The Last Shakers?

Keeping the faith in a community facing extinction
Meeting house and Ministry shop at Sabbathday Lake (Michael Freeman / Alamy Stock Photo)

Sabbathday Lake, Maine, is home to the last community of Shakers on earth. Their sect, formally known as the United Society of Shakers, is well over two hundred years old. When I visited Sabbathday Lake in the summer of 2017, I met the only two Shakers who remained: Arnold, blue-eyed and stooped, aged sixty-two, and June, small and shy, aged eighty.

Arnold and June live together in the village Dwellinghouse, but sleep in separate beds. They are not married, nor are they lovers. They pray, read Scripture, and sing. They eat together but don’t take communion; to them, every meal is the Eucharistic feast. They maintain their land and buildings, and though Arnold can do some of the physical work, they must also hire outside help. Arnold and June use computers and cellphones—the Shakers, unlike the Amish, are not averse to technology. They invented paper seed packets, the circular saw, the flat-bottom broom, and clothespins.

Arnold and June are celibate, own property in common, and confess their sins to each other. These are the essential “three Cs” of the Shakers, modeled on the chaste, communal life of Christ. To become a Shaker, you must be debt-free: no mortgages or student loans. You must also be a pacifist. Shakers are wary of nitpicky dogma, and their theology is simple: God is love; Christ’s return is experienced spiritually by anyone open to the “anointing spirit of God.” Shaker faith seems to be more an emulation than a rigid creed. Arnold and June, like the Shakers before them, believe they have found the best way of living, a literal heaven on earth.

Most of the “world’s people” know Shakers for their woodwork: cabinets, chairs, tables. Shaker artifacts are displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Shakers are also known for numerous scratch recipes, and a Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” inspired Appalachian Spring. James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne all wrote about Shakers; Ralph Waldo Emerson was an admirer.

At its peak before the Civil War, the Shaker population numbered around five thousand, spread across ten states in the east and midwest. By 1900, there were 855 practicing brothers and sisters. The population was aging—and dying. Celibate, Shakers couldn’t bear children into their faith; they had to rely on converts, and conversions were declining too. While villages had long taken in orphans or children from destitute families, few of those charges remained after reaching adulthood. Eventually, as states began to pass stricter laws, the Shakers, as a non-family unit, lost the right to adopt.

Over time, the loss has been compounded by a reluctance to evangelize. Shakers don’t knock on doors or preach fire-and-brimstone. Instead, they wait, hoping converts will come. Sometimes, today, people do inquire, attracted to Sabbathday Lake by its austere, contemplative lifestyle, making pilgrimages to be evaluated as novices. But nobody has stayed. Either the Shakers said no, or the candidates left.

Which leaves Arnold and June. (Sister Frances, a Shaker matron, passed away in January 2017 at the age of eighty-nine.) On any given day, there are plenty of other people at the village. Staff and volunteers from nearby towns work at Sabbathday Lake: giving tours, overseeing gift shops, posting on Facebook, raking leaves, raising money, and tending the gardens. They help organize the Harvest Festival and Christmas bazaar. They teach soapmaking, bookbinding, and broomweaving, courses that generate revenue for the village. These workers are often also congregants. They attend Shaker meetings on Sunday mornings, then stick around for coffee hour. And yet, they are not Shakers. They don’t divest of their property. They don’t swear off sex. They don’t join.

 

When the Shaker girls returned to their senses, blinking and thirsty, they recounted visions.

My first trip to Sabbathday Lake was on a Friday in June. Six hours of driving through summer traffic and then, as the Maine Gazetteer promised, the green government sign: Shaker Road. The village stretched out: shingles, green shutters, red barns, whitewash. Long-necked sheep and shaggy cows grazed; there were garden plots, and trees wild with fruit. At the center stood the multi-story brick Dwellinghouse. Across the road that cut through the land was the Meetinghouse, where Shakers worship—two doors, two sets of stairs; one for men, the other for women. The school stood padlocked.

