On Sunday I visited the last active Shaker colony in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After 271 years, the sect has two remaining members. I figured this was close to my last chance.
I first heard about the Shakers when I was about 13, on a radio program about their music. You’ve heard “Simple Gifts” in one form or another, but they have a rich body of thousands of songs. They range from slow meditations on humility:
I will not be like the stubborn oak
But I will be like the willow tree
I’ll bow and bend unto God’s will
And I will seek his mercy still.
to upbeat depictions to their namesake “shaking” worship through ecstatic dance and song:
Who will drink the wine of power
Dropping down like a shower?
Oh, oh, I will have it!
I will bow and bend to get it
I’ll be reeling, turning, twisting
Shake out all the starch and stiff’ning!
I wrote to the last colony of Shakers, and one Sister Frances wrote back to me. She sent me postcards of their sheep, and a copy of her memoir Growing Up Shaker. After I lost my religion, she was one of the few moral authorities I trusted. In high school I asked her how to handle the fact that a lot of the nice things I did for my friends and classmates were more intended to signal that I was a good person than out of deep desire to serve them. She said to keep doing good things, and the true desire would grow.
It was her death last year that made me realize it was time to go see the last colony.
The Shakers were a branch of the Quakers who split off and moved to America in 1774. They were known for their vigorous worship style and celibacy. The leader, Ann Lee, had been married against her will and had seen all four of her children die as infants. Lee reasoned that if “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30), why not start living like angels here on earth?
A lot of the early stuff, especially their treatment of “Mother Ann” as the second coming of Christ, was culty and weird. They were just one of the radical political and religious movements that sprang up in England around the same time (the Levelers, the Diggers, the Quakers, the Ranters — catchy, right?) plus the various American utopian movements. For a while, every radical in New England seemed to be writing a manifesto and founding a communal farm. Between financial mismanagement, fires, scandals, impractical farming arrangements, and inability to pass leadership on to a second generation, the track record of communes is not really encouraging.
But history bore this one out. Ann Lee’s successors developed an organizational structure that would last the next two centuries (“villages” divided into “families” of 30-100 people, each led by a team of two male and two female Shakers). The ecstatic shaking and whirling became a marching dance, more suited to a society that had lasted long enough to include a geriatric population. In the 1780s they were meeting in the woods and living wherever they wouldn’t be beaten or jailed. By 1821 they had financial agreements for sharing property, a written covenant that members signed, organized division of labor, rules about how soon to leave your room after waking up, and standards for architecture down to what color the meeting house should be painted.
When I was 15, my family visited the Pleasant Hill Shaker colony (now a museum) in Kentucky. It’s a particularly beautiful set of buildings, and as we walked around the grounds my father was clearly worried that my enthusiasm for the Shakers would cause me to convert. He didn’t mention this worry overtly, but told me that when he’d interned at a methadone clinic, one of the clients told him that the best things in life were sex and heroin. “I haven’t tried heroin and don’t recommend that you try it, but I do think you should try sex when you’re older,” Dad advised me. (….thanks, Dad?)
This conversation didn’t exactly strike at the crux of my decision — it wasn’t the idea of celibacy that bothered me, but childlessness, the snows of Maine, and isolationism. In any case, I never seriously considered it.
I’ve always found the public’s emphasis on the Shakers’ celibacy rather than their communitarianism a bit odd. If anything, at least during the 19th century it seems like they may have been less sex-obsessed than typical Americans. Obviously there was some selection effect in who chose to join, and I’m sure there was some rule-breaking. A few years ago, the numbers fell from four to three when one convert left after 26 years to marry a reporter who’d come to interview members of the colony.
The event at the Sabbathday Lake village this week, part of a Maine statewide “open farm day,” was essentially similar to any other day aimed at historical farm enthusiasts. There were people doing woodcarving, blacksmithing, and rug-hooking. There were tours of the barn, its huge dimness full of politely listening people. It felt strange to see the last vestiges of Ann Lee’s radical vision come down to antiquarianism.
It being Sunday, as far as I could tell, the two Shakers (Brother Arnold Hadd, age 58 and Sister June Carpenter, 77) were nowhere to be seen. I assume they were observing their day of rest inside their dwelling house.
I wonder what life is like for these two people, living in a colony that once housed 150. Shaker buildings were designed with symmetric doors and staircases so men and women wouldn’t touch each other, but also wouldn’t take precedence over the other — they could enter a room simultaneously instead of one group waiting for the other. I wonder if Arnold and June still walk each through their own doorway, if they still sit at separate women’s and men’s tables in the dining hall. They’re not married, but must share a kind of intimacy like that of any two people who expect to spend the rest of their lives together.
I hope they like each other.
Especially touching was the Boys’ Shop, where children’s dormitories and schoolbooks are preserved. Thousands of children were raised by the Shakers, either because their parents had joined the sect or, more commonly, because their parents couldn’t afford to raise them. In the time before welfare and the foster system, if times got too hard you knew your child would be fed and educated with the Shakers. They’d live there until age 21, when they would either depart (with skills in woodworking, herbalism, orchardry, and the other Shaker industries) or sign the covenant and become a full member of the community.
In one room, a recording played narrating the childhood of Sister Mildred Barker, who was the spiritual and executive leader of the colony from 1950 to her death in 1990. When her newly widowed mother left her with the Shakers at age 5, Mildred contemplated running away home but was won over by the community and particularly an elderly sister she was assigned to help. By the time her mother returned eight years later, Mildred refused to go with her.
After Mildred reached adulthood and signed the Shaker covenant, she became a collector of the Shaker traditional songs. In the boys’ dormitory, one was going through my mind:
Little children, says Holy Mother
Soothe and comfort one another.
I left the colony with a few of the chamomile flowers from their herb garden in my pocket, and drove back home to Jeff, and to this one and her sister.
We made chamomile tea, admiring the yellow-green color the flowers left in the water. Jeff and I put the kids to bed. My heart ached for Ann Lee and her four dead children, and for all the children who had slept in Shaker dormitories missing their families, and for Mildred Barker’s mother losing her daughter not once but twice. I was grateful for antibiotics, and for welfare, that now prevent families from being broken apart quite so often.
And also warmed that these thousands of people over 271 years found a way to fight scarcity and injustice. They looked at a deeply unfair and imperfect world and shaped their reality to be more like the heaven they envisioned.