The Shakers


BOB ABERNETHY, host and correspondent: Now, a visit with the surviving Shakers, the Christian group known for its devotion to God, demanding lifestyle, beautiful furniture, and joyful songs. Before the Civil War there were nearly 6000 Shakers in 23 communities. Today, there is just one active Shaker village left, with just three members.

Just above Sabbathday Lake, in central Maine, the last Shaker community straddles an old road in the midst of 1800 acres of forest and farmland. At its peak, there were nearly 200 members here. Now, the three remaining are Brother Arnold Hadd, 53. He came here when he was 20. Sister June Carpenter is 72 and too shy for an interview. She has been here for 21 years. And Sister Frances Carr is 83. She was brought here when she was 10.

SISTER FRANCES CARR: I hope and I pray with all my heart that we are not the last three Shakers.

post02-shakersBROTHER ARNOLD HADD: As long as we do God’s work I believe in the essence of my soul that there will always be vocations sent to this way of life.

ABERNETHY: Shakers originated in England in the 1700s, an ecstatic offshoot of the more sedate Quakers led by a charismatic preacher Shakers call Mother Ann Lee. Like today’s Pentecostals, Shakers who felt the Holy Spirit would roll and twirl and speak in tongues. Shaking Quakers they were called—Shakers. Mother Ann taught that lives devoted to God could best be lived in isolated and disciplined communities in which members would share all they owned, as did the earliest Christians.

BROTHER ARNOLD: It’s giving yourself and all that you may possess to God and to the community.

ABERNETHY: The goal was nothing less than working to become perfect and to achieve salvation and heaven in this life.

BROTHER ARNOLD: It’s a prefigurement of the kingdom, and the whole idea is to live the kingdom life here and now. The things that we do—we’re not motivated by gain, or selfish gain. It’s not private. It’s not for ourselves. It’s for God and for this community. The personal pronouns have to be changed. It’s not me, my, and I. It’s ours.

ABERNETHY: So in the Sabbathday Lake cemetery there are 150 individual graves, but just one all-inclusive marker.

post01-shakersSISTER FRANCES: We think of Father-Mother God, not just as God as a Father.

BROTHER ARNOLD (praying during Shaker worship service): Eternal God, our Father and Mother, we thank you for bring so many good friends…

SISTER FRANCES: God is all spirit, and God has the strength of the male and the tenderness and love of the female.

ABERNETHY: It followed that men and women must be treated equally. But they were strictly separated. Mother Ann thought sex and marriage interfered with devotion to God.

BROTHER ARNOLD: It was to imitate the life of Christ. So we are celibate because Christ was celibate. We live in community because Christ and his disciples lived in community. We’re pacifists because Christ was a pacifist.

ABERNETHY: I asked Brother Arnold how a Shaker deals with celibacy.

BROTHER ARNOLD: You just deal with it. I think that has to come as a gift from God. I really do. You have to be married to Christ. I mean Christ has to be your lover. It doesn’t work any other way, because you have to feel so attuned to that spirit and so in love with God that it can fill any void that you might have in your life.

post03-shakersABERNETHY: Shakers were widely admired for their craftsmanship, such as graceful chairs and other furniture—also for their hundred or more inventions, such as the flat broom.

BROTHER ARNOLD: Everything that we strive to make, either for our own use or for sale to the world, is done as perfectly as we possible can.

ABERNETHY: At Sabbathday Lake they grew herbs and sold herbal medicine and seeds. They have 19,000 apple trees, far too many for them to manage. So they rent the orchard out. As an elder, trustee, and spokesman, Brother Arnold has many responsibilities. He also feeds the sheep and Scottish cattle twice a day.

BROTHER ARNOLD: Our founder Mother Ann said, “Hands to work, hearts to God.” So for us work is worship. If you did something so menial as cleaning a toilet that can be actually an act of worship, because it’s not being done for yourself, but it’s being done for God. It’s being done for others.

ABERNETHY: Every summer members of the Sabbathday Lake support group Friends of the Shakers come to visit. Brother Arnold and one of the young visitors called the people to Sunday worship. The friends filled the meetinghouse—women in through one door, men through another, and inside the genders separated and facing each other. There is no preacher. The elders read Scripture and comment on it.

