Magazine article The Christian Century

Shakers Cling to Life-And No, They Don't Just Make Furniture

Magazine article The Christian Century

Shakers Cling to Life-And No, They Don't Just Make Furniture

Article excerpt

Arnold Hadd is the last Shaker man on Earth. And you can find him and three "sisters" in the dwindling faith group living on the hilly farmland near Sabbathday Lake, southwest of Lewiston, Maine.

A polite man, Hadd is simple in his speech, still utilizing the traditional yay and nay in place of the common yes and no. Yet when the discussion turns to the Shakers' perceived legacy as craftspeople, his mannerisms change.

"In the vernacular, it pisses me off," he said. "Everybody comes here thinking we're a guild of furniture makers, which is about as far away from the truth as it can be."

But while such a mistake may be the bane of the Shaker tradition, it may also be its salvation.

Hadd, 51, is a member the last Shaker community. In the 19th century the farm housed hundreds, and there were as many as 6,000 Shakers across the country. But now there are only these four, and new members are hard to come by.

The United Society of Believers, as Shakers are formally known, was founded in 1747 in Manchester, England, but followers were forced to move to America soon after to escape persecution. Their name arose from mockery of their worship--like that of the Quakers or even some Methodists--which often involved singing, dancing and even convulsions and speaking in tongues. A semi-isolationist group, Shakers built two dozen communities, mainly between Maine and Kentucky.

Some Shaker villages remain open, run by nonmembers as legacies of the past.

The foundations of the faith include living like Christ, which for Shakers means practicing celibacy and sharing communal property. They also believe in the equality of the sexes, a life lived peacefully and continuous revelation. But their belief in the sanctity of hard work--embodied by their adage, "Hands to Work, Hearts to God"--has created a predicament in the faith's twilight.

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"The general population associates Shakers with their furniture and a few of their items," said Leonard Brooks, a nonmember who has lived with the Sabbathday Lake community for 30 years. He directs its library and museum, which displays the artwork of the Shakers, from drawings and songs said to be divinely inspired to intricately crafted baskets and furniture. …

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