The essential book on Shakers is Stephen Stein’s The Shaker Experience in America (Yale University Press, 1992). It begins before the beginning, with the story of Ann Lees: born in Manchester, England, sometime around 1736, and baptized in 1742. As a child, Lees, the daughter of a blacksmith, likely learned to read but not write; when she married another blacksmith, Abraham, she signed the church registry with just her mark. The marriage was unhappy, and ended in divorce; none of the couple’s children survived to adulthood. Eventually, Ann started spending time with a group of religious enthusiasts who worshipped by shrieking and trembling. Colloquially, the group came to be called Shakers, a people who worshipped charismatically, without clergy—rolling on floors, trembling with spiritual rapture. Ann was jailed several times for her allegiance, and so the Shaker history goes, she had visions in prison. Starving, she was sustained by milk and wine, which was poured by a friend through her cell’s keyholes. She even sweat blood like Jesus.

Ann Lee (at some point, her surname changed) fled England in 1774 with eight other Shakers, her brother William among them. They settled in Niskayuna, New York, and, after laying low for a time, took missionary trips to spread the Shaker gospel of celibacy, communality, and confession. They won converts and suffered persecution. On May 19, 1780, the Shakers held their first “public testimony,” an open service near New Lebanon, New York, on the region’s legendary “Dark Day.” A mixture of fog, clouds, and forest-fire smoke turned daytime sky in the Northeast pitch black: an opportune sign for an apocalyptic people.

Eventually, Shaker settlements sprang up from Maine to Florida, Indiana to Connecticut. They took direction from the central village of Mount Lebanon and followed the example of Mother (Ann’s new title), praising her as a counterpart to Christ. According to Stein, some Shakers claimed Ann was the female “dual adoption” of Christ, the complete fulfillment of God’s male and female nature. But the true Shaker doctrine, according to Arnold, is that Ann is not herself Christ; rather, she is his Helpmeet and Bride.

Ann died in 1784, but the Shakers kept her teachings close. In 1816, they compiled the Testimonies: collected oral histories and eyewitness accounts of Mother, packed with parables and miracles. At Sabbathday Lake, in 2019, Arnold and June preserve her name in their prayers.

 

The eleven-dollar tour of Shaker Village began in the Meetinghouse with just one other visitor: a woman from Kentucky with two yappy dogs in a carrier.

“You coming to Shaker meeting?” asked the guide. “Ten o’clock Sunday morning. It’s always been open to the public. People are always a little hesitant. ‘But isn’t it only two people?’ Oh no. There’s usually between twenty and forty.”

“They just never convert,” said the Kentuckian.

The guide paused. “Right…yes. And there are a lot of people who come to meeting who’ve been coming for many…”

The Kentuckian interrupted: “It’s hard to give up stuff and sex.”

Our guide remarked on the Meetinghouse’s original cornflower-blue paint, milky with age. Then she took us around the village, showing off workshops staged with crafts and wares: a scarf made from a Shaker cotton-wool blend, chairs with intricate teardrop finials, a brown cider bottle for homebrews, a painting of cats. As we peered at each arrangement, the guide praised the Shakers for cleanliness, practicality, ingenuity: “Hands to work, hearts to God,” as they put it.

After the tour, the Kentuckian drove away. I visited the gift shop and purchased Sister Frances’s autobiography. The cashier placed the book in a sack.

“Would you ever become a Shaker?” I asked.

“No, no,” she said. “Then I couldn’t teach skiing in the winter.”

Back outside, the village was cast in quiet. The air grew thick with humidity; a storm was coming. In the stillness, someone shouted my name. When I turned, there he was: Brother Arnold, in work clothes and boots, barreling forward from the Dwellinghouse porch.

“I can see you at two,” he said to me, as if bequeathing a valuable gift. Then, as quickly as he had appeared, he vanished.

 

“Surely, I have had a wonderful privilege. And it has been a dreary, horrible existence at the same time.”