SISTER FRANCES: If we turn to that love of God there is hope for each one of us this morning.

post04-shakersABERNETHY: And then came the singing. Shakers are said to have 10,000 songs, of which the most famous in “Simple Gifts”:

(singing): “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where we ought to be…”

ABERNETHY: And then came voluntary testimony.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN (speaking during Shaker worship service): So that’s what I want to do is every day is seek that Spirit of God.

ABERNETHY: While each person spoke, one of the elders chose a song that complemented what was being said.

(singing during Shaker worship service): “Mother has come with her beautiful song—ho, ho, talla me ho.”

ABERNETHY: And then another testimony.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (speaking during Shaker worship service): You can find God in everyday life and in a continuing life in community. It’s lived out every day here, and it can be lived out every day in our lives.

ABERNETHY: In many ways, Shakerism has been the victim of progress. The industrial revolution lured away many young men, and Shaker craftsmen could not compete with mass production. The states began looking after orphans, which Shakers had done, hoping they would become members as adults. More recently, changing attitudes toward sex made the celibacy requirement, for many, an insurmountable obstacle. But Shakers say for those who actually try the life, celibacy is not the biggest problem.

post05-shakersSISTER FRANCES: Usually those who have been here and have left have found it too regimented.

BROTHER ARNOLD: Obedience. That’s the—she’s absolutely right. I think almost no one’s left for any other reasons.

ABERNETHY (speaking to Brother Arnold): The obedience was the greater problem than celibacy?


SISTER FRANCES: I wouldn’t have been here all my life if I didn’t love this life, but I can’t say that it has been a heaven on earth. I can’t say that there aren’t days when it’s far from heaven.

BROTHER ARNOLD: I’m not a fool to think that it is, but the concept, the whole life is to live the heavenly life.

SISTER FRANCES: As much as possible.

BROTHER ARNOLD: And, as we have also been told, to make it as little hellish as possible for everybody else. When I was a young believer, I had a problem with somebody in the community, and my elder told me—I said, “I just can’t love them—I just don’t like them,” and he said, “Well that’s your problem. You don’t have to like anybody. You just have to love everyone.” That is probably the greatest advice I’ve ever had in my whole life.

post06-shakersABERNETHY: I asked Sister Frances about the friends of the Shakers. Might some of them become converts?

SISTER FRANCES: While they are very good friends and are in with us in many ways spiritually, they are not about to give up their husband, their wife, or their homes and come and live in community.

ABERNETHY: Meanwhile, the Shakers themselves do not want to change any rules to attract converts.

SISTER FRANCES: They come, and they try the life, and usually it is on our decision that they don’t remain. We don’t want it to continue in any way that is diluted from what we have lived. In our morning prayers—and each of us take a turn leading the prayer—Brother Arnold says something about the thousands who are going to be coming here.

BROTHER ARNOLD: Well, that’s my hope, and I don’t see why not. God did it once before, and I don’t know why God can’t do it again.

ABERNETHY: I asked Brother Arnold about the Shaker legacy.

BROTHER ARNOLD: I think that what Shakerism has proved to the world is that it is possible to live the fullness of the Christ-life here and now, to really start making that heaven on earth.

(singing during Shaker worship service): “When true simplicity is gained … ”

BROTHER ARNOLD: It has taken some very ordinary people and has allowed them to live extraordinary lives.

(singing during Shaker worship service): “…til by turning, turning we come round right.”

  • Rich Lord

    There are a few out here with a strong faith, on that narrow path, as the Bible puts it, who can’t find people who we are surrounded by to even show an interest. But these same people make claims of being “christian!?” (Don’t they All!?) If it isn’t in the Bible, to me, there is No truth to it! I won’t give “the opinion of man” much of a chance to influende me, either! Especially when I ask them, “Show me where it says that!” THAT has been my Best line of defence against those claiming, “Oh, I’m a christian.”

