SISTER MILDRED BARKER, 92, of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, tells the story with an exasperation born of suffering too many fools.The man, she recalls, whisked through the small museum at the Shaker village, admiring the spare, elegant furniture. “Too bad no Shakers are left,” he clucked. “I’m left,” she snapped.
She is tiny, gray, fierce, with dark, piercing eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. She endures, with fewer than a dozen others in Maine and New Hampshire, as steward of a religious society founded some two centuries ago. In 1845 Shaker membership totaled nearly 4,000 in 18 communities from Maine to Kentucky.
The final amen has yet to be murmured; those left remind us that they are not dead yet. But nostalgia intrudes. We see them as if looking through a stereopticon from an attic trunk.
The reality is granite tough. Shakerism is religion, demanding, uncompromising. As a tenet of faith, Shakers are celibate; their life, communal. Who would accept such sacrifice? Those who had heard the trumpets of salvation. “I found perfect heaven,” wrote one convert.
In a glorious, if impossible, quest the Shakers committed themselves to perfection. Like other utopians, they wanted to create heaven on earth. But the dream dangled just beyond reach, a reminder that, like all mankind, they were only human.
“In the spring of 1780, I heard of a strange people living above Albany, who said they served God day and night and did not commit sin. . . .” So a contemporary named Thankful Barce wrote of her first encounter with the people known as Shakers, so-called because they trembled from head to foot in religious transports. Their leader was Mother Ann Lee.
“Her countenance appeared bright and shining, like an angel of glory,” Thankful Barce wrote. “As I sat by the side of her, one of her hands, while in motion, frequently touched my arm; and at every touch . . . I instantly felt the power of God. . . .”
A blacksmith’s daughter born in Manchester, England, in 1736, one of eight children, Ann Lee could neither read nor write. She married a blacksmith, bore and lost four children. Tormented, she swung from despair to visions of glory. Joining a sect of religious reformers known as the Shaking Quakers, later to be known as Shakers, she became their leader.
In her 30s she had a vision of Adam and Eve in intercourse. To her this was the original sin. To be saved, humans must be celibate, recapture innocence, and emulate Christ’s humble life. Only then could each soul experience its own Second Coming.
Widely persecuted, she and eight believers set sail in 1774 for America and settled at Niskayuna, which they also called Watervliet, eight miles northwest of Albany, New York.
Mother Ann believed she represented the second appearance of the Christ spirit; the sect’s formal title is the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Holy Mother Wisdom was the female nature of God. The idea of a deity with dual aspects, male and female, placed women on equal footing with men.
With her flock she combed the spiritual pastures of New England, harvesting converts. But she died in 1784, without ever seeing a Shaker village established. In the following decades Shakers made the step from scattered converts to settled communities. By 1800, 11 communities had formed. Soon after, the Shakers pushed west, founding two communities in Kentucky, four in Ohio, and one in Indiana. The gospel was spreading.
A plain marble stone marks Mother Ann’s grave. The Watervliet Shaker Cemetery abuts a baseball stadium, built several years ago over protests from surviving Shakers. Now the crack of ball against bat punctuates summer nights.
“I don’t suppose the ball field does anyone any harm,” Martha Hulings sighed, looking at the ranks of headstones. Martha, now a teacher in Kingsport, Tennessee, spent her childhood with the Watervliet Shakers. “I felt more secure here than anywhere else,” she said. “It’s probably the only love I’ve known.”
She is 74. Nearly 69 years have passed since the couple who had adopted her, but couldn’t cope, left her with the Shakers. We
THE OVAL BOX with its delicate swallowtail joints has become practically emblematic of Shaker design. These belong to Pleasant Hill. The carefully aligned tacks are made of copper, not iron that might rust and mar the wood. Also the work of Shaker hands and heart, a song in the spirit of faith sold for $450 at auction. So too a fine Shaker chair, with its slim, spare lines, may be worth tens of thousands of dollars—to the dismay of living Shakers, who resent the focus on the material at the expense of the spiritual. “People don’t see the chair as a consecration,” said Sister Mildred.
Thomas Merton, priest and writer, was one who did. “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.”crossed the road to the South Family property where she grew up.
Suddenly she was a child. “That was my room on the third floor,” she pointed. “I remember staring out that window when I was sent to bed early. “When the Watervliet Shaker community closed in 1938, the South Family property was sold and the clapboard dwelling house cut up into apartments by the new owner.
