If you have studied the history of religion in America -- part of my double-major as an undergraduate and then my master's degree work in church-state studies -- then you will have run into the fascinating movement called the Shakers. Trust me, there is more to these believers than their influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement and, well, L.L. Bean.
The Shakers are in the news right now for reasons that are easy to understand, but a bit harder to explain -- if you care about the details.
The best report I've seen on this topic so far (combining elements of several other news stories) ran last week in The Washington Post with this headline: "One of the Shakers’ last three members died Monday. The storied sect is verging on extinction." It's a solid report, but does contain a very interesting and important hole. Meanwhile, here's some key material at the top of the story:
Sister Frances Carr died at the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine, “after a brief battle with cancer,” according to a statement on the community’s website. It continued, “The end came swiftly and with dignity surrounded by the community and her nieces.” Carr was 89.
Carr was a member of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, a Christian group formed in 1747 in Manchester, England. They earned the name the Shakers when critics began calling them “Shaking Quakers” because of “their ecstatic and violent bodily agitation in worship.” ... The Shakers eventually abandoned this particular dancing-style worship, but the congregation adopted the term, according to the Associated Press.
The religious sect moved to the United States when Ann Lee, one of its leaders (known as Mother Ann) who was imprisoned in England for her views, fled to the New World with eight of her followers in 1774. Eventually, the group established its first American community in New Lebanon, N.Y. Slowly, it blossomed into 18 communities across the Eastern United States, including locations in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Massachusetts.
The last remaining Shaker community is at Sabbathday Lake, with two members.
Now, if you know anything else about the Shakers -- other than about their music (think "Simple Gifts") and furniture -- then it is probably a rather logical reason for the movement's decline:
The Shakers practice celibacy, in addition to pacifism, equality of the sexes and communal ownership of property.
As its members didn’t have children, the sect grew both by converting adults and by raising orphaned children and, when they reached age 18, giving them the option to remain a member of the sect or to leave the community. This helped it reach its mid-19th century, pre-Civil War height of about 5,000 members.
Right, right. It is going to be hard for a movement committed to celibacy to thrive in the modern world. I get that.
However, if this story is about the death of the Shakers movement, it would have helped to have included maybe two or three sentences more about how they thrived, relatively speaking, in the past.
So they grew through evangelism and their care of orphans. It might be hard to capture what their evangelism efforts looked like, but I am sure that it was never very easy to win converts on the American frontier for a movement based on celibacy, pacifism, egalitarianism and the sharing all property and wealth in common.
So let's focus on the adoption thing. As the Post story notes:
Carr ... was taken in by the Shakers when she was 10, because her parents couldn’t care for her, the AP reported. But as the communities ceased this practice -- and not many, if any, adults were converting to the unique way of life -- the religious sect’s numbers began decreasing significantly.
Although it may sound like an old-fashioned religious sect by today’s standards, at one time the Shakers were considered progressive. As PBS noted, “Seventy-five years before the emancipation of the slaves and 150 years before women began voting in America, the Shakers were practicing social, sexual, economic, and spiritual equality for all members.”
In their Southern communities, members freed all of their slaves in 1817 and began buying other black believers out of slavery, PBS reported. And, although many often confuse Shakers with the Amish, members actually embraced modern technology.
Now here is the question I wished that someone had asked: Did the Shakers stop adopting children or were there fewer and fewer American children to be adopted?
Yes, it's easy to say that the Shakers died because they didn't have sex and, thus, babies. That is part of the radical nature of their faith and, thus, their story. But you can also make a case that the movement faded because there were fewer and fewer children available to adopt, the further Americans moved into the 20th Century.
Now why did that happen? Why were there fewer and fewer children around to be adopted?
I can think of several reasons.
In a way, it's easy to say that the Shakers lost a demographic showdown with the emerging Sexual Revolution. You can also say the movement died, in the end, not just because they didn't have children of their own, but because Americans started having fewer and fewer children -- with fewer available to be adopted by others. So, in a way, the Shakers vanished because of changes in the lifestyles and decisions of others, not just their own members.
So where did the children go?
That's rather haunting. So is this, near the end of this report:
Before her death, Carr apparently didn’t like when people called her, 60-year-old [Brother Arnold] Hadd and 78-year-old Sister June Carpenter the “last” Shakers -- she was convinced others would eventually convert to the religious sect, something Hadd still hopes for.
“Every day the prayers go up that we will get people to come, that we get competent vocations,” he told the AP. “It’s a calling from God.”
Carr and Hadd weren’t the only ones to feel this way. The now-deceased Sister Mildred Barker told PBS that she wasn’t worried about the sect.
“This is God’s work, and what could bring that to an end? Nothing that we humans, that mortals do,” she said.
Ah, but what about the choices of others?