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The Last Shakers

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Did you know there were still Shakers? There were 3. Now there are 2.

Sister Frances was a member of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine who spent her life teaching and writing about her experiences as a member of the ever-dwindling, idiosyncratic Protestant denomination. Brother Arnold Hadd, one of those who survive her, reported that Sister Frances died “surrounded in love, tears and Shaker songs.”

A Shaker since the age of 10, Sister Frances converted to the faith with her mother after her father’s death. As the sect practices complete celibacy, no Shaker is born into the faith. With her death, a small, but significant, part of America’s religious ancestry moves closer to its extinction. To paraphrase John Donne, as the death of any person diminishes the individual, so of course does the death of Sister Frances diminishes our world a bit—and so much more so because she was a refugee of a counter-cultural tradition that held a bit of utopian promise against the machinery of state and industry.

Often confused with the far larger denomination of the Quakers (though itself a relatively small sect), the Shakers came from the same milieu of dissenting, radical religious traditions that emerged in 17th and 18th-century Britain. Ann Lee, the religion’s founder, was the daughter of a Manchester, England blacksmith. In 1774 she set out to the wilds of America with the promise of establishing a godly community in the New World. Mother Ann’s experiment became an important chapter in American utopianism, which included groups as varied as the Oneida Community, the Fourierists, the pilgrims at Ephrata and the social experiments of the 1960s. For Mother Ann, the New World was an opportunity to make the world new. As Mother Ann would reflect on her new home in upstate New York, “I saw a large tree, every leaf of which shone with such brightness as made it appear like a burning torch, representing the Church of Christ, which will yet be established in this land.”

To be fair, it’s fairly impressive that a religion with a central tenet that the sexes should not touch either could survive for more than 200 years.

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  • Ahenobarbus

    Movers > Shakers

  • Jordan

    Didn’t the Shakers, at the end, basically just adopt children and indoctrinate them into this? Thats ehhhh.

    • Randy

      They ran orphanages for many years, but from what I’ve heard, there was no pressure for the children to become Shakers.

      • Jordan

        I could easily be completely wrong about this, but I thought at the end it was more on the adopt-and-pressure end.

    • I attended the Darrow School in New Lebanon New York, which occupies the campus of what was the first Shaker community, so I learned all about them. Yes, they had an orphanage. When people reached adulthood, they could choose to stay, or go forth with a mule and a sack of flower. People also joined the community because there wasn’t any welfare system at the time and the material conditions were pretty good. Over time, fewer orphans and fewer converts as the world changed . . . .

      I can tell you a good deal more about them but that answers that question.

      • Abbey Bartlet

        People also joined the community because there wasn’t any welfare system at the time

        Ah, so they may be making a comeback.

        • Woodrowfan

          Some would join for the winter so they had a warm place to live and food. Then leave in the spring. From what I read the shakers welcomed them too

      • rm

        The material conditions were really good. Their buildings were ingeniously designed for climate control (although I have to think they were firetraps, because they had central stairwells that pulled air through the building to a vent at the top). They kept up with innovations in farming. They lived in dorms — so you give up sex but you have so much less housework and cooking to do. Their inventiveness meant their rooms were comfortable, although extremely spare.

        Visit Shakertown in Kentucky sometime.

        I grew up in Shaker Heights, OH, where we learned some of their history in school and, strangely enough, the news would periodically tell us how many Shakers were left in Maine. I remember in the ’70s being told that it was down to two or three. Maybe I was misinformed then, or maybe a few people joined the group? Also, are these remaining folks the same people I heard about 40 years ago? I’m thinking there was still a bit of recruiting.

        They could rise again!

        Also, the quoted article doesn’t do justice to how weird some of their beliefs were. Ecstatic religious dancing does sound cool, though.

        • rm

          Apparently I’m wrong about the comfort. But — warm, clean, communal life looks pretty good if you are a starving displaced farmer. And they invented good tools. There is nothing like having really really good tools.

        • Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoehenheim den Sidste

          Hancock Shaker Village, about five miles up the highway, had a cutting edge (1890s) hydraulic network for powering their manufacturing operations – chairs and boxes and such.

          Their hydroturbine remains an impressive display of compact power generation and distribution, of the sort that I as an aging engineer would love to see come back into use: reliable and very low carbon footprint, just like canals.

  • Crusty

    Their legacy will live on in kitchen cabinets.

    • rm

      Brooms. They invented flat brooms. Imagine if we still used round bundles of straw.

  • rea

    Good chairs.
    A fine song.

    • LeeEsq

      Immortalized by a Jewish composer. ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ”tis a gift to be free..,

      • rm

        Almost ruined by Jesus hippies in the sixties. Dance, dance, wherever you may be . . .

        When I hear that I grit my teeth to restrain myself from correcting the singers. IT’S SIMPLE GIFTS YOU ASSHOLES.

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    I have been to the Shaker Museum in Auburn, KY. Quite interesting how they viewed not only pleasure a snare, but basic human comfort. Their furniture was intended to be uncomfortable, so they would not be tempted to leisure.

    • Origami Isopod

      Not my thing at all, but at least they had no interest in forcing this POV on anyone.

      I also recommend the Enfield Shaker Museum in New Hampshire, not very far at all from Dartmouth College or Lake Sunapee.

      • Jeff R.

        Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield, MA, is good, too. That’s where the round barn is. The town where I live had a Shaker community which closed around a hundred years ago. Many of the buildings became private residences and are still standing. If you’re interested in a very large house, the old residence is still standing. Only about a quarter of it was winterized so it was listed as a five bedroom.

