Becoming Like Unto Angels

The Shaker faith dwindles in membership, but can it survive?

By Cat McCarrey

The Shaker’s yearly Christmas Fair did no go well.

“We had bad weather for that too, so it really kept people away in great numbers. We had snow, sleet and freezing rain,” says Brother Arnold Hadd when I ask about the event over the phone. He follows this statement with a pragmatic, “but every now and again it happens to you.” It’s positively beatific. The very essence of zen.

Arnold Hadd is the unofficial spokesperson for the Shakers, the token member who interacts with the outside world. He’s is the one who carries on communication with inquiring outsiders, the one who leads around their farm’s trustees, the one who confers with the almighty government about land taxes.

He’s also the youngest, a spry 56 compared to the other two Shaker Sisters — Frances Carr, 86; and June Carpenter, 75. These three people are the last members of the Shaker community, remnants of a religion that once spread across the Northeast and Midwest, before shrinking down to one small commune in southern Maine.

“It’s not been an easy life, and it’s been a lot of ups and downs and a lot of vicissitudes of life,” Brother Arnold, as Hadd prefers to be called, tells me. “But feeling it’s still the right place to be and where I feel called to be and where I am the most happiest being, most of the time, then this is where I’m called to live this life.”

Brother Arnold joined the Shakers in 1978, when he was 21 years old. He’d known about Shakers, and had been communicating with the Sabbathday community since he was 16. “It’s a calling. Absolutely it is a calling. There’s no other way you can live this life unless you feel called of God to do it,” he says.

Being a Shaker can be taxing. Difficult to understand. It’s more than just a religion, it’s a lifestyle that requires total commitment. Shaker’s live communally, giving up other aspects of life to gather together on the farm. They have to regularly take stock of their lives and confess to God in personal prayer. And, most difficult for the outside world to understand, they live an absolutely celibate life.

Which is fine, to those who are called, like Brother Arnold. To them, life is not about the typical markers of success—money, adventure, absolute freedom. It’s about living harmoniously. “Shakers are here to find their union with God. And to do it in a situation that is not alone, but rather in community,” says Brother Arnold. “You’re there to build each other up, to make, as [former Shaker leader] Brother Ted would say, life as little hellish for each other as possible.”

Two weeks before talking with Brother Arnold I tackled the drive to New Gloucester, Maine. A few miles north of uber-hip Portland, New Gloucester seemed a desolate land, leading through swaths of tempered land between copses of trees. There are farms. Woods. The occasional lake. And that’s about it.

To get to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, one wends through the small town of Gray, full of firmly-rooted double-wides and ancient white clapboard houses. Gray sits perfectly in the Maine landscape, with webs of offshooting fields, each with a lonely white house, often with a rusty swing set in the backyard. The empty swings resonate isolation, while echoing the idealization of the American dream.

Sabbathday Lake Village rests near the heavily-populated Route 28 — and by “heavily populated,” I mean a road with a Subway sandwich shop in a strip mall and the service station/restaurant Buddy’s Store, which has the unfortunate slogan “Eat Here & Get Gas!” immortalized on the signpost.

The short, appropriately-named Shaker Road turns away from the highway, a brief path leading to the houses and gardens of the Shaker village. Stretching over a couple miles, the Shaker’s preserved buildings house a library, a museum, and the three remaining practitioners of the Shaker faith.

The Shaker Library at Sabbathday Lake.

My GPS loses me on those country streets, guides me into Sabbathday through tree-lined back roads to an almost pristine setting with historical buildings, a visual reminder of sturdy New England culture.

I park by the library, the first official Shaker building on the road, and my directed entry point into the Sabbathday community. Since the community is an active home for practicing Shakers, I’m discouraged from wandering about. I’m just in time to follow a gaggle of sharp-dressed men in suits up the wooden stairs and through the plain screen door. By the time I get through the sparse entrance hallway (nothing but wooden pegs on the walls and a bolded sign asking me to not use tobacco), they are gone. Disappeared through the one-room library through a brown metal door opposite the entrance.

The vanishing act doesn’t affect me. I’m quickly detained by librarian Chuck Rand. He shows me around the library: the two tables with simply made chairs rimming the edges, his desk with a cart full of books near the computer, the two ancient card catalogue boxes. Rand is slowly digitizing the contents of the catalogues, copying the card information into the computer and saving this work for the future.

Rand gestures to the back corner. “Over there we have Will.” A quiet young man glued to a screen, Will’s desk holds a microfiche machine, a computer with the dull white chassis of the nineties, and a scanner. He scans in photos and paraphernalia from Shakers past, part of the slow process of digitally preserving a fast-fading history.

The Shaker movement began in England in 1747. James Wardley and his wife Jane broke from the Quakers that year. Quakers had started discouraged physicality in meetings, shying away from trembling, dancing, any bodily movements showing the Holy Spirit’s presence. James and Jane wanted that physicality, saw purity in it. The “Shaking Quakers,” as the Wardley’s and their followers were called, embraced the more traditional yet radical segments of the Quaker faith. They danced during worship. Their bodies moved with emotion. “Many were so powerfully wrought upon, that they could not refrain from crying out and confessing their sins on the spot,” wrote one observer in Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrine of Our Ever Blessed Ann Lee, an account of Shaker origins published in 1816.

