Living a Tradition

At a handful of sites scattered across New England, Shaker communities transport the past into the present

Shaker House (Richard Robinson)
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We must, according to tradition, use separate doors: women enter on the right, men on the left. We must take no notes. Also, no laptop computer. No tape recorder. Brother Arnold Hadd explains: this is Sunday morning meeting—no worldly work. But are we welcome? "Yea," says Brother Arnold, employing his antiquated form of address. He is in his 40s, slight, intense, dark-bearded. "All are welcome."

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We watch the four brothers—black trousers, white shirts, black vests—file inside. A few visiting men follow them in, the "world's people." Four sisters go through the scrupulously matching door on the right, wearing dark gowns, bodices modestly wrapped in hooded cloaks. Visiting women follow them into the white-clapboard meetinghouse, unchanged since 1794, except that now SUVs and tractor-trailers roar by on Maine Route 26.

We count 18 buildings here at Sabbathday Lake. But at its zenith, in the 1800s, this community of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing—the Shakers—stretched a mile along this road. Once, a score of Shaker communities, prosperous and neat, the envy of their neighbors, dotted the farmlands from Maine down through New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, westward to Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, and south as far as White Oak, Georgia, and Narcoosee, Florida. Now many are torn down or taken over by the world's people for schools or jails or Shaker museums. Only here at Sabbathday Lake, in New Gloucester, Maine, do the world's last eight Shakers keep the old ways.

But we—who came here knowing nothing about Shakers except that they made stunning furniture—are surprised at what we are learning about those old ways. In their heyday, we have discovered, Shakers were business go-getters and technologists. They invented prolifically, and they were aficionados of all that was new and useful, from snapshot cameras to linoleum. Celibates, communists, they lived apart from ordinary society. Yet, in other ways, they were quintessentially American.

"That they may see your good works"

Inside the meetinghouse, we sit on plain Shaker benches, men facing women. There is no altar. No minister. No statues. No stained-glass windows. There is a single bowl of perfect sunflowers. Walls are white, woodwork blue, the colors of light and sky, signifying heaven. It is the original blue paint, made from sage blossoms, indigo and blueberry skins, mixed in milk. Sister Frances Carr reads commandingly from the Bible selection for the day, Matthew 5:16: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works."

She herself is a Shaker good work, for she was raised a "Shaker girl." But she was not born a Shaker. Nobody was.

Shaker founder Ann Lee, a blacksmith's daughter born in 1736, in Manchester, England, an illiterate velvet cutter, said her followers must be celibate. Historians speculate it was because her parents—alarmed when she joined the "Shaking Quakers," an ecstatic fringe sect—arranged her 1762 marriage to a blacksmith. Each of Ann's four children died in infancy. Historian Edward Deming Andrews noted in his 1953 account, The People Called Shakers, that she saw those deaths as a judgment upon her for "concupiscence." Andrews quotes her saying she began to avoid her bed "as if it had been made of embers." She shunned sleep, eating and drinking only what was "mean and poor," that her soul "might hunger for nothing but God."

Celibate, the Shakers were childless. But they took in orphans. "In the 19th century, when there was no Aid to Families with Dependent Children or Social Security, it was impossible for most single parents to raise a family, and—if no relatives were available—they often would look to the Shakers," Sister Frances Carr had told us. She herself came to the Shakers 63 years ago, when she was 10 years old, along with her younger sister, preceded by several older siblings. Sabbathday Lake took in orphans until the 1960s, when the Shakers finally were too few to care for children.

"Nobody expected I'd ever become a Shaker"


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