About a decade ago I stopped in to interview one of the world's last living Shakers, Brother Arnold Hadd of Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine, for a book I was writing. At that time it was the world's last open Shaker village with just seven members.
Brother Arnold wore khaki pants and a dark green polo, looking for all the world like any other New Englander on a weekday. Except for his 18th-century Shaker responses of "yay" or "nay" to my questions, he was every inch the modern man: in fact, he made a point to tell me that Shakers have always embraced new technologies, including electricity, television, and the Internet.
One of the things I asked Brother Arnold about was a prophecy that Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784), the founder* of Shakerism, had issued near the end of her life: that a time would one day come when the world would only have a few Shaker believers left. Hadd seemed to feel that that time had arrived. “Survival is the underlying challenge,” he said. “At least, somewhere in the back of our minds, it’s there.”
By 2006, they were down to just four Shakers; in 2010 the number dwindled to three. But they are still keeping their traditions alive for worship and community. Because Shakers are celibate, they are unlikely to grow numerically unless there are conversions, but Brother Hadd said when I interviewed him that the interest they'd had from potential converts faded when these enthusiasts realized what a demanding life Shakerism requires. "Hands to work, hearts to God," was one of Mother Ann's signature phrases, an ora et labora maxim that is a gift to all of us, Shaker or not.
I'm thinking a good deal about Shakerism today because February 29 is Mother Ann's birthday -- an unusual birthday to match an unusual and visionary woman. After her death, Shakers in the 19th century would celebrate this day with special dances and songs -- two of the things that Shakerism is still known for. I was heartened today to learn that the tradition carries on with certain friends of the Shakers; for example, the Shaker