The last Shakers

At their peak, there were 5,000 Shakers. Only two remain. The faith group’s impact on America’s cultural and religious landscape will endure long after they’re gone

Sister June in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. | Séan Alonzo Harris

The tiny village of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, is the world’s last community of Shakers. They trace their roots back to Ann Lee, the daughter of a blacksmith born in Manchester, England, around 1736.

Lee associated with a group that worshipped charismatically, rolling on floors, shrieking and shaking with the rapture of spiritual transcendence. And from this came their name: the Shakers.

Ann and eight other Shakers fled England in 1774 and settled in upstate New York. Theirs was a particularly austere form of Christianity, one that required great sacrifice: Shakers are required to live communally and in celibacy.

Brother Arnold. | Séan Alonzo Harris

At their peak, there were 5,000 Shakers, with settlements stretching from Indiana to Connecticut, and from Maine to Florida. But because the Shakers don’t really evangelize, and because they are celibate, their numbers have dwindled.

By 1900, there were less than 1,000; by 1936, there were 92. And now, there are just two, Arnold and June. They live together in the village of Dwellinghouse, but sleep in separate beds. They own all the Shaker property communally, and confess to each other their sins. 

Séan Alonzo Harris
Séan Alonzo Harris

The Shaker theology is simple, modeled on what they believe is the way Jesus Christ lived: chaste, with no possessions.

Arnold Hadd joined the Shakers in 1978 at the age of 21, at a time in which the only other Shaker community, in Canterbury, New Hampshire, had decided to close its ranks to outsiders.

Arnold has done pretty much everything in the village: he’s at times the head farmer, chef, press secretary and nurse. The village regularly gets visitors and Arnold is often weary serving them all.

In 2017, Arnold told Commonweal magazine that Shakers were building heaven on Earth. “We’re not prefiguring heaven — we’re living it. This is it, right now,” he said.

Because labor and craftsmanship are seen by Shakers as a way to worship God, Shakers have become known internationally for making high-quality furniture and inventing some basic household items, like clothespins, the flat-bottom broom and the circular saw. Unlike the Quakers, they do not eschew technology.

At Sabbathday Lake, Arnold and June teach visitors how to make soap and bind books, and money generated from these courses keeps the village alive.

Arnold says his life of celibacy has been a “wonderful privilege” but at times a “dreary, horrible existence all at the same time.” He followed a straight and narrow path, he told Commonweal. “The more you’re on it, the more straight and narrow it becomes.”

A school chalkboard and children’s marble sack. | Séan Alonzo Harris

Still, his life of sacrifice for Christ has given him visions of what heaven might look like. “I don’t know that it necessarily has to look like a Shaker community,” he said. But what might it look like? “Light, all light, because that’s what God is.” 

This photo essay appears in the April issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.