Jan 24, 2017

The dying out of the sect's last members may not mean the end for the Shakers

Shakers Frances Carr,
The Economist
Jan 14th 2017

“I’M GLAD I am a Shaker”, sang some 300 people in the chapel of the dwelling house of the last active Shaker settlement in the world. They clapped and stamped their feet on the wooden floors during the hymn’s chorus. “O Brethren Ain’t Ye Happy?” is an old Shaker song and one of the few “motion songs” still in the Shakers’ repertoire. But only two people in the packed chapel were actual Shakers. The rest had come to the Sabbathday Lake, a Shaker village about 25 miles from Portland, Maine, to say goodbye to Sister Frances Carr (pictured), the last lifelong Shaker, who died on January 2nd. But since the two remaining Shakers, Brother Arnold Hadd and Sister June Carpenter, are aged 60 and 78 respectively, some wondered aloud whether this was a prelude to a funeral for the entire sect.

At their height in the mid-19th century, Shakers numbered about 6,000, with 19 settlements, mainly in New England, New York and Kentucky. An offshoot of Quakers, the Shakers began in England in the 1740s. Seeking religious freedom, they left for the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. Their rise coincided with a religious fervour sweeping the frontier. Decades before emancipation and 150 years before women had the vote, Shakers practised social, gender and racial equality for all members.

Shakers believe in the three “C’s”, celibacy, communal living and confession. They do not marry, so must rely on conversion to fill their ranks. Men and women live as brothers and sisters. Recruits must give up their families, property and worldly ties. Stephen Stein, author of “The Shaker Experience in America” compares them to a monastic group. In many ways theirs is an American creed. Shakers value hard work, seeing labour as a form of prayer. They strive for perfection, which earned them a reputation for well-made simple furniture. Shakers dress plainly and might be mistaken for Amish, but they do not shun society. Since the sect’s earliest days, members sold goods to outsiders and shared oxen and other equipment. They also like technology: the Sabbathday Lake Shakers are on Facebook.

In Sabbathday Lake as in other former Shaker villages, Friends of the Shakers raise money to preserve archives and buildings. Many Friends attend Sunday services, but few opt to join the faith. Presumably they will want to continue worshipping even after the last Shaker is gone. In the meantime, the Shakers continue to look for recruits. Over the past 40 years, a few dozen have joined, but only a handful stayed. A decade ago there was a fourth Shaker at Sabbathday Lake, but he left when he fell in love with a visiting journalist. More recently, a young man joined, but left after a year. The Shakers pray for new movers.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Not too shaken”


No comments: