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?”