The Last Ones Standing

Only four Shakers are left in the world, all living in southern Maine. But if they can't attract converts to their celibate lifestyle and this really is the end for them, they have a plan to ensure that their legacy lives on forever.

THE FOUR ARE CONSPICUOUS in their plain Sunday best. The two men, both in their 40s, wear black or gray pants, white shirts, and houndstooth-check vests with the waist button undone. The two women, old enough to be their mothers, have on long, modest dresses in solid blue or green with wide shoulder yokes. Sitting on spare wooden benches, the women face the men, separated by a center aisle.

They and more than a dozen guests have gathered this Sunday morning in the unadorned chapel inside the 1883 Dwelling House at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in rural southern Maine.

One of the four reads from Luke 24:13-35, in which Jesus' disciples do not recognize him after the resurrection. Several of the guests then offer testimony, drawing parallels to their own lives, or simply reflect on the idea that God is not always clearly perceived. After each speaker, the two men and two women reply, in unison, by singing a Shaker song a cappella.

It's a call-and-response unlike any other.

These are the last Shakers, living in the world's last active Shaker community, which has survived for 223 years in this idyllic and isolated hilltop village 35 miles northwest of Portland. Here, the four faithful live a life of ascetic simplicity and abide by the three C's: celibacy, confession of sin, and communalism. "The real misconception about the Shakers is that we're all dead," says one of the four, Brother Arnold Hadd, only half-jokingly.

The 49-year-old Hadd, a Springfield native who became a Shaker at age 21, is joined by Brother Wayne Smith, 43, raised in nearby South Portland, Maine, who joined six months after his high school graduation at age 18; Sister June Carpenter, 67, a former Brookline librarian who converted at age 49; and Sister Frances Carr, 79, who has been at Sabbathday since she, at age 10, and her siblings were sent to live with the Shakers by their widowed mother, who died shortly thereafter.

Because they are celibate, the Shakers rely on converts to keep their community going and say they receive up to 70 inquiries a year. To those interested, they send out literature and correspondence. Many inquirers are attracted to the romantic notion of the simple life espoused in chic, urban publications like Martha Stewart Living and Real Simple. "We're looking for people . . . who feel that they are being called by God to a higher life," Hadd says. "Most of these people we never hear back from."

They did invite one candidate who seemed seriously interested to visit this spring. But if converts don't materialize and the day comes when all the world's Shakers have met their Maker, there is a plan.

A BREATHTAKING pastoral haven of forests, farmland, and apple orchards surrounds the 340-acre Sabbathday Lake - with its 5,000 feet of undeveloped shoreline and public beach - as well as the 150-acre Shaker Bog. Life here seems blessedly uncomplicated. Scottish Highland cattle and a flock of sheep, all given Christian names, graze in the hot summer sun. Despite the occasional vehicle speeding by on old Route 26, there's tranquility in the nearness of nature and in the utter solitude.

While they pray for more converts, the Sabbathday Shakers - as pragmatic as they are pious - have been working to ensure that their legacy and their land will outlive them, should Shakerism die off. They're well aware that several dismantled New England Shaker villages were long ago subdivided into housing lots or turned into prisons. "We'd been very concerned," Hadd admits, "because our neighborhood has changed so radically in just a short period of time." The Shakers worry not only about encroaching suburban sprawl but rising costs like heat and their property taxes, which hit $24,432 this fiscal year. (The Shakers have never sought tax-exempt status as a religious group.)

So, five years ago, the Protestant monastic sect initiated a plan, put together by the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land, to sell preservation and conservation easements to two nonprofits, Maine Preservation and the New England Forestry Foundation. These two groups, along with eight other nonprofits and public agencies, are behind the national campaign to raise money to buy the restrictions - about $2.8 million in government grants and private donations has already come in, and they hope to net another $900,000 and conclude the deal by the end of September. The agreement would protect this pristine village of mostly whiteclapboard buildings and the 1,643 acres that straddle the town lines of New Gloucester, Maine, and Poland, Maine, from ever being developed or subdivided. "We can't put up a Wal-Mart. Or a housing development," Hadd says. "The land always has to remain for agricultural and forest purposes."

