Long ago, a small radical Christian sect left England in search of religious tolerance. They were people who abandoned their families and social lives to live together in a communal, equal setting marked by simplicity and celibacy. Officially known as the United Society of Believers, they called themselves Shakers—but now, reports David Sharp for the Associated Press, the death of one in their ranks means there are only two Shakers left in the world.
When Sister Frances Carr died at age 89 earlier this week, she reduced the number of Shakers in the last active community of its kind to two. The Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine, has been in operation since 1783, when it was founded by a group of Shaker missionaries. The United Society of Believers sect had already existed since 1747. It was created by a group of English Quakers and exiled Camisard Protestants who had unsuccessfully fought for their religious freedoms in France before fleeing to England. The sect became known for their ecstatic worship—ceremonies that included trembling, shaking, and what one historian calls “frenzied screeching and whirling.” The name Shaker grew out of the group’s reputation as “Shaking Quakers” known for that physical worship, and Shakers shook up the religious establishment by including things like spiritualism and frenetic dances in their worship.
This violently expressive behavior soon made Shakers unwelcome in England and they migrated to the United States. There, they lived communally, embracing pacifism, equality of the sexes, and anti-slavery views decades before these were anywhere near the cultural mainstream. “The celibate Shaker ‘family’ was not one of blood relations; rather, all referred to themselves as brothers and sisters,” notes the National Park Service.
Inside Shaker communities, simplicity and hard work reigned. Labor and craftsmanship were seen as ways to worship God, and Shakers became known for producing high-quality furniture, food and household goods. Despite their celibacy, they had plenty of help. Shakers often raised orphans until adulthood. In addition, some people came into and left the community on a temporary basis, spawning the term “Winter Shakers” to describe those taken in by Shakers in exchange for their labor during the harsh New England winters.
But in 1961, Sabbathday Lake, the only Shaker colony remaining, stopped accepting new members, Carol Oppenheim reported in the Chicago Tribune. The challenging commitments of celibate, communal life have since caused the number of Shakers to dwindle from several thousand to just two. But though the Shaker tradition is now associated with a bygone era commemorated by old buildings and elegantly spare furniture, the sect is still hanging on.
Now, writes Sharp, 60-year-old Brother Arnold Hadd and 78-year-old Sister June Carpenter are the only Shakers in the community. Both are determined to continue forward, proving that their religious beliefs remain anything but a historic footnote.