The Last Shakers

written by Kat Bair
10 · 18 · 23

The Shakers were one of the most influential Christian movements in the United States in the nineteenth century. A charismatic sect of the Quakers, the Shakers believed in realizing the Second Coming of Christ through working towards more perfect societies. Shakers lived in primarily rural communes, living off of their produce, livestock and crafts. The Shakers believed that labor honored God and produced an aesthetic style and architecture that has influenced American architecture and interior design to this day. Shakers, due to their self-sufficency, are credited with a huge host of domestic inventions including the circular saw, flat broom, clothespin, and more. 

The Shakers faced protest movements, factions, eras of leadership, and an entire rich history. There were thousands of Shakers, living in dozens of independent utopian communities, mostly in New England. Many of those communities are now preserved as museums and historical site, because, these days, the number of remaining shakers has dropped to two. 

Not two communities, two people. The only remaining Shakers, Arnold Hadd and June Carpenter, were late additions to the community, and while they still receive multiple inquiries a week about membership, they seem to intend to let the tradition die with them. Reading about the Shakers this week, I was struck by that decision, and by what it meant.1 

The Shakers are an undeniable part of American Christian history. They have had a noticeable impact on modern life (I have a flat broom on my porch, and have done more clothespin-based crafts than I can count). And yet, they are content to say their era of influence on American life is over. They don’t consider their utopian experiment a failure, but simply a hint of a perfect future to come, a glimpse of heaven they were allowed to be part of. 

Is there something we can learn from their example? Can we embrace a reality in which something can be good and beautiful and impactful, and also be allowed to end? 

It takes incredible bravery to sunset a program, ministry, or community, particularly one that has had real power. But the ways that God calls us and our communities change, and sometimes faithfulness to the call as it is means letting go of the call that once was. Lazarus who was raised died again, and that doesn’t make his resurrection less of a miracle. 

What new calling could you have room for if you allowed old callings to fade? What clarity, focus, or renewed vision might be available for you and your community if you didn’t feel beholden to all the things that your community once was? 

Spend some time this week thinking about what programs could be honored, celebrated, and let end. Understanding this as a holy work and grieving, and not a failure, can allow us to honor the work God has done and make room for the work God will do. 

The Shakers legacy will always be one of communal living and service (and lovely handmade furniture), and that is a testament to the work of God in their lives, even if we don’t necessarily agree with all the theology. That testament is not hindered by the end of the Shakers, and God’s testament in our community isn’t hindered by the end of any of our programs either. 

  1. Religion News Network, “Why the Legacy of the Shakers will Endure”

Kat Bair

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