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by Brad J. Waggoner

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Maine and the Last Shakers on Earth

Jul 21, 06:16 AM

So I biked almost all last night to make it to Maine, and it was worth it just for the puns. Once you hit the border, you start to see signs for “Maine-ly Automotive Sales” and “The Hu-Maine Society.” The streets in the middle of towns aren’t even Main Streets, they’re Maine Streets. Oh, those New Englanders and their sense of humor.

So now I’m by Sabbathday Lake, the site of the last functioning Shaker community in the world. Many people think the Shakers are long gone, but they are still carrying on. While in the 19th century there were hundreds of members of the Sabbathday community, now there are only four.

Some say the Shakers came from the Quakers, but the Shakers at this community say they originated from the Methodist tradition. (Don’t trust Wikipedia, get the facts yourself!) Like the Quakers, they are known for craftsmanship and believing that God is in everyone and is available without an intermediary. Unlike the Quakers, they are also known for celibacy and singing.

I started the day by attending their meeting for worship. Almost 30 people were gathered in the meeting house, mainly friends from the community with a few tourists. They sat in benches, with the men in rows facing the women. In Shaker tradition, men and women are generally separated, and even have different doors to enter buildings. They are equal, however, in their worth and esteem in the community. In fact, this community is led by a matriarch, Sister Frances.

This is a picture of the inside of the meeting house (I didn’t feel right taking a photo during worship, as I hadn’t asked first):

The worship was interspersed with song, as after each testimony offered by a congregant, another would begin the first line of hymn, and everyone else would join in. Almost everyone knew all the words by heart.

It was an open house day at the community, and the Shakers were busy showing tourists around the farm. Therefore, I didn’t talk with them very much, but I will be returning tomorrow for in-depth conversations.

I did, however, take a barn tour with Brother Arnold Hadd. The highlight was the highland cattle that the Shaker community raises for meat. Arnold was obviously quite attached to the animals, especially showing off a tame bull named Delmar that he had saved from slaughter as one year’s Christmas wish. But this is Arnold with a smaller cow named Maggie:

Anyhow, as the Shakers were busy, I toured the museum on the property, which is part of a 2008 statewide show highlighting Maine’s cultural heritage.

One of the most striking parts of the show were a series of paintings, songs and drawings that the Shakers view as revelations from God and the spirit world. Believing that physical manifestations of the other world are commonplace, Shakers would consistently receive visions and melodies.

Even the famous Shaker song, “Simple Gifts” (” ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free…”) was a gift song, received by a brother in Alfred, Maine in 1848.

When Shakers received visions, they recorded them in different art forms. The writing was often intricate and adorned with angels, greenery, stars, and other fanciful features. The art conveys the bliss expected in the hereafter.

Here is one of my favorites, by Eldress Hester Adams in 1845:

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