Sabbathday Lake, Maine, is home to the last community of Shakers on earth. Their sect, formally known as the United Society of Shakers, is well over two hundred years old. When I visited Sabbathday Lake in the summer of 2017, I met the only two Shakers who remained: Arnold, blue-eyed and stooped, aged sixty-two, and June, small and shy, aged eighty.
Arnold and June live together in the village Dwellinghouse, but sleep in separate beds. They are not married, nor are they lovers. They pray, read Scripture, and sing. They eat together but don’t take communion; to them, every meal is the Eucharistic feast. They maintain their land and buildings, and though Arnold can do some of the physical work, they must also hire outside help. Arnold and June use computers and cellphones—the Shakers, unlike the Amish, are not averse to technology. They invented paper seed packets, the circular saw, the flat-bottom broom, and clothespins.
Arnold and June are celibate, own property in common, and confess their sins to each other. These are the essential “three Cs” of the Shakers, modeled on the chaste, communal life of Christ. To become a Shaker, you must be debt-free: no mortgages or student loans. You must also be a pacifist. Shakers are wary of nitpicky dogma, and their theology is simple: God is love; Christ’s return is experienced spiritually by anyone open to the “anointing spirit of God.” Shaker faith seems to be more an emulation than a rigid creed. Arnold and June, like the Shakers before them, believe they have found the best way of living, a literal heaven on earth.
Most of the “world’s people” know Shakers for their woodwork: cabinets, chairs, tables. Shaker artifacts are displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Shakers are also known for numerous scratch recipes, and a Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” inspired Appalachian Spring. James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne all wrote about Shakers; Ralph Waldo Emerson was an admirer.
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