        • easilyconfused

          Harvard, Massachusetts had a Shaker community that is also private homes now. But one small building was moved to Fruitlands Museum. (See Erik’s earlier post on Louisa May and Bronson Alcott.) Fruitlands is well worth visiting, it’s in a beautiful location.

          • Jeff R.

            That’s what I’m talking about. They had a joint open house a few years ago. I got to see inside most of them. They’re all modernized but most people keep some of the architectural features preserved. Except for the house with two front doors, one for the brothers and one for the sisters. They closed up one of them.

      • rm

        Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (better known as “Shakertown”) between Harrodsburg and Danville, Kentucky (south of Lexington) is super excellent. Lots of wonderfully restored buildings, good informative people doing crafts.

  • randy khan

    I only knew there were still Shakers because I have a friend who’s a religion professor, and who calls Sabbathday Lake once a year to see how many are left. The most recent call was just after Sister Frances died.

    • Abbey Bartlet

      who calls Sabbathday Lake once a year to see how many are left

      Boy that’s gotta be an awkward call. “Hey, how’s it going?” “Good, good, what’s up with you?” “Just calling to see if any of you have croaked in the last year.”

      • randy khan

        Yeah. Although she’s the kind of person who could make that call as comfortable as that kind of call could be.

        • JR in WV

          Mrs J visited the Maine Shaker village all day one day while I went rock collecting at a gem stone quarry. She tells me that Brother Arnold is from WV, and is quite a bit younger than the other Shaker, singular now.

          She thought there was a good chance he converted in order to be the last living Shaker and inherit control of the large farm and village there in Maine. A long term plan, this was 15 years ago. Brother Arnold was in his 30s then. So 45 or so now, young for a Shaker, they eat simple food and get lots of exercise.

          Yes, Mrs J is a cynical person who spent her career covering crooked politicians, prison riots (often caused by crooked politicians or bureaucrats, industrial disasters (usually caused by crooked businessmen, aka Don Blankenship) etc. A governor later convicted of multiple federal bribery crimes once called a press conference to call Mrs J a liar, she was delighted.

          • easilyconfused

            Relatives of mine have visited many times, and say Brother Arnold is a nice guy. But yes, concerns over things like that is why the Canterbury New Hampshire Shaker community decided not to try to keep going.

            Off subject, but …. A director at Fruitlands Museum embezzled 1.3 million dollars about 10 years ago and almost put them under. They have pretty much recovered now. She got 3 to 5 years and was ordered to pay back the money. I did some math on the minimum monthly court ordered payments: she has one thousand, six hundred years to pay it all back.

  • Origami Isopod

    To be fair, it’s fairly impressive that a religion with a central tenet that the sexes should not touch either could survive for more than 200 years.

    Not quite as impressive but the Skoptsy existed for at least 150 years.

    • Welp, I learned something today. Yeesh.

      • William Berry

        Yeah, really.

        And that raskolnik means “schismatic” in Russian is an interesting gloss on the choice of name for D’s character, Raskolnikov, in C&P.

        • ΧΤΠΔ

          Speaking of, Trump is Arkady Svidrigaïlov without the charm, or any redeeming features whatsoever.

      • Origami Isopod

        Happy to oblige!

    • Nepos

      Not as impressive? At least the Shakers could change their minds about the no-sex thing. The Skoptsi, not so much…

      Of course, the Skoptsi were actually a cult of the Black Goat with a Thousand Young, so they were all insane to begin with.

    • Okay, I got two paragraphs into that article, and that was one too many.

    • but the Skoptsy existed for at least 150 years.

      Oh, longer than that! Gully Foyle interviewed one of them in the 25th century.

  • Bitter Scribe

    Well, at least they lasted longer than the House of David, another no-sex cult. (Except for the dozen or so young women who accused the founder of pressuring them into sex. Funny how that works.)

    • If you’re going to join a cult, join a cult started by a woman. You might not be allowed to have sex or have proper medical care, but you’re slightly less likely to have that late-night conversation where the Illuminated Prophet explains how the secret revelation of Celestial Marriage means that a convenient pathway to salvation can be found in the Prophet’s pants.

      • PohranicniStraze

        Well, unless the cult was started by Ayn Rand.

  • FFFFFFIIII

    Indeed I did. I even knew there were three.

  • drpuck

    In Cleveland we’re fortunate that the historical story about the North union Shakers is in good hands, under the support of The Shaker Historical Society.

    The small museum also includes a research library. The director Ware Petznik gave me the tour last autumn, and answered any question I could come up with.

    http://www.shakerhistoricalsociety.org/

  • Davis X. Machina

    Neighbors of mine. There were half-a-dozen or so when we moved up here, whom we saw from time to time at the Ace Hardware, or wherever.

    They had a good reputation for being a haven for the troubled, esp. people w/substance abuse issues, even if they didn’t join up.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    “which included groups as varied as the Oneida Community, the Fourierists…”

    And their age-old enemies, the Laplacians?

    • Joe

      Dalembertian scum!

  • DrDick

    I am shocked to hear this, as I had always heard that they went extinct in the mid-19th century. That they survived the 1960s and 1970s is nothing short of miraculous.

  • yenwoda

    Shakers, huh? Will take this as opportunity to plug A Maggot by John Fowles.

  • jlredford

    Apparently they have substantial assets accumulated over the last 200 years. The docent at the Pittsfield village mentioned $60M, but that was some time ago. That was one reason to close off membership – they were worried about golddiggers.

    • Platypus Prime

      Well, damn.

      *gets a refund on the one-way ticket to Maine*

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