The woman who lives in Martha’s old room invited us in. “Ever see any Shaker ghosts?” I asked. “They say a white spirit lives here,” she replied. Martha paled. “Oh, my goodness, that must be Pauline.” The grapevine that hugged the side of the trustees’ house was uprooted years ago, but she remembers.
“I picked a bunch of grapes for Pauline, the woman who cared for me,” she said. “I ran to lay them in her lap. ” ‘Don’t you know these are not ours?’ Pauline frowned. `They’re the family’s. To take them is to steal.’
” ‘I didn’t mean to steal. I just wanted to bring them to you.’ ” ‘That may be, but now you must sit on your chair and eat them all. So you won’t forget.’
“I obeyed,” Martha recalled. “Each was harder to swallow than the one before.”
It was a harsh lesson, given by love. Hadn’t Mother Ann said, “The reproof of a friend, is better than the kiss of an enemy”?
CHRIST SAID “Be ye therefore perfect”; the Shakers accepted the challenge of bringing heaven down to earth. In the otherworldly air of a Shaker village, the responsive soul found safe harbor. “I came up on vacation at 16,” said the late Sister Lillian Phelps of Canterbury, New Hampshire. “I felt I was in the company of angels. When it came time to go back to Boston, I said I wasn’t going.”
But the fence around a Shaker village could not exclude human failing. A sister, now in her 90s, wide-eyed behind glasses, wearing pink-flowered slippers three sizes too large, recalls: “Nothing worse than a group of women. Such jealousies! They would tattle on each other to the eldress. They complained about me looking in the mirror. The eldress called me in, sat me down, and said: ‘I don’t know why you spend so much time looking in the mirror. There’s nothing about you to admire.’ ”
The challenge lay in excising imperfection. Community welfare dictated the pruning of individual vanity. If the individual couldn’t, leaders would.
To tend body and soul, the village was divided into several families of as many as 100 members. Each had its own house and shops. Two elders and two eldresses in each family monitored spiritual and behavioral issues. Trustees handled business dealings with the outside world. Ultimate jurisdiction rested with the parent ministry at New Lebanon (later renamed Mount Lebanon) in New York.
Families were named for their geographic relation to the central Church Family, where the meetinghouse stood. There was typically a North, South, East, and West Family. New members entered a gathering order, progressing to the church order, where they signed the covenant. Because the community was celibate, but included men, women, and children, the dwelling house was divided. Men and women entered separate doorways, used separate stairs, sat on opposite sides of the meeting room for direct payday lenders.
IN SPRING’S TENDER GREEN I journeyed to Canterbury, on a ribbon of road that unfurls past New Hampshire’s maple groves and apple orchards. Shaker sisters live here, but it is more a museum now, a still life in white and green: meetinghouse encircled by a picket fence, manicured herb garden, trim white shops and dwellings, clean-swept stone walks. “There is no dirt in heaven,” Mother Ann said.
How beguiling this orderly blueprint of how to live. Many found the life congenial. Said Brother Robert Wilcox in 1849, “I am perfectly content. I have enough to eat and drink . . . good clothes to wear, a warm bed to sleep in, and just as much work as I like and no more.” Small wonder the villages attracted “winter Shakers,” who joined with the first snow and left with spring thaw. That drop-ins were tolerated is a measure of Shaker charity.
It extended beyond village boundaries. In 1846, during the potato famine in Ireland, Shakers of Ohio’s Union Village sent a thousand bushels of corn. Years later, Shakers of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky sent money to victims of the great Chicago fire.
After the 1820s, members came from the ranks of those attracted by Shaker services or from those who landed on Shaker doorsteps: orphans, widows, families fallen on hard times. Thus Shakers attracted believers into the 20th century. A Canterbury sister explained her arrival: “My mother died. My father remarried, and my stepmother didn’t like me.”
After 1845 membership began to decline. To their dismay the Shakers couldn’t ensure that even a small proportion of the children they reared would sign the covenant. “We gather in many children, but when they come to act for themselves, a large portion of them choose the flowery path of nature rather than the cross,” fretted Brother Isaac Youngs in the 1850s. Of the 197 children raised at Mount Lebanon from 1861 to 1900, only one joined, says Priscilla Brewer, a historian of 19th-century Shaker communities.
“THE DAY I SIGNED the covenant was the most beautiful one of my life,” says Eldress Bertha Lindsay of Canterbury, New Hampshire. In the mid-1960s the parent ministry at Canterbury closed the covenant, in effect ruling that no new Shakers could join. Canterbury contends the world has changed; there are no elders left to train potential brothers. “It makes me sad,” says the eldress. “But the decision was made by others.”
Sabbathday Lake demurred and continues to accept new members. ‘Two of the younger Sabbathday Shakers, Brother Arnold Hadd and Brother Wayne Smith (left), embody their community’s commitment to renewal of the faith.
The complex dispute, a clash between strong personalities on each side—and their lawyers—has left a residue of resentment and pain, despite passing decades. “These problems would never have reached this point if people had minded their own business,” a sister bristles. “There’s a lot the outside world doesn’t understand,” says another. In truth, the world has changed. It has become more complex.
Did celibacy cause the decline? No. As Brewer points out, if that were so, the Shakers would have ended after one generation. Some did stumble. From a 19th-century Shaker journal: Backsliding—Hananiah, alias Nahum, Davis Jun. left the Society today—thinks there is not room here for the expansion of the intellect! Suppose we should say lust!
To a Shaker, celibacy is a given. Says Sister Frances Carr of Sabbathday Lake, Maine: “Celibacy frees us to be able to love, and I’m speaking of Gospel love—to love everyone and not be restricted by personal love.”
To place community over self-interest was the more difficult task for many. “It cost something to submit your will to others,” Sister Lillian Phelps said.
The bedrock of community was known as union, the spiritual bonding of brethren and sisters. To preserve it, Shakers did not vote, convinced that politics was divisive. But they did not shun social issues. They spoke out on abolition, child welfare, woman suffrage, compulsory education, labor rights.
Equality was not just a homily; it was part of Shaker life. Membership was open to all. There were blacks like Mother Rebecca Jackson, who led a small group of Shakers in Philadelphia. Jews and American Indians were also welcomed.
Though pacifists, the Shakers, particularly those in Kentucky, could not escape the effects of the Civil War. South Union, Kentucky, suffered severe losses of crops, stock, and buildings. Trade was disrupted there and at Pleasant Hill. The Shakers cared for and fed soldiers on both sides.
Said an officer to a sister: “Madam, I fear you will kill us with good vittles.”
“Better that, than with a bullet.”
The Civil War was a visible sign that the nation was changing. But the stress cracks of economic and geographic expansion had surfaced even earlier. After 1836 no new communities were successfully founded. Those who might have joined the Shakers had other options.
Faced with shrinking membership, communities dwindled, then closed. Tyringham, Massachusetts, in 1875. North Union, Ohio, in 1889. Groveland, New York, in 1892. Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, in 1910. They were blotted up by a world that had bolted past to an industrial, urban age.
Perhaps the ultimate disposition of these shuttered villages says something about the nature of progress. Today two Shaker communities are state prisons, part of another lies under a municipal airport, and yet another is a housing development. Two short-lived communities—White Oak, Georgia, and Narcoossee, Florida—are totally erased.
THE LAST ELDRESS of Canterbury sat in the kitchen of the trustees’ house peeling broccoli with skilled hands. She has been blind for more than five years. “I was the only one of six girls who decided to stay. I watched as they left one by one for the world,” said Bertha Lindsay, then 90. Catching a slight hesitancy in her voice, I say something about the path not chosen.
“Oh, I loved to keep house and would have loved to marry. But I’ve never regretted my choice. I’ve been a happy woman.”
She and 92-year-old Eldress Gertrude Soule, formerly of Sabbathday Lake, are the last members of the parent ministry, which moved from New Lebanon to Hancock to Canterbury. A third sister, Ethel Hudson, also in her 90s, lives across the street, sole occupant of a dwelling that once housed a hundred.
“Eldress Bertha,” I ask, “it is a Shaker tenet to seek perfection. Is there anything less than perfect about you?” “Some would say I’m too independent.”
Eldress Gertrude glances up. A tiny wren in a high-collared lavender dress and Shaker net cap, she pulls herself ramrod straight. “I’ll say!” “We’re not surprised how few Shakers are left,” Bertha says patiently.
“Prophecy said our numbers would diminish. Still, we keep order. The hands drop off, but the work goes on.”