Friday, October 1, 2010

The last of the Shakers

Family friends returned from a stay in New Hampshire with news I did not know about. Shakers are a dying breed. Susy and Nick had been at the Canterbury Shaker Community in New Hampshire, which was established in 1792. Two hundred years later, there are no living members of the Society of Believers. The last one, Ethel Hudson, had lived there from the age of 7 until she died at the age of 96. "I'm the last pebble on the beach," she said just weeks before she died. From a total of 6,000 in the U.S. at one time, the Shakers' ranks thinned and once thriving communities have become living history museums: for example, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (est. 1783, with a peak of 300 members); Alfred, Maine (est. 1793); Enfield, New Hampshire (es. 1793, with a peak of 300 members); Pleasant Hill, Kentucky (est. 1805, with a peak of 500 members); and South Union, Kentucky (est. 1807).

The only living Shakers are at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in New Gloucester, Maine (est. 1783). There were 4 Shakers alive in 2006 - 2 middle-aged men and 2 elderly women. By April of this year, another death left only 3. It's just a matter of time... The reason for the decline of the Shakers is that they practice celibacy and only gained new members through conversion and the adoption of orphans. Then in 1965, a decision by the elders sealed their fate: they stopped accepting converts as new members.

Unlike the Amish, with whom they are sometimes confused, Shakers never eschewed technology, and in fact embraced it. They invented hundreds of labor-saving devices from the clothespin to the circular saw, which they shared without patents. They were, like the Amish, defined by their spiritual beliefs. Shakers say it’s a shame that people know them more for their furniture than for their religious ideas. A Shaker leader at Sabbathday once quipped, “When I die, I fairly expect to be remembered as a chair.”

1st image) Shaker meeting house, Maine, 2nd image) Cora Helena Sarle of the Canterbury Village Shaker Community, New Hampshire, 3rd image) Ethel Hudson of the Canterbury Community in 1989, 4th image) Inside the meeting house at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.


  1. I only wish that I could live long enough to see the demise of all superstitious beliefs (religion).

  2. I find this fascinating and appalling and wonder what made the leaders decide to close down and let their beliefs die with them. Hmn...


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