In August 1837, at the Shaker settlement in Watervliet, New York, a group of girls between the ages of ten and fourteen suddenly went into trances. When they returned to their senses, blinking and thirsty, they recounted visions: angels, hellscapes, and dead Shaker leaders. That November, one of the girls, Anna Mariah Goff, saw Mother Ann herself. During two trances, one lasting five hours, Anna was led by Mother through a Shaker village, thick with flowers and trees. Mother petted a feathered angel, and urged repentance.

This marked the start of the Shaker’s “Era of Manifestations.” Soon, throughout the communities, brothers and sisters were whirling and collapsing, performing new songs, speaking in tongues. Under spiritual influence, Shaker women created colorful “gift drawings” in watercolors and inks (192 of these survive today). Some Shakers claimed they were possessed by Native American spirits; they translated native songs and messages into “primitive,” unconjugated English. At Union Village, Kentucky, one boy was apparently entranced for over thirty-seven hours. Twice a year, Shaker villages conducted “feasts of the passover” on cleared mountaintops; they drank wine, marched, heard speeches, and danced. Villages got new “spiritual” names: Sabbathday Lake became “Chosen Land.”

But the Era of Manifestations, thrilling as it was, also made Shaker elders nervous. They suspended public meetings in 1842 to protect themselves from outside scorn. Eventually, services grew more structured. The mountaintop feasts were discontinued. A set of ascetic 1845 laws set up protocols for the Sabbath (no meat, no fish) and reinforced the separation of the sexes. Winking was banned in meetings, as was perfume.

It’s unlikely that these proscriptions had a direct effect on membership, but around the time of the Civil War, the Shaker population had begun to decline. After that, it was in freefall. In 1880, there were almost two thousand Shakers living in twenty-one villages. By 1900, there were less than one thousand. By 1936, there were ninety-two.

And by 1986, there were only eight, all living at Sabbathday Lake: five women and three men, including one named Wayne Smith, who had joined after graduating from high school. Twenty years later, that number was down to four: Frances, Arnold, June, and Wayne, the youngest. Around that time the Boston Globe ran a story on the village, headlined “The Last Ones Standing.” The reporter’s breathless description of Wayne read: “6-foot 3-inches, tanned and muscular from hours on a John Deere tractor, [with] the look of a strapping farm boy.” Seven months after the article appeared, Wayne left the village. He’d been sneaking calls to the Globe reporter; soon he proposed to her. They were married as Methodists.

 

At two o’clock, Arnold waved from his porch, wiping his sweaty face with a rag. “Come in!” He ushered me into the Dwellinghouse. To my right, in the dining room, Sister June bent over a jigsaw puzzle. A cat skittered by. Arnold let me use his set of stairs as we climbed to an upper floor, and left me at a long table in an anteroom. Portraits of dead Shakers lined the walls, a row of witnesses.

Arnold Hadd, raised in Massachusetts, joined the Sabbathday Shakers in 1978, at the age of twenty-one. He arrived during a period of conflict with the only other extant Shaker community, in Canterbury, New Hampshire. In 1965, Canterbury had decided that no new Shakers would be accepted into either village. Why the ranks were closed isn’t clear. Some think that the leaders were worried that “outsiders” would join and plunder Shaker assets (like land) once the older members had died. Others suspect the Shakers were wary of 1960s sex-and-drugs youth culture. Whatever the reason, the Canterbury Shakers said the sect would live on as history and principles. But the members at Sabbathday Lake refused to comply. They didn’t believe that the Shakers were done. A bitter feud ensued as Sabbathday Lake continued to accept converts. Those aren’t Shakers, said Canterbury, not if they joined after 1965. In the Shaker heyday, Canterbury had been the larger, more established of the two villages: but eventually, the last Canterburian passed, and Sabbathday Lake carried on.

Arnold returned with tea in a turquoise mug that read It Is What It Is. He took a seat at the head of the table, leaned on his elbows, and waited to begin. Under that gaze I could barely keep my papers straight. I felt I was alone with something ancient, precious, odd. Arnold’s very affect was superior. He was here keeping the faith, not me.

“Are there a few moments that stand out in your mind—peaks and valleys over the past twenty years?”

I expected some platitudes, like those I’d heard on the tour. But Arnold offered a different response. “Not too many high points at all,” he said. “A lot of low points.”