And by selling future development rights, the Shakers will be able to afford to maintain and repair their 18 historic structures, from the original 1794 Meetinghouse to a 1910 garage built to house the group's first car. Hadd won't divulge what it costs to run the village, but obviously a few million dollars would be a godsend. The Shakers get by largely by leasing 29 lots (on which sit lakeside cottages), about 1,000 acres of forest, 30 acres each of farmland and orchards, and a huge gravel pit. They run their enormous enterprise with help from six year-round and six seasonal employees. The Friends of the Shakers, a volunteer group with about 60 active members, makes semiannual visits to paint fences, stack firewood, and perform other tasks. "I'm not a Shaker and never could be, but when you go to that place you carry away a spirituality," says Judy McCaskey, a volunteer and campaign contributor who lives in Chicago.

By outside appearances, Sabbathday Lake is not unlike the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield or the Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire. All are tourist attractions, though the latter are mere emblems of what they were. The Maine hamlet, with real adherents going about their business, has its soul intact, and it draws about 10,000 visitors a year. One of them on a recent trip was Richard Barker, a Briton living in South Orange, New Jersey. "I had heard about Shaker furniture, and that was about it," he says from his picnic table seat on the village grounds. "The Shakers are just part of America's heritage. It's interesting to see how people lived historically, isn't it?"

Though they invite tourists in, the sect's members have grown weary of being viewed as a living piece of history. "Some people do come here expecting to see a Shaker," Hadd says, gently mocking the public. "We had a tour guide here once who said, 'This is not a whale watch. We neither guarantee nor will you be likely to see a Shaker on the tour.'"

The Shakers - the group's proper name is the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing - were founded in Manchester, England, in 1747. A Manchester Mercury reporter who attended a meeting in 1758 wrote that worshipers danced wildly and spoke in tongues. He derisively dubbed them the "Shaking Quakers," giving rise to their popular nickname. One of the group's members, Ann Lee, earned the role of leader in the 1770s. Known as Mother Ann, she was persecuted and jailed for preaching unorthodox beliefs such as sexual and racial equality, pacifism, and that God possesses both masculine and feminine traits. In 1774, she and eight of her followers immigrated to Watervliet, New York. At the sect's pre-Civil War height, about 5,000 adherents lived in about 21 settlements as far west as Indiana and as far south as Florida. Sabbathday Lake - always one of the smallest and poorest eastern Shaker communities - was started in 1783 and peaked at 187 members; in 1931, another Maine Shaker outpost, in Alfred, merged with Sabbathday Lake.

"I feel very strongly that this is consecrated land," says Hadd, alluding to the fact that local farm families once donated property to form Sabbathday Lake. "The people who owned this land purposefully gave it up for a religious community . . . for the glory of God."

Maine's state historian, Earle Shettleworth, agrees the village must be saved, but for secular reasons. "The Shakers are an important chapter in the American story," he says. "We need to ensure that both the built and natural environments are preserved so people in the future can learn from them firsthand, even as we have."

ON A RECENT WEEKDAY, Smith ambles along an old logging road, his stout, gray-whiskered golden retriever, Chase, at his side, recalling his leap of faith. "It's not, like, a dramatic story," he says. "It wasn't like I was walking down the road one day and God said, 'Wayne! Become a Shaker!'" Rather, the late Brother Theodore Johnson, who taught Latin at nearby Greeley High School, tapped Smith, then a sophomore, to tend livestock on the Shaker farm. From his first visit, he says, "I kind of fell in love with the place."

The 6-foot 3-inch Smith, tanned and muscular from hours on a John Deere tractor, has the look of a strapping farmboy, a sardonic sense of humor, and a need for more than a simply Sunday-go-to-meeting faith. Raised as a Baptist, he says he was drawn to Shaker life by the way he saw it being lived out. "The religious life was a part of our day all the time, as opposed to something that was encapsulated on Sunday morning," he says. "Your religion wasn't something you were proclaiming but, rather, it was something that you were living." Smith's family, though, initially had trouble with his decision. "My mother used to say for years, when I first came here, 'Well, don't you think you're going to go to college someday? Or get married?'" he says. "After all these years, I think she'd be surprised now if I left."

The soft-spoken Hadd, raised as a Methodist, has a beard, penetrating blue eyes, and the intense concentration of a scholarly monk. He's hospitable but guarded on personal matters, with a disconcerting tic of answering questions the traditional Shaker way, by saying "yea" or "nay." As a teenager, he wrote to Sabbathday Lake with a question and struck up a correspondence with Johnson, who also brought him into the fold. Hadd's epiphany, subtle as it was, came in 1977 when he was 20. "I did not come wanting to be a Shaker," he says. "I was here for most of the summer and, as the summer wound down, I realized I didn't want to leave."

As for the two sisters, they are reverently silent. Carr, a handsome woman with a fleece of gray hair, is recovering from knee surgery and does not feel up to talking. The roundfaced Carpenter, who traipses the village in clunky orthopedic shoes, is too shy to speak to strangers.

While their schedule seems a throwback - a strict string of meals, prayers, and work Monday to Saturday, with rest on Sunday - the Shakers have always interacted with the outside world. They have phones, television, Internet access, and a police scanner in the Dwelling House sitting room. But most activities, from borrowing one of the vehicles to buying a new pair of pants, must be sanctioned by the group, which calls itself a family. Even in death, the Shakers repudiate individualism. All grave markers were removed from the tidy Sabbathday Lake cemetery in the late 1800s and replaced by a single slab of granite in the center, bearing one word: SHAKERS.

"The Shakers are known for turning their backs on ideals that Americans have always held dear: the spirit of individualism, owning private property, personal autonomy, marriage," says Gerard Wertkin, director emeritus of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and author of The Four Seasons of Shaker Life: An Intimate Portrait of the Community at Sabbathday Lake. "Shakerism strikes at the heart of the American psyche."

But don't think they're totally square. Joel Cohen, director of the music ensemble Boston Camerata, knows better. The Camerata has cut two CDs of Shaker chants and spirituals with the religious group. "The idea that they're Puritanical is just not true," he says. "They like to laugh; they drink wine. People tend to conflate the Shakers with the Amish."

AS THE YOUNGEST, Smith is likely to become the last Shaker in the world. He ponders the prospect, scratching his cleft chin and eyeing the six-story Dwelling House. "That sure would be a big house all alone," he jokes. "Another dog."

Up until the 1960s, the Shakers took in orphans and some, like Carr, stayed on. Now, any new convert would likely be an adult. But the Shakers know that, for many, their practice forbids too many things. Especially sex.

"The whole concept of the Shaker life is to emulate, as fully as we possibly can, the life of Christ," Hadd explains. "So, the reason we're celibate is Christ was celibate."

"Well, as long as you don't believe The Da Vinci Code," interjects the devil's advocate.

"I don't," he says flatly. "I believe the Gospels."

In Hadd's 28 years at Sabbathday Lake, he's seen 18 novices spend a year or so at the village - quaintly referred to in Shaker parlance as "trying the life" - but only Carpenter and Smith committed to the faith. Fewer than a half-dozen other Shakers had tenures lasting several years but then left. Novices cannot have a spouse, dependents, or debts. After the first year, the group decides whether a novice becomes a Shaker. However, full-fledged membership, including the consecration of one's worldly goods to the communal sect, takes five years.

James Lochridge, a Mennonite and registered nurse from Urbana, Ohio, visited Sabbathday Lake in late April, beginning the informal process that could lead to him becoming a novice in three years, when his 15-year-old daughter is grown. "I was reassured it was not a cult," says the divorced father, 49. "That they are sincere about their love for God and each other and genuine about their lifestyle."

The Trust for Public Land agreement does not specify what will happen to the property if there are no more Shakers. The religious group's charitable corporation, whose board includes members other than the four Shakers, would make that decision, though the easements are binding on any future owners. It's likely, Hadd concedes, that Sabbathday Lake would become another vacuous Shaker museum with historical interpreters playing the part of Shakers.

Is that OK with him?

"Nay. Of course it's not but, I mean, what am I going to do about it?" Hadd says, laughing heartily. "I'll be dead!"

But for those who think the Shakers don't have a chance of resurrecting the faith, he has this comeback. "I don't know the mind of God," Hadd says. "However, I do believe that if we live in faith - as we do - that, as we have been called and chosen, there will always be others who will also be called and chosen to this life. So, our intention is that there will be more Shakers."

The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, at 707 Shaker Road (old Route 26) in New Gloucester, Maine, is open to visitors Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., through October 9. The 10 a.m. Sunday meeting is also open to guests year-round. For more information, call 207-926-4597 or go to www.shaker.lib.me.us.

Stacey Chase is a freelance writer living in Maine. E-mail her at storychaser@earthlink.net. 

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company