    I just wrote “a pastor of a church” 2 Bible qoutes. The message I sent him goes like this:

    Pastor ??? Hmmm…

    “WHOSOEVER transgresses, and abides Not in the doctrine of Christ, God is Not with him.” 2Jn. 9

    “He that says, I Know Him, and keeps Not his commandments Is A LIAR.” 1Jn. 2:4

    Knowing this, it wouldn’t bother me to challenge Any one of you.

  • John Kidd

    When I sweep with my flat broom, open an envelope of seeds, or sing about bending and bowing, I give thanks for Shaker faithfulness. With Mother Ann’s words, “Hands to work, hearts to God”, their legacy is far greater than their numbers today. Thanks for a peasant conversation.

  • Rev. Ted Jones

    I encountered living Shakers for the first time 54 years ago at Canterbury, NH. Since then I have visited several historic sites in ME, NY, OH, KY once occupied by Shaker communities. Both their spiritual peace and hands on industry always impress me. What Mother Ann Lee wrought has been a great experiment in communal living and worship that, in its peculiar way, demonstrated the remarkable hospitality, succor, discipline, teaching and passionate faith of the first Christians. That Mother Ann’s “children” have, to my mind, provided charity, welcome, and good news of a sort to the “least of these” on the frontiers of both the harsh industrial revolution and the wilderness of the American West is a tribute to God’s own delightful eccentricities. God’s Spirit rests on those whom God chooses and turns their hearts to joy, love of one another, love of neighbor. God is no respector of persons and their conditions in life, including their kinky theologies. I raise my Mainline Protestant Cup of Thanksgiving to Shakers past and present and say, “Glory be to God.”

  • Nick and Margo

    We each lease from the Shakers and are proud to be part of their community and of their heritage. All three are wonderful people and we would be most happy to see additional converts so that the heritage continues.

  • Carlton Perry

    The first time I met a real Shaker was at a NH village. Researching my thesis. There were only a few, tart, elderly ladies in residence. They would not extend the covenant. They planned on waiting for God’s will to be done. When the lead sister told me this plan she also mentioned that Sabbath Day Lake was accepting converts. There, at SDL, I met one of the new members. What a contrast with the real! Ann Lee, to the Shakers, was the second coming, this time in female form. In Canterbury the sisters openly disapproved of SDL’s acceptance.

    They are all gone now. The genuine Shakers, the ladies I knew, have all passed.

    Anecdote – I stopped many times at Hancock and Mt. Lebanon in the 50 and maybe early 60s. The sisters were selling furniture they no longer needed at both locations. I was young and Shaker study was not as absorbing as it would become. For a few dollars I could have, should have loaded my car on each trip home. A few pieces of cloth, I believe given to me in Canterbury is my only artifact.

  • Sharon

    Thank you for publishing this beautiful article and for posting the interview with Brother Arnold
    on the web. He is an eloquent spokesman for his community. This past spring, I was lucky enough
    to be part of a film project by director Ryan Etzel, who was making a short film based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
    short story about Shakers, “Canterbury Pilgrims.” The film was shot on location at Hancock Shaker Village
    and New Lebanon Shaker Village, and will premiere at the Berkshire Film Festival in 2011, along with a
    documentary film made by Etzel for the Hancock Shaker Village, featuring Brother Arnold. More information
    is available at the film’s website:
    The legacy of the Shakers truly lives on!

  • Rev.Bill Longman

    In times past we have visited several Shaker settlements. They are quiet places almost forgotten though once bustling productively in a pre-industrial age. Once such a model of communitarian living, the memory still inspires us of their diligence and faith commitment. Shakers were much more than fine handmade furniture; they were people of simple sincerity.

  • Pam

    It is so sad to me that a people group worked so hard to be perfect and earn their way into heaven. That is the whole reason Jesus died for us. We can never be perfect or earn our way to God. Jesus is perfect and took our place. They worked so hard to find the “spirit” of God daily when they just needed to rest and trust what Christ did at the Cross.

  • Barbara

    I am an Ohio Quaker from near the old Watervliet Community. I long for the kind of community the Shakers have. If anything happens to my husband, I’m on my way to Sabbath Lake community. God’s Blessings to them.

  • caloc

    To Pam
    Dear Pam, why do you say that they want “to earn” their way to heaven ? They are, with their genuine love for God and <jesus, adopted children of God . Lets be peace makers.