In his decades at the village, Arnold has served as a farmer, chef, nurse, craftsman, archivist, and press secretary. These days, it was all too much: “No matter how early you get up, you’re still behind. We had ten people staying with us this weekend, and I’m the cook. Besides taking care of the barn, besides taking care of all the business, besides taking care of all the people, and besides taking care of everything else.” Just that morning, he’d been “in the barn, trying to sort it all out in my mind, how I was going to get everything done. Thinking, I can’t possibly do this. ‘Don’t anybody come down here and see me,’ because if they do, that means they want something. And I just can’t give anything more than I’ve got right now.”

I got the sense that Arnold was overwhelmed, annoyed at me for taking his time. He also seemed eager to share his grievances.

All Shakers sinned, Arnold went on, and needed someone to confess to. “I mean, some people pay psychiatrists to do the same thing.... You hope you have a good elder to do that for you—some of our elders were not so gifted in those departments.” He elaborated. “I think the ones that aren’t good are the ones that forgot they’re sinners too. We’re all right here.” He whacked the table with a palm.

How would he keep the village from extinction?

“I knock on [people’s] doors and say ‘Hey, we’ve got a religious community. Go sell everything you have, come on up! And just spend the whole rest of your life giving everything you have to us.’” He shook his head. “That’s all we got.

Arnold believed that the Shakers were creating a divine community on earth: “We’re not prefiguring heaven—we’re living it. This is it, right now.” Yet it seemed that his life had not been heavenly. He struck me as befuddled by his situation. “Certainly, I have had a wonderful privilege and it has been a dreary, horrible existence all at the same time.” Especially, I imagined, as caregiver to an older  woman. Especially, I guessed, when he considered the end: confessing to himself, weathering winters alone in the cavernous house.

Arnold went on, speaking in fragments, raising his voice, correcting misconceptions. “It’s not like people who live in obedience are just mindless little puppets doing the dictates of some sinister head. Not at all.”

He continued. “A lot of people said that Mother Ann was the personal second appearance of Christ. But if you read the Testimonies, there’s no indication of that at all.”

I’d read in Stein’s book that the Testimonies weren’t trustworthy because they were recorded after Ann’s death. The quotes and anecdotes were conveniently imagined to support contemporary Shaker beliefs. No, Arnold countered. “They remembered, and then they were recorded.... And those first believers never forgot a word.”

Anyway, he said, Stephen Stein the historian was misguided. “It’s a horrible book. It’s a distortion of the whole history of the church. There’s a ton of mistakes in it. ‘The schism’ [with Canterbury] is his big thing. That’s almost a quarter of the book, the last twenty years. That’s disproportionate and it really doesn’t speak to what is.”

Next he turned his attention to the Quakers. “The Quakers, at the time that the Shakers came out? They had lost it. All’s they did was stand outside of public houses to see any member that went in to have a drink, then read them out of meeting the next week. It was a legalistic bunch of merchants.”

He had harsh words for the “world’s people”—those non-Shakers who came to Shaker meeting. “One of the do-gooders in our lives [is a] wealthy person who’s never worked a day in their life.” Arnold again slipped into impersonation. “‘Oh, but if there are no Shakers, we’ll still meet here,’” the do-gooder had insisted, trying to cheer Arnold up. “I said, no, you won’t. There’s no Shaker meeting without a Shaker.” A bitter chuckle. “That’s it, kid. Get it through your head.”

Was Arnold nervous about being the last?

“If people come, that is great and glorious, because I believe this is the ultimate truth revealed to man. If man is not ready to accept the ultimate truth, then they’re not ready...and all the more sad for them. But we have to live.” It was our loss, not his. “People are not meant to be Shakers. It’s always been a few.”

But was there hope, I wanted to know. “I think it is a straight and narrow path,” Arnold answered, “and the more you’re on it, the more straight and narrow it becomes.”

There were moments when he spoke rather beautifully. What will heaven look like when it is fully realized? “I don’t know that it necessarily has to look like a Shaker community,” he mused. “Light, all light, because that’s what God is.”

About to drive away from Sabbathday Lake, I thought to myself that the hardest sacrifice, if I were to become a Shaker, would be having to stay put: to suppress wanderlust, to keep one’s body in one place. Even in such beauty—the sky that evening, tie-dyed lime green and pink; the clean-lined chairs; the proximity to water, teeming with lobsters; the vast, star-punctured sky—one might feel trapped. “Have you ever thought of leaving?” I asked Arnold.

“Have I ever thought of leaving? Of course! Who doesn’t?”

 

How will one know how to live (and what to live for) when old standards for flourishing no longer apply?

On Sunday morning at 10 a.m., I joined thirty locals at Shaker meeting. Men sat on southside benches, women faced them from the north. We kept from making eye contact by adopting postures of prayer. In front, June sat reading her Bible. Arnold entered last.

The meeting began with June’s bullfrog-thick voice: “Let us all praise the Lord.” She read a psalm. Two female guests read: one from Deuteronomy, one from the gospel story of Jesus healing the bleeding woman. Arnold gave the theme of the meeting: “Receiving God’s gifts.” The visitors—the world’s people—spoke their messages, recalling memories and giving thanks, making church with their voices. Arnold watched, evaluated. A woman and her husband recalled a friend, described her earth-covered coffin. Some gave thanks for a chamber-music concert held the previous night. A bearded man slipped in and out of audibility, his holy message unclear. One woman described a ferry ride: good parking, tasty sandwiches. Arnold glared at this last frivolity.

When it was his turn to speak, he took up a preacher’s posture, meeting eyes, sprinkling in jokes. Throughout the meeting, he sang Shaker songs—impromptu, a cappella, thematically connected to whatever had been shared. His mind was a veritable hymnal. Other visitors joined in; few knew all the verses.

Shakers had once danced and shouted and literally shook, sometimes for hours on end. But noise had long given way to silence. We sat primly in the neat square room. No crosses on the wall or stained glass, only a braided rug, a vase of pussy willows, a puffy bouquet of ballet-slipper flowers. When an hour of messages had passed, Arnold stood. “With the work of the meeting apparently finished…” He led a long prayer for the Shaker dead, then went to make lunch. While the rest of us ate nut-covered doughnuts and played with a spaniel that ran at our feet, he tied an apron over his waistcoat and prepared a midday meal for us, the guests in his home. When there were more visitors than Shakers, was this a Shaker meeting at all?

 

Arnold had encouraged me to send more questions, so I did. His response came on a Sunday night. When I read it, I knew that we wouldn’t speak again.

Dear Friend:

Good to hear from you.

First of all let me just say that I realize we live in a very egalitarian age, but I truly find it offensive when you address Believers present and past by their first names and apostates with the prefix of “Brother.” We have all given up all to follow Christ and all we ask is to be addressed as Brother or Sister and I would ask you to follow that protocol as well.

I have answered your questions within the confines of the body of your questions.

Also Harvest Festival is a glorious event, but I am out straight between the kitchen and the barn so visiting is out of the question.

Take care and God bless.

Peace,

b. Arnold

It seemed I’d made “a mistake in my communication.” I’d left out some “Brothers” and “Sisters,” and had used “Brother” for “Wayne”—who, apparently, was considered an apostate. I was taken aback by Arnold’s anger. He seemed to think that by misusing titles I’d somehow challenged or ignored his authority. I moved on to read his answers to my questions.

Question: What are your feelings about some of the contemporary “representations” of Shakerism: i.e. the Ken Burns documentary [Hands to Work, Hearts to God, 1984] and Hancock Shaker Village [a museum and historical replica village in Massachusetts]? How do those experiences illuminate or cloud an understanding of the faith?

Answer: Neither represents Shakerism only the Shakers represent Shakerism.

Question: What was it like for you to join the community in the middle of a controversy about membership? I know the other extant village had voted to close the ranks. What does membership mean to you?

Answer: You don’t know that as it is a false statement. To be a Shaker is my continual aspiration.

I asked about Wayne.

Answer: God calls us all to a life, whatever that might be. It does not mean it is forever. If you were to look at the history of the Church you would realize that it is a very small percentage of those who enter and remain faithful unto death. Wayne still has contact with us and there is no hard feeling at all. We did everything to make his leaving smooth as we always have with everyone.

Perhaps Arnold was an unreliable narrator, free to snip out some stories while preserving others. Could he really dismiss the historian, the documentarian, the Shakers who’d lived and spoken before? Perhaps he could. He was the historical arbiter. He was the theologian. He was the “lived experience.” All the others were gone now and Arnold was alive. And if testimony was privileged above all other analysis, then he was the only source that mattered.

 

In his book Radical Hope: Cultural Ethics in the Face of Devastation, philosopher Jonathan Lear writes of a leader of the Crow people named Plenty Coups. After “the buffalo went away” and the Crow had been moved to a reservation, Plenty Coups claimed that “nothing happened.” This perspective (“nothing happened”) isn’t just a sign of depression, or a figure of speech. Plenty Coups really meant to note the end of history, Lear contends, the end of a conception of the Crow “good life” outside of which nothing makes sense.

It is this “possibility of things ceasing to happen...the possibility of collapse” that Arnold lives with daily, the same possibility facing any ethnic and religious community whose numbers are dwindling, including cloistered Catholic orders. It creates an ethical question: How will one know how to live (and what to live for) when old standards for flourishing no longer apply? It’s impossible to imagine; and so “anxiety,” writes Lear, is “an appropriate response of people who are sensitive to the idea that they are living at the horizons of their world.” This anxiety is something we all might experience, to some extent:

We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilizations are themselves vulnerable. Events around the world—terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes—have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name.

Yet, Lear writes, we can still “hope for revival: for coming back to life in a form that is not yet intelligible.” What Arnold does in the face of that recognition—cook meals, make hay, sing hymns—represents not just an homage to the past, but a courageous confronting of the future, “[A] daunting form of commitment,” as Lear writes, “to a goodness in the world that transcends one’s current ability to grasp what it is.”

In 2007, the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake sold their rights to develop the property, and put the funds toward necessary repairs. A conservation easement now protects the land; it can only ever be used for sustainable farming and forestry. “We don’t own any of this,” Arnold insisted when we spoke. “None of this is ours. We’re only stewards as they [past Shakers] were all stewards…. Leave it in a better condition than we found it for the next generation.... So that we can be the blessing that those who have gone before us have been.” But a blessing to whom? A nature preserve isn’t something the Shakers would ever have prayed for. This has been their sacred land for more than two hundred years.

“Unless you live the life,” Arnold had told me, “you cannot truly understand it.” And yet, one can at least understand the stakes. The Shakers are not a business, trying to sell chairs and soap. They are not advocates for gender equality or world peace. They are not a historical curiosity. The Shakers are a religious community. For them, the end means nothing less than the end of an idea of heaven.

 

Afew months ago, the nonprofit Friends of the Shakers announced their annual retreat at Sabbathday Lake, an educational weekend of lectures, tours, music, and shared meals with the community they help support. The event program made reference to a “Brother Andrew,” who’d be giving a lecture with Brother Arnold. A November advertisement on the Shaker Facebook page for “Shaker-made small batch soap and soy candles” was met with the encouraging comment, “Go Brother Andrew!” Had the Sabbathday Shakers welcomed a convert? A more recent post on the Village Facebook page seemed to confirm that, yes, a new brother had joined in January 2019.

Yet no official announcements, images, or reporting about Brother Andrew seem to exist. Neither Arnold nor the Friends of the Shakers replied to my request for comment. Perhaps Brother Andrew is still discerning. Perhaps the community is rejoicing privately for now, celebrating their increase together. Perhaps they don’t want the “world’s people” getting involved quite yet.

“It is not a matter of numbers,” Arnold had told me. “It is a matter of faith.”

Published in the December 2019 issue: 

Katherine Lucky is the Managing Editor of Commonweal. Follow her on Twitter @katherinejlucky.

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