Kevin Williams

A few good Shakers wanted

Last few members hope young African-American novice can revive religion’s communal society

SABBATHDAY LAKE, Maine — Only a half hour outside bustling Portland, Maine, is a slice of bucolic countryside where a communal way of life has endured since this colony’s founding in 1783.

Welcome to the shores of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, home of the last remaining Shaker community in the world. Population: 4.

For outsiders who view them as a sort-of-Amish sect, the Shakers are full of surprises. Brother Arnold Hadd, 57, dressed in khakis and a preppy green sweater, checks his cellphone frequently, responding to the occasional incoming texts. The Shakers are not anti-technology (Sabbathday Lake has a Facebook page). In fact, historically, their inventiveness put them at the forefront of American innovation: Think the washing machine, flat broom and dual-chamber wood-stove.

After studying the Shaker teachings of Mother Ann Lee, Brian Burke, 29, moved to Sabbathday Lake in March.
Kevin Williams

Hadd lives in Sabbathday Lake with Sister Frances Carr, 88, and Sister June Carpenter, 76, and the newest member of the Sabbathday Lake Shakers: Brian Burke, 29, a African-American man who recently joined the Shakers. Burke, who said he's from Texas, moves about the Sabbathday Lake compound with a soldier’s posture tempered with a playfulness. He readily acknowledges that he might not fit the specifications from central casting.

“Most of the historical pictures of Shakers show white people, so I’m not what you’d expect,” Burke said.

Yet Burke just may be the future face of the Shakers.

At its peak in the mid 19th century, there were over 20 Shaker communities across the eastern United States, but Sabbathday Lake, Maine, was considered a backwater, a small Shaker settlement that wouldn’t endure.

Fast-forward to 2015, and Sabbathday Lake is the last one standing.

“With Brother Arnold and some of the others they had young people at a time when most Shaker communities were losing them. Young people didn’t want to spend their life as a nurse caring for aged people,” said Jerry Grant, director of research and collections at the Mount Lebanon New York Shaker Village.

He also attributes Sabbathday Lake’s survival to the characteristics of Mainers in general.

“Mainers are rugged,” Grant said. “When times have gotten tough it was nothing new and they kept doing what they were doing.”

A utopian movement

The Shakers belong to a broad utopian movement (including Quakers, the Amana Colonies and the Harmony Society) that rose out of Protestantism in the 1700s and stressed glorifying God using intense physical movements.

“[Shakerism] traces its roots to German pietism, which sought to recover the emotional dimensions of Christianity that medieval mystics felt and wrote about and the early Protestant Reformers did away with,” said Ramon Luzzaraga, an assistant professor of theology at Benedictine University.

The Shakers are an egalitarian society. While the sexes have always been kept separate, women have as much control over the church’s governance as men. Sister Rebecca Jackson, an African-American in Philadelphia, was a Shaker eldress and leader in the 1700s. Such a leadership role for a black woman was almost unheard of in other churches at the time.

However, according to Grant, while the church’s official view on race was progressive for the time, that didn't extend to all individual Shakers — especially farther south — and some colonies were segregated by race.

The Shakers broke off from the Quakers in 1770 over celibacy and religious expression — Shakers believed in worship that involved vigorous physical movements (earning them the moniker “Shaking Quakers), but Hadd said that mode of worship died out over 100 years ago.

At the height of the Shaker movement during the mid 1800s there were some 6,000 active adults spread out in communities from Maine to Kentucky. While the religion was never considered widespread their enduring cultural contributions to American inventions, cooking and music have given the Shakers an outsize influence.

Referred to simply as “Mother,” Ann Lee is still revered by existing Shakers. The religion focuses on her teachings, which succinctly encompass the three Cs: community, celibacy and confession. With celibacy as a central teaching, the religion could grow only by conversion.

The fact that Sabbathday Lake, unlike other preserved Shaker settlements, is home to actual Shakers makes Michael Graham’s job challenging. As museum director of Sabbathday Lake, Graham is tasked with maintaining public interest in the Shakers while making sure the remaining Shakers live their lives in peace. He also tries to dispel myths about the religion.

“Most outsiders think the Shakers exist on a higher spiritual plain and this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, that is what causes people to be interested in the Shakers. But people arrive here thinking that Shakers are better somehow and they are not,” Graham said.

While avoiding idealizing the Shakers, Graham thinks society could have reached a tipping point where the Shakers’ communal nature may become more appealing.

“Extended families don’t exist like they did. Neither do neighborhoods. People are disconnected. The idea of coming into a community and being part of a community has appeal to a lot of people,” Graham said.

Sunday services at Sabbathday Lake, which are open to the public, are often crowded. Some regulars attend the services without becoming full-fledged members. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers are also supported by an active Society of Friends (Quaker) group.

Luzzarga believes losing Shakerism — and its example of peaceable communal living among people who are not vowed religious — would be a loss for the general population.

“It reminds us of the limits and hazards of American individualism,” Luzzarga said. “It reminds us that good community living doesn’t just happen by accident. If people want a virtuous community, a holy community, they must intentionally build such a community and work to sustain it.”

‘It reminds us of the limits and hazards of American individualism. It reminds us that good community living doesn’t just happen by accident.’

Ramon Luzzaraga

asst. theology professor, Benedictine University

Communal living

As the youngest and fittest member of the Shakers (at least prior to Burke’s arrival), most of the running of Sabbathday Lake falls to Hadd, who lives with Carr and Carpenter and Burke in a five-story brick dwelling house built in 1884.

The Sabbathday Lake colony generates income from land, 30 lease lots, an orchard of 19,000 trees, a gift shop, herbs, workshops and books. A Shaker research library and museum are also on the property.  And attempts are being made to market the Shakers more. For example, a limited licensed line of handmade Shaker chairs are being sold via a partnership with two companies.

With Burke pitching in, the chores get done much faster. But with 1,800 acres of verdant Maine countryside, there is plenty to keep the two men busy. In addition to the manual labor, bookkeeping, gardening, worshipping and other tasks, Hadd cooks the colony meals three times a day. But even Shaker cooking has changed. The days of pan-fried chicken and spiced puddings are gone. In fact, newcomer Burke is a vegetarian.

“Not a big deal. We have people here who are on gluten-free diets, and we’ve had vegetarians before,” Hadd said. “At least he eats eggs and dairy. That makes it easy.”

“He makes a great frittata,” Burke said.

Hadd was raised Methodist in Springfield, Massachusetts, and became interested in the Shakers at the age of 16 after his family visited a Shaker historic site in 1974. Five years and many visits to Sabbathday Lake later, he joined.

He calls Shakerism “a genuine Protestant monastic experience.” He mused that most people interested in the culture are focused on what he calls the “external” — the simplicity, the Shaker brooms and furniture — and “few focus on the religion itself.”

Still, many outsiders are attracted to the serene setting of Sabbathday Lake and other defunct but preserved Shaker villages. Approximately 10,000 people a year venture to Sabbathday Lake, and about 100,000 annually visit Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, a preserved Shaker village that has not had an active Shaker presence since 1923.

The Shakers of Sabbathday Lake say they still have something relevant to offer in today’s society increasingly devoid of personal connections. But finding those who are looking for something more communal, however, is the challenge and key to the church’s survival. 

Hadd said visitors often inquire about joining. Most of the time, he said only half-jokingly, he feeds them and sends them on their way. But he has welcomed about 30 men and women over the years who have shown genuine interest to live at Sabbathday Lake.

“Some have stayed for as little as a day, sometimes a year or more,” he said.

Becoming a Shaker

Burke moved to Sabbathday Lake in March. Before that, he immersed himself in the works of Mother Ann Lee and other early church founders. Though no one at Sabbathday Lake, Burke included, would provide details on his background, Graham said Burke has worked in various ministerial positions before his arrival at Sabbathday Lake.

“He’s different than the others. He is full of kindness and love, and he knows the church teachings coming in,” Hadd said, explaining how he doesn’t have to tell Burke to do a job; he knows what tasks need to be done, whether it’s cleaning out a barn or tending to livestock, and does them.

As they go about their daily routines running Sabbathday Lake, Hadd schools Burke on Shaker church history and customs.

As Hadd swept out the colony’s sheep pen on a recent day, his voice barely audible above the bleating of his thick-coated charges, he reflected upon the vow of celibacy and the common misconception that this vow is what ultimately turns would-be Shakers away.

“They know about that coming in,” Hadd said.

Instead, it’s the communal aspect that can be jarring.

“People rub against one another, and everyone is different. As a new person, obedience is expected. It is the giving up of the I and me for the us and we,” he said.

If someone wants to become a Shaker, and the Shakers assent, the would-be member can move into the dwelling house. If the novices, as they are called, stay a week, they sign an articles of agreement, which protects the colony from being sued for lost wages. After a year, the Shakers will take a vote whether to allow the novice in, but it takes another four years to be granted full Shaker status in sharing in the colony’s finances and administrative and worship decisions. 

“If we know that it is not working, we don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Hadd said of the strenuous entrance process that ensures new members mesh well theologically and communally. He is very protective of Carr and Carpenter.

When Carr emerged from the house and smoothed the folds in her green apron, Hadd told her, “Stay outside in the fresh air and sun. You need the vitamin D.” She smiled and sat on a bench, taking in the fresh Maine air.

As for Burke, he has a long road ahead of him but plans to stay the course. When asked if he expects to be a Shaker for the long haul, he nodded vigorously.

“Coming here has brought me unspeakable peace and joy,” he said.

While Hadd has high hopes that Burke can be the beginning of a new chapter for the Shakers, he said that if the last Shaker passes, there will be no revival of the religion.

“That’s it. It’ll be done,” he said. “Hopefully a decent interpretation of the faith will be left behind.”

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