  • Denise

    I am in the German Reformed church and pray everyday that Mother Ann’s saints will march forward once again. I have one daughter in high school to raise but when she is grown, I will be on my way to the Sabbathday Lake community. I long for the kind of community the Shakers have achieved and I pray most fervantly that they will be there when I march forward as one of Mother Ann’s saints. God’s blessing to them.

  • truth

    Did Christ say love yoru wife as He loved the Church? Funny how they try to imporve on God ‘s Word

  • janice carr ramsdell

    having watched your vidio I believe i am a relative of frances carr. my grandmother was orissa davis carr. her son charles told me to contact you. janice

  • Nick

    Sad to see the usual kinds of “my approach to religion is better than yours” comments left here; instead of simply appreciating the Shakers for who they are and respecting THEIR journey and all they have given to us, “experts” who have a monopoly on “Truth” come here (why?) and quote the Bible to show that the Shakers aren’t doing some things “right”. I had the privilege of spending 2 summers with this community, and remember fondly, Sisters Mildred, Frances, Minnie, Elizabeth, Brother Ted, and others. Their lives were and are centered on goodness. They, as imperfect beings, radiated it. It manifested, not just in the attainment of it, but in the striving for it also.

    To “truth says”: (You speak for “truth”? How nice for you!) Yes, Christ told men to love their wives. He also said:

    “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

    He likewise said, ” And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” For these reasons do the Shakers and some Catholics, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox Christians embrace celibacy.

    To “Pam”: maybe the Shakers try to earn their way into heaven, as you say, because Jesus said, “Become perfect, even as I am perfect”. He didn’t say, “You ARE perfect because I am perfect, now sit back and relax, I did it all.”

  • Alan Millen

    I note with interest the comment above from Janice Carr Ramsdell. I too am a relative of Frances Carr. According to oral family history, Frances is the cousin of my Scottish-born mother and her siblings. My grandfather and Frances’ mother were brother and sister in Edinburgh, Scotland. The family name was Rourke. He was born in 1898 but I do not know the year of birth for Frances’ mother, presumably a few years earlier.

  • Michelle

    Well, I am a practicing catholic, and I saw the PBS special on the Shakers, and I just think it is such a beautiful religion and way of life… I hope they can sustain it, over time.

  • Pete in Texas

    This group reminds me of the now-waning charismatic communities in Houston, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, namely the Church of the Redeemer Episcopal, and Word of God. Like the Shakers, they began with a wondrous idealism, sharing everything they had in response to the unmistakable love and acts of the Holy Spirit for and through them. Beauty in worship, craft, and living of life blossomed, and taking in of the lonely and unloved were commonplace. The Shakers had managed to flourish much longer, probably because of how society at large was structured during their height.

    The modern Christian communities I mention have certainly had their share of scandals, poorly thought out plans, and internal strife. However, those things alone don’t undo communities: far more important is value the members themselves place on what they have living/working together. That value will drive them to preserve and foster it, or abandon it, or even attempt to destroy it. And the value has to be genuine and mutual.

    I hope that some day a Utopian society will succeed, thrive, and endure, and inspire society at large to live in true concord and charity, absent of coercion and gimmickry to achieve it goals and perpetuate itself. And I hope these attempts may be looked back as testimonies to the true potential of humans, trying to “get it right”.

  • John Maccarone

    What a very fine example of humans living in harmony. It’s also the fundamental teaching of Jesus. I certainly hope they survive, or at least their spirit.

  • Hannahrose

    I was born Quaker, I love the ideas they have. I can not agree with the fact they don’t believe in marriage. The Bible even talks about a man leaving his mother and father, and cleaving to his wife.

  • Marques

    I find discipline and devotion go hand in hand. God’s law is not easy to live in today’s world. A simpler lifestyle and focus on the basics seems wonderful. I share an earlier commenter’s concerns about a celibate lifestyle. The family seems to be a central part of God’s plan for our lives here on earth. I know this might be a little controversial, but why is it hard to think that Jesus might have been married? He was raised in a family with brothers and sisters and taught the concept of marriage. I guess I am going to simply have to disagree on this point. I appreciate the learning.