“A present from Mother Lucy to Eliza Ann Taylor,” by Polly Ann Reed. A “gift” drawing, art completed under divine influence.

Ann Lee proved the turning point for the Shaking Quakers, and the impetus for their complete formation into the Shakers — one, individualized gospel, separate and unique from all others.

Lee, an illiterate Englishwoman who was reportedly always sober and spiritual, joined the Wardleys in 1758. Afterwards, she claims to have experienced an extended period of spiritual torment, similar to the trials of Jesus Christ in the wilderness spoken of in the Bible. Lee may also have spent time during this period in the “lunatick ward” at the Manchester Infirmary.

Regardless of what happened, she was transformed, and the rest of the Shakers along with her. She emerged as the leader of the Shakers in 1770, establishing herself as the second coming of Christ. Testimonies notes that Lee was not the reanimated Jesus. Just the feminine embodiment of Christ.

In a religion with a heavy emphasis on gender equality, it made sense that there would be a male generation of Christ, and a female regeneration of Christ. There was the Father, Jesus Christ. And there was the Mother, Ann Lee.

Mother Ann Lee’s vision revealing her role as Christ also tracked the origin of human sin to the Garden of Eden. Not to Eve’s temptation by Satan and the fall of womankind, but the consummation of the relationship between Adam and Eve. That sexual relationship was what kept humanity from God. So any sex while in this mortal coil? Just reinforcing that chasm between man and heavenly perfection.

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Regardless of any barriers to entry, Shakerism grew over the next century, experiencing a boom in the early 1800s with the Second Great Awakening. But the fervor died down mere decades later in the 1900s, when enlightened scientific thought came into vogue. With each new invention attention turned from God to technology, and though Shakers remained in existence, it was barely. The lack of children to raise in the tradition certainly didn’t help the diminishing church.

The communities closed. By the 1970s, only two remained — Sabbathday Lake and Canterbury, a farm in New Hampshire. Canterbury still exists as a living history museum, but without the people who created it. The last Shakers are all at Sabbathday.

Video created by Olof Ekburgh for the Friends of the Shakers. The Friends visit the Shaker community once a year to help with chores, and also provide donations for the maintenance of Sabbathday.

When the group of sharp-dressed men emerges from behind the metal door, Brother Arnold leads them. He had shown them the metal stacks of historical material, and now circles them around the library. “Will, can we see what you’re working on?” he asks as the men gather around the technology station.

He moves on to Rand as the trustees of the Shaker lands examine the preservation techniques. “Sorry for the intrusion,” Brother Arnold whispers to the librarian, seemingly deigning to this man and his space. To the side, the trustees check the project. Approving noises are made, soft ‘ah’s’ and nods as history turns into pixels.

People have tried to join the Shakers. Novices join the community for a year-long trial period, testing if they can endure the lifestyle. So far, none have. Brother Arnold betrays no concern. “It’s the life. It’s not this nice idealism, it’s the nitty gritty of living life. And it really does take your all. And if you’re not willing to give your all, you’re not going to get it,” he says.

Sabbathday hasn’t had novices in years. Three years ago, two novices joined the community and stayed for almost a year, but both eventually left. One of those might be behind the blog “Breaking Shaker.” The blog describes Brother Arnold and Sister Frances as hateful and angry. The author writes that no one can join the community without the approval of those two, and that approval is impossible.

“Well, you know it’s just humanness. You always hope that people understand that and find that answer for themselves rather than you having to tell them,” says Brother Arnold when I ask about novices struggling, exhibiting his preternatural calm yet again. “In many cases what I have noticed over the years is, they aren’t angels but they expect us to be angels. And when they find out we’re not actually angels, they get very despondent and lose faith.”

Brother Arnold tells me that the communal lifestyle is the most difficult adjustment for novices. And yet, that aspect is the most vital to the Shaker belief. “Shakers are here to find their union with God. And to do it in a situation that is not alone, but rather in community,” he says. But when the community is dwindling, it’s easy to get discouraged.

“We’ve always historically been a small church,” says Brother Arnold. He’s genuinely unworried about the survival of the Shakers. Brother Arnold has “always felt rather strong hope for the church and for it’s continuance.” He views the lifestyle as difficult, but something that geniunely calls to some. And those called will reemerge in time.

Meanwhile, there’s the museum. The library. Structures built in the late 1700s and preserved for this day. The dwelling houses, the farms, the wells. They have all crumbled, yet been restored. There are events like the Christmas Fair, where the outside world will buy goods from the farm and sturdy Shaker-made furniture that lasts for generations. And the community, Brother Arnold, Sister Frances, and Sister June, will carry on those traditions for as long as they can.