The Shakers are dying out, not that it’s any big surprise. After all, their founder predicted it 200 years ago, and this is a religion that’s sworn to celibacy.
Today, the religious group that once numbered more than 6,000 is down to just a handful--seven women who have all signed the Shaker Covenant, the sect’s official roll book.
“It is very sad for our community to die after all these years, but it fulfills a prophecy of Mother Ann, our founder,” said Eldress Bertha Lindsay, the sect’s 91-year-old leader who lives here in Canterbury Village with Sister Ethel Hudson, 92. Five other sisters in their 80s and 90s reside at at the Shaker Village and Sabbath Day Lake in Maine, both established in 1792 and the only two active Shaker communities left.
Having banned sexual relations, Shakerism seemed doomed to run out of members. At its height,from 1840 to 1860, it boasted 21 communities from Maine to Florida and west to Ohio and Kentucky.
Prosperous farm and manufacturing centers, the villages were populated by inventive people who have left a legacy of distinctive architecture, furniture and crafts.
It was the Shakers who invented the clothespin, the flat broom, the threshing machine, turbine water wheel, circular saw, the pea sheller, a line of furniture, washing machines and mangles. They were also the first to package and market seeds, and the first manufacturing pharmacists in the United States.
Ahead in Women’s Suffrage
And they were far ahead of other groups when it came to women’s suffrage in this country. From the beginning, each Shaker community was governed by equal authority, two elders and two eldresses.
“The Shaker communities were one of the few places in America that took in orphans, unwanted children and the homeless in the late 18th Century and first half of the 19th Century,” said Charles Thompson, 66, who for 30 years has been a liaison for the Shakers and the outside world. “Once orphanages were established elsewhere this pool of potential members fell way off.
“It was a combination of many things, the Industrial Revolution, celibacy and changing social conditions, that brought the curtain down on this utopian community,” he said.
The sect was founded in 1767 by 32-year-old Ann Lee in Manchester, England. In 1774 Lee, the daughter of an illiterate blacksmith, and her eight followers sailed to America to launch the Shaker faith in New York.
Convinced by what she termed a series of mystical revelations, Mother Ann believed she was the Messiah. She claimed to be the second incarnation of Christ returned to Earth to show mankind the way to heavenly salvation through abstinence, good works and industry.
In Mother Ann’s view, ungoverned natural impulses--greed, pride and sex--caused most of the problems on Earth. Self-denial can bring better ecstasy than self-indulgence, she said. Asked to confess their sins and give up all their worldly possessions, Shakers withdrew into one of the ascetical communes and vowed never to engage in sexual relations.
Dissidents from the English Quaker Church, the group was called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Mother Ann and her followers were termed “Shaking Quakers” because they trembled with emotion, shaking, shouting and dancing during religious services. In time they became known simply as Shakers, a name they readily adopted.
Eldress Bertha, the sect’s head minister, has lived at the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire since 1905, when she was orphaned at 8.
“I will never forget my first day,” said Eldress Bertha, now partially blind, a tiny, fragile woman dressed in a traditional gray Shaker dress and lace bonnet. “My sister, Mae, left me here with tears streaming down my face. I did not know what to expect. Two Shaker girls ran over and hugged me. ‘We’ll take care of you,’ they said comforting me.”
It was Apple Blossom Sunday in Canterbury Village, she recalled. “Everyone was singing and marching and they swept me right along to the apple orchards on the Shaker farm where they gave praise and thanks to God.
“Birds were singing, the trees were filled with apple blossoms. It was beautiful. I began feeling the love and warmth of the people here. This has been my home ever since.”
A Blessing and More
Orphans like Eldress Bertha would grow up in the community and, at 21, decide whether or not to join the covenant. When a Shaker man and woman fell in love and wanted to get married, they would leave the community with a blessing, a sack of flour, a horse and $100.
“When I was about 17, I thought of leaving but soon decided against it because I felt I should return to this family what had been given me. I have never regretted the decision,” she said.
Marching and singing were important components of the Shaker life style. During Sunday services they sang hymns and songs, swaying their bodies, keeping time with their feet, the men on one side of the church, the women on the other.
By the time Eldress Bertha arrived at the Canterbury Shaker Village, the sect was already in decline. Many communities had closed. There were 100 Shakers here in 1905, down from the peak of 400. Not more than 1,000 remained in the entire religious group.
The last male member of the Canterbury community, Brother Irving Greenwood, died in 1939. By 1950 there were 16 sisters here between the ages of 46 and 83. In 1957, after months of prayer, the three Eldresses--Gertrude, Emma and Ida--decided to close the covenant to membership.
In the past 10 years, three men and a woman in their 20s and 30s have become residents of the community at Sabbath Day Lake, but Eldress Bertha does not recognize them as members.
“To become a Shaker you have to sign a legal document taking the necessary vows and that document, the official covenant, is locked up in our safe,” she said. “Membership is closed forever.
“We must live true to our faith and must follow what our leaders say. Our leaders decided it was over, done with. It is sad, but Mother Ann predicted that in time you would be able to count the members on the fingers of your two hands and then the Shakers would be no more. This is where we are now. . . .”
Today the Shaker village at Canterbury Center is a living museum supported by entrance fees, a restaurant featuring old-time Shaker food and the gift shop.
In 1972 the Shakers turned over their 600 acres and cluster of 22 historic buildings to a nonprofit corporation. The property is now held in trust so that the people of New Hampshire can preserve the heritage of the religious group for future generations.
From Memorial Day through mid-October, visitors may tour the three-story, austere, white clapboard structures on the hill that overlooked the wood lots and farms of the Shakers.