s four remaining members. But every day, the Shakers live with the reality that—for all the curious onlookers, constant visitors, and media attention they receive—they are perilously close to extinction.

Here in the meeting house, whose interior dates back to 1794, there’s no evidence of such gloomy thoughts. Light streams in through the windows, offering peaceful views of the 1,800 acres of Shaker farmland that surround it. Interspersed with the Bible readings from each of the Shakers, followed by short testimonies, there are lively Shaker hymns, all sung a cappella, and testimony from guests. The pews are simple wooden benches, added in the 19th century, after the Shakers left their whirling, dancing days behind them. Except for a small clock and plenty of those famous Shaker pegs, the room is completely without adornment—not a cross, not a bit of stained glass, not even a single painting.

But Shakers are used to small numbers, explains Brother Arnold Hadd, 49, a bearded and intense man who oftens acts as a spokesman for the group. After all, Mother Ann Lee, who founded the Shakers, arrived from England with just 8 followers in 1774. And while as many as 6,000 people lived in Shaker villages from Maine to Florida at the height of the sect’s popularity in the 1860s, Shakers have dealt with declining membership ever since, watching their communities—one by one—close down as the elders died off and no new converts stepped in to fill the void.

And while it’s been centuries since they endured stonings, beatings, jail, and constant threats to their personal safety (life wasn’t easy for British pacifists during America’s early days), today’s Shakers face different trials. For one thing, while they still live in quiet community amongst themselves, they also spend a fair amount of time under the media microscope. A favorite topic of travel writers, “the last remaining Shakers” stories drum up plenty of interest, and about 10,000 people stream through their simple farm each year. Many take the $6.50 guided tour through some of the 19 sheds and buildings on the farm, offered from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Others just stop at the store to buy Shaker music CDs, Shaker-written cookbooks, and Shaker-made boxes, baskets, and mittens.

For another, the remaining Shakers—Brother Wayne Smith, 43, Sister Frances Carr, 79, Sister June Carpenter, 68, and Brother Arnold—are stretched pretty thin. They do employ a handful of people to run tours, raise and package herbs, and help with maintenance. But ultimately, all decisions abut the farm’s extensive operations, including farming, sheep, cattle, apple orchards, the herb business, and a gravel pit, must be made by the community of four.

Finally, there’s the pressure of suburban sprawl, which has sent their tax bill skyrocketing to more than $27,000 per year. (Shakers, who try to live as closely allied to Christ’s teachings as possible, have always believe in paying taxes, rather than seeking tax exemptions.) So in recent years, the Shakers have undertaken a huge project: working with local land trusts and preservation groups, they’re close to completing a $3 million deal, brokered by the Trust for Public Land, which guarantees that the land and the buildings will always be maintained for their historical value, even if the Shakers do die out.

“It’s a very demanding life,” says Brother Arnold, settling down for a quick interview in the dwelling house, and petting Chase, the Shaker’s extremely well-fed golden retriever. “And sometimes,” he jokes after being called out of the room for the third time, “I hate my life.” It’s the week before the group’s annual Friends of the Shakers meeting, a weekend full of visitors and special events. But he’s not too busy to carefully explain that being a Shaker today is about much more than quaint history lessons or pastoral escapism.

The Shakers' Story

For all the familiarity Americans have with Shaker design, most know little about the details of the Shaker faith. Even the name is confusing, taking from the derogatory “Shaking Quakers” that people called them before they left England.

(The group’s roots are Pentecostal, and early followers were prone to whirling, dramatic dances, speaking in tongues, and chatting with ghosts.) “We just called ourselves `The Church’ in those years,” Brother Arnold explains, until the group was eventually called the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing.