The last Shakers in the world

Arnold Hadd is the last Shaker man on Earth.

A polite man, he is simple in his speech, still utilizing the traditional “yay” and “nay” in place of the common “yes” and “no.” Yet when the discussion turns to the Shakers' perceived legacy as craftspeople, his mannerisms change.

“In the vernacular, it pisses me off,” he says. “Everybody comes here thinking we're a guild of furniture makers, which is about as far away from the truth as it can be.”

But while such misinterpretation may be the bane of the Shaker tradition, it may also be its salvation.

Hadd, 51, is a member the last Shaker community here, situated on a small farm by a placid lake. In the 19th century, the farm housed hundreds, and there were as many as 6,000 Shakers across the country. But now there are only four, and new members are few and far between.

The United Society of Believers, as Shakers are formally known, was founded in 1747 in Manchester, England, yet followers were forced to move to America soon after to escape persecution.

Their name arose out of mockery of their worship — like the Quakers or even the Methodists — which often involved singing, dancing, and even convulsion and speaking in tongues said to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. A semi-isolationist group, Shakers built about two dozen communities, mainly between Maine and Kentucky.

The foundations of the faith include living like Christ, which for Shakers means living celibately and sharing communal property. They also believe in the equality of the sexes, living peacefully, and continuous revelation.

But their belief in the sanctity of hard work — embodied by their adage, “Hands to Work, Hearts to God” — has created a predicament in the faith's twilight.

“The general population associates Shakers with their furniture and (a) few of their items,” says Leonard Brooks, a Shaker historian who has lived with the Sabbathday Lake community for 30 years. He is currently director of their library and museum, which displays the artwork of the Shakers, from divinely-inspired drawings and songs to intricately crafted baskets and furniture.

“It's unfortunate that craftsmanship is all people see, as the Shakers are so much more,” Brooks says. “They're like living Psalms. In them, you read how brutal God is, throwing everything at you. Shakers recognize their shortcomings and challenges, and don't overstate their virtues. They are laborers who experience the full range of experience of life, just as in the Psalms.”

Thousands of tourists visit the community every summer to see the artistry of generations of Shakers. But some Shakers are upset that furniture might be all they see. In fact, a well-known quote circulates among the Shakers reflects their frustration: “I don't want to be remembered as a chair,” said Mildred Barker, a Shaker who died in 1990 after living in Sabbathday Lake for almost a century.

So it might seem ironic that a community would advertise aspects that it does not want to be known for, yet it's part of an intentional plan. Visitors are not just offered a window on Shaker production, but are able to tour the entire farm, from the fruit orchard to the meeting house. And if they come on Sunday, they are welcome to join in worship.

“Our mission is just to make people aware,” says Hadd. “Some people just take away that they've seen more furniture, but a lot of people take away that is a living community, which they weren't aware of.”

And Shakers hope, some visitors may decide to join the community to keep the tradition going. Since Hadd became a member in 1978, dozens of people have stayed with the Shakers. But only two have stayed permanently.

Spreading the Shakers' message through tourism is hard, and Hadd says the amount of people who can't see past the object gets to him.

“It's really difficult because as Americans, we look at output,” Hadd says. “But what we produce isn't actually important; it's work, it's laboring. I have yet to figure out how to get that through to people.”

Nevertheless, he has faith that Shakers will persevere as long as need be.

“We believe it is the truth, and whether others see it as the truth or not, we have to live and die by it,” he says. “But I have a firm belief that as long as this is God's work, God's going to send the hands to keep it going.”

After all, people don't dedicate their lives to making furniture. Even Jesus gave up being a carpenter.

“He saw something else a little higher,” Hadd says.