The Shaker Village
It is an irony that the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, should be the last of the Shaker villages in the United States. During much of its history, the community, which was founded in 1794, was impoverished and small in numbers—the "least of Mother's children in the East." Even among the five villages surviving the longest, Sabbathday Lake was seen as a backwater: it alone never provided a leader for the central ministry of the United Society of Believers.
The difficulty of life in the harsh Maine countryside and the community's lack of material wealth may actually have helped ensure the survival of the Shaker way in Maine. The 1,900-acre village is no longer remote—lying on either side of what is now Route 26, one of Maine's busiest north-south arteries—but its rural location on the western edge of the Town of New Gloucester helped insulate the community from worldly influences. Sabbathday Lake is also fortunate to have been served by an unbroken line of gifted leaders who have drawn young Shakers into the spiritual traditions of the Society for over two hundred years.
The community traces its origins to the visit in November 1782 of three Shaker missionaries from Gorham, Maine, who came to preach among people caught up in the religious revival then sweeping through much of the frontier country of northern New England, arrived at Thompson Pond Plantation near Sabbath Day Pond. Four local families— the Holmes's, the Merrill's, the Pote's, and the Wilson's—consecrated their lives and their properties to the Society. By the next year, 173 individuals were living in the community. At first these pioneers continued to live on their own farms, but on April 19, 1794, the group was formally gathered as an organized community.
The earliest joint efforts at building among the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake were the construction of a gristmill in 1786 and a gambrel-roofed Meeting House in 1794, which still serves the community for worship today. The year following the completion of the Meeting House, the community erected a large Dwelling House, its two front doors facing the two front doors of the Meeting House across the way. The Dwelling House was a 3 1/2 story structure that included a chapel, several large sleeping rooms, a kitchen, and a dining room, where the Brethren and Sisters dined at separate tables. With a home for its members, the beginning of an economic base in the sawmill erected in 1796 and in agriculture, and a place for the community to practice their faith, Shaker Village had been established.
The Village would continue to grow. By the early nineteenth century, the community had constructed twelve buildings that were used for a variety of trades. By the early twentieth century, the Village consisted of over twenty structures, including the Boys' Shop, the Brethren's Shop, the Dwelling House, the Girls' Shop, the Great Mill, the Hired Men's Houses, the Meeting House, the Ministry's Shop, the Schoolhouse, the Sisters' Shop, the Spinhouse, and the Trustees' Office, as well as barns, chicken houses, and a greenhouse.
The Village now includes eighteen structures. The original functions of many of these structures have changed. The Dwelling House is the Shakers' residence, the Meeting House is used for Public Meeting during the summer, the Schoolhouse houses the Shaker Library, the Spinhouse is the location of the Shaker Museum, and the Trustees' Office houses the Shaker Store.
The Shaker Community
Although the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake is much smaller than it was at its height, it has conserved its traditions. Only in Maine, for example, was the practice of regular community worship maintained. This determination on the part of the community seems to have provided a fuller context for living the Shaker life that continues today.
During the period of the project, the community consisted of the following individuals:
Sister Frances A. Carr, the female head of the community, was born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1927 and became a Shaker in 1937. She described the impact of the project on the community: "I think the whole experience of people living here . . . , for some just a month, made such an impact on their lives and also on our life because it . . . reinforced what I have often thought, and that is while it is terribly essential for a core of Shakers to be in this community always, God willing, people who come here and are touched by the Shaker life, by Mother's Gospel, and have to go back to the world for reasons of their own, who for one reason or another can't live in community, I think it changes their lives, and I think they always will feel a part of the life here, and that in itself is a gift. That is a true gift, that God took people, brought people here from every background, every nationality, every color, . . . and it all blended together and hopefully it will never leave them. . . . They have been touched by that Shaker experience. Look how they sing so happily about Mother's Gospel. They couldn't feel the way they do if it hadn't made an impression on them. It changed their life. I'm convinced of it. And it changed ours." Sister Frances is the author of Shaker Your Plate: Of Shaker Cooks and Cooking (1985) and Growing Up Shaker (1994).
Sister Marie Burgess was born in Rumford, Maine, in 1920 and became a Shaker in 1939; she died in 2001. She came to the community when she was nineteen. She made many contributions to the community, including baking the community's bread three times a week for over forty years.
Sister June Carpenter was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1938 and became a Shaker in 1989. A former librarian, she originally came to the community in 1988 to catalogue the collection in the library. Of her experience as a member of the community, she has stated: "I'm very glad to be here. I'm grateful they accepted me. God always provides everything I need and a lot more, and I'm grateful to him for putting me here, and I keep trying to grow in my life for him, and I don't know if it's noticeable to anyone else, but I think I'm gradually doing better and growing into it more and more. So I hope to keep doing that for the rest of my life."
Sister Minnie Greene was born in South Portland, Maine, in 1910 and became a Shaker in 1921; she died in 2001.
Sister Ruth Nutter was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1908 and became a Shaker in 1911; she died in 1997. Describing her view of what being a Shaker is, she stated: "To me, a Shaker is more than a dress. It is loving, caring, kindness. When I used to work in the shop, they would say, 'What is a Shaker?' And I'd say, 'Well, it's just a person who tries to live right and do right, does what he can for other people.' In fact, maybe we all have a little bit of Shaker in us. . . . I think the Shakers try very hard to live their faith, live their religion, which is, to me, far more than words. You've got to live it. And I hope that's the way the artists will live."
Brother Arnold Hadd, the male head of the community, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1956 and became a Shaker in 1979. Brother Arnold had been visiting the community for three years before he decided to join—an experience that gave him insight into how the community lived. He discussed whether the project changed the community as follows: "I think it made us . . . more willing in the future to listen through to something else that would be out of the ordinary for us to even consider. The overall effect is that we feel that we have twelve very good friends that we would never have had before, and keeping in contact with them means a great deal to us. . . . [T]hey might have been here a short period of time, but as time goes on, it becomes more important the time they did share with us."
Brother Alistair Bate was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1964 and became a Shaker in 1995; he later left the community. He explained his initial interest in becoming a Shaker: "I felt called by God in quite a definite way. . . . I had been a member of a Benedictine community for two years, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two, and I left because I couldn't hack it. I wasn't emotionally strong enough to deal with the loneliness of that life at that time, but at various points, I looked back on that time with perhaps more than nostalgia. I felt increasingly called to a monastic lifestyle, but in those few years I had been away from the Benedictines, I had gotten interested in spiritualism and Quakerism, as well as the Anglicanism of my birth. So my theological horizons had broadened. And so when I was looking at religious communities, I was looking for something that was theologically quite progressive, but had yet quite a disciplined, ordered, and contemplative lifestyle. So Shakerism just fitted what I was looking for, and fitted where life had taken me to very perfectly."
Brother Wayne Smith was born in Portland, Maine, in 1963 and became a Shaker in 1979. Of his decision to become a Shaker at age sixteen, he has observed: "[A]t sixteen sometimes it's hard to figure everything out, but what was very apparent to me at the time . . . was that this really had become my home. That the people who live here really were beginning to mean more and more to me and also there was for the first time a real interest in my spirituality as opposed to just . . . going to church. . . . [B]y being here and just experiencing the life, things just grew from that."
Today, the Shaker community moves forward with its tradition, although the world often assumes that Shakerism is as static as the historical relics of highly collectable furniture which have become synonymous with the Shaker name. As the late Sister R. Mildred Barker (1897-1990) mused, "When I die, I fairly expect to be remembered as a piece of Shaker furniture." But these kinds of misinterpretations do not deter the Shakers from their real vocation, and the strength of their convictions cannot be measured in terms of their number. For Sister Frances, "Shakerism has always been known as an ever-changing, ever-evolving way of life. If we allow ourselves to become static, to become complacent, we are in trouble. It always has to change. It always has to move." New people and new ideas are embraced, as Believers actively pursue their own personal faith journeys, never relying on the security of a historically interpreted doctrine. Brother Arnold has emphasized these aspects of his community as well. "The greatness of Shakerism," he has stated, "has always been its open, elastic nature, that allows for the embracing of so many things, and for the individual to grow." The Quiet in the Land focuses on this living Shakerism, and not just the material culture and artistic "crafts" through which much of the world sees this tradition.