The Last Shakers
A visit to a Shaker village farm in Maine -- the last of 21 communities in their 200-year history
In the late sixties, I stayed a weekend at a Bruderhof and then hoped to experience the Shaker version of Heaven on Earth that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Ralph Waldo Emerson had much admired. But I was late by about 100 years, for in 1968 their numbers had dwindled to near extinction.
I was intrigued by descriptions of Shaker Brothers in a hay harvest, rhythmically swinging their long scythes while chanting the Psalms. Their handcrafted furniture, tooled with sacred artistry, and a score of domestic inventions gave testimony to the many ingenious inspirations derived from their sublimated sexuality. Shakers practiced chaste celibacy, strictly separating the sexes during work, dining, and prayer, even using separate doors and stairways. Male and female members were treated equally in all leadership roles, to the highest level.
In the early 1990s, I and a lady friend took an opportunity to visit their Sabbathday Lake village farm in Maine—the last of 21 communities in the 200-year history of the Shakers. They had once been an economic success, numbering over 6,000 Brothers and Sisters just before the Civil War. But now only three remaining Shakers resided there: two older women and a younger man in his thirties.
In the gift shop, I met Brother Arnold, the last male member. He had a high brow, a slim build, and a stooped posture. He stood there waiting on us at the counter. While my lady companion browsed, I chatted with him. After some introductory small talk, I asked, “Can you express what it’s like to be the last male Shaker?”
“I feel saddened. I’m overworked, never able to keep up, doing most of the muscle chores, painting buildings, feeding the sheep, plowing land, giving lectures and cooking for tour groups. My two Sisters are getting along in age, and one is partially blind.”
“What caused the decline of Shaker membership during the last 100 years?” I asked.
“The curious came and listened, toured our communities, then left,” he answered. “Fewer and fewer decided to stay on with us. It’s too tough these days for young people to give up the carnal pleasures of sex and possession, to work a 12-hour day like we do. Certainly, the mass-production from new technology was our undoing, since we couldn’t compete with automated assembly-lines that dwarfed our manual efforts. On top of that, state adoption laws changed, so a married couple, not a parenting village, was required. As Americans drifted away from God, the Shakers declined, reflecting that loss.”
“Membership fell as existing members left for easier living in the cities,” I speculated.
“That too. Farming is our mainstay, and it’s hard work,” he lamented with a shrug.
“So, why prohibit marriage and siring children, which could have increased your numbers?”
“At the age of 21, the children we adopted could elect to leave for the cities, and they usually did. Besides, we Shakers believe that sex is the Forbidden Fruit, so procreation is never allowed. We understand sex to be Adam’s original sin, a disobedient act of impurity that exiled the first couple from paradise. Adam and Eve’s children were their consolation for having lost perpetual youth. They both took to wearing fig leaves as cover for their shame, as in Genesis 3:7.”
“No wonder the world shuns your lifestyle. Bearing offspring is Mother Nature’s way of perpetuating any species. It seems senseless to forbid having children who could be future Shakers.”
“As I implied before, giving up procreative sex would be the ultimate sacrifice for most people. Lifelong celibacy is a crucifixion not easily accepted.”
“But why? What did you hope to gain, spawning no future? Without kids, the Shaker philosophy and way of life would go extinct.”
“There’s more to this than meets the eye. We behold ourselves as living the Resurrection, neither married nor given in marriage, but angels in heaven, as described in Matt 22:30. Nothing on Earth lives forever, no matter how perfect. But the Word of God never dies.”
“You are living the Resurrection now?” I asked, raising my eyebrows in surprise.
“Yes, and we men see women as equals, not just chattel property, forced to produce an heir and a spare. The false religions are patriarchal, but we are not. Our women do what is proper for the weaker sex, like weaving or teaching. Our men do all the muscular work, sharing all things.”
“And what about the Trinity doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” I asked.
“Catholics and most Protestant denominations believe God is exclusively male. Shakers teach a dualistic image of God, composed of two equal genders, as in Genesis 1:27. ”
“Ah… excuse me. Your lady friend wants to purchase a wall rack…. Here comes Sister Francis, she can answer any further questions you might have.”
A plain woman in her mid-sixties, wearing a typical Shaker smock, entered the gift shop, heading for an inner office door.
“Isn’t it pretty?” my friend asked, holding it up for us to admire: five pegs in polished wood with embedded ceramic rectangles picturing two fruit trees astride a beehive.
Sister Francis had almost passed us but stopped to smile and nod in agreement with us.
After the sale, we sat in her office awhile, listening to her portray her Shaker experiences of Heaven on Earth. She described how it was to live with possessions held in common and loving kindness, as the first Christians. We bid goodbye on a note of sadness, lamenting the last of a dying breed.
While recently gardening in my backyard, I reminisced about our visit there. A broccoli plant had bolted and bore mature seeds. Inch-long pods had turned slightly brown, indicating they were ready for collection. I carefully rolled them between my fingers until the shell halves separated, releasing tiny brown seeds for the next planting.
Because of the single-minded focus required to gather them, I noticed a serenity gradually came upon me. I can imagine the Shakers must have felt that sense of peace when collecting and bagging their plentiful seed crops. Heirloom crops helped to manifest their version of heavenly paradise. Few people today would have the time to appreciate Mother Nature as the Shakers did by tending their gardens.
Later I gathered some overgrown rosemary to dry and powder for seasoning. I had too much for myself, so I offered a few branches to my neighbor. She glanced at me as if I had materialized from some archaic past, when country folk grew their own crops. Her expression seemed to ask, Why grow what anyone can buy in a grocery store for a couple of bucks—no mess, no fuss, ready to use. She shook her head. When she turned to go, I could feel the sorrow Br. Arnold must have had at being the last of a dying breed.
No problem, I thought. I’ll let the sun dry it. And even if I hear the world must end tomorrow, I’ll keep hoeing my garden.
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