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.

As that name suggests, Shakers had a radically different view of Christ than most Christians. Shakers don’t expect Christ to make a return in the flesh, but rather in a variety of individuals who embody Christ’s spirit of love and truth. They believe Mother Ann, the Shaker founder, was the first, but by no means the last, of such Christ-like visitors. And the sect always had a decidedly feminist slant: Shaker doctrine holds that God has no gender, and so Shakers have always prayed to a God who is both the “Father God and the Mother God.” Men and women, while kept separate in most aspects of daily life, have always shared church leadership equally.

Shakers base their faith on the gospels, and try to emulate Christ, committing themselves to their community, celibacy, and confession of their sins. New members signed all their possessions, including their farms, over to the community. (Think Matthew 19:21, “Jesus said to him, `If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’”) Because they are celibate, new members can only come from conversion, and in the past Shakers sent missionaries from the community to win over new members. Shaker communities also took in orphans, foster children, and families in crisis, who would sometimes indenture their children to the Shakers, where they were raised in dormitories, educated, and taught Shaker skills such as cobbling, farming, basketmaking and agriculture. About one in 10 of these children stayed on, and became Shakers when they reached adulthood. (The current eldress, Sister Fran, who will be 80 this fall, came to Sabbathday Lake at age 10.)

 Within their local towns, Shakers kept a low profile. They farmed, paid their taxes, and as much as possible, made everything they needed. But despite their tiny numbers, they proved to be one of the most industrious and inventive groups in American history. What other religions have produced such practical inventions as the washing machine, the flat-cut broom, wrinkle-resistant fabric, and the circular saw? Agricultural innovations included being the first to import merino sheep, and the first to package and sell seeds. In terms of marketing, Shakers were smarter than Sears Roebuck, trade marking their name in the mid-19th century, creating catalogs, and targeting the affluent with their cloaks and “fancy goods,” like silk-lined workbaskets.

These goods had enormous appeal to those in the outside world, who recognized that for the Shakers, a broom or a basket was more than a utensil—it was an expression of the spirit. “Hands to work, hearts to God” was a favorite expression of Mother Ann’s, and is cross-stitched and framed in the room where Brother Arnold meets visitors. Whether you’re sweeping a floor, mending a fence, tending the sheep, or answering email, “work can be worship,” he says. “It should be prayer.”

That devotional esthetic—simple, but expressed in warm, bright welcoming colors and carefully thought-out design—has charmed millions. “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it," wrote theologian Thomas Merton, who studied the Shakers in the 1950s, and was an admirer of the way Shaker furniture, crafts, and music flowed from their faith.

Of course, that’s not to say that the Shakers are happy about a world full of Shaker basket knock-offs, or insane auction prices. (This year, a Shaker workstand sold for $491,400; Oprah Winfrey paid over $200,000 for a work counter back in 1990.) Furniture is no more important to Shakers than, say, the lemon meringue pie they bake for dinner or the sheep shed they muck out each day. “We just built it because we needed furniture,” Brother Arnold says, a little impatient with the public perception that his life’s calling can be summed up by a ladder-back chair.

Will There Be More Shakers?

One of Brother Arnold’s tasks is dealing with correspondence, including an estimated 100 letters each year from would-be Shakers. Of those, he estimates, about 10 will visit, and many fewer will actually be serious enough to try settling in to the semi-cloistered, monastic life of the Shakers. And there have been many disappointments, as potential new recruits decide that they need to move on. “I’m very realistic,” he says. “I let it take its course. This life tries you as much as you try this life.”

The Shakers’ conservation easements have guaranteed that this community—which was always the poorest of the Shaker villages, and at its peak had 170 members—won’t be turned into condos or a Wal-Mart. But the deal also provides for the more hopeful possibility that they will attract new members, and that the community outlives these four.

The Shaker community isn’t a retreat for people who want to avoid the real world “Some people are blessed with an overabundance of the gift to be simple,” he says. “And we don’t need any basketcases.”) For all the modern trappings of today’s Shakers—air conditioners, microwaves, and computers—the required commitment is as stark as entering any other monastic life. Shakerism is for people who want to try to live as Christ did, and leave the world—and the self—behind.

They believe the message of the Shakers is as powerful as it ever was. Shakerism can’t “be dismissed as the final sad flowering of nineteenth century liberal utopian fervor,” the group writes on its website. “Shakerism has a message for this present age--a message as valid today as when it was first expressed. It teaches that above all else, God is Love.”

And what if nobody joins? “If nobody does, nobody does,” Brother Arnold says. And is he okay with that? “Nay,” he says tartly, “I’m not okay with that. We pray for new vocations every day. But if you know the truth, you live it. And regardless of what happens, we will live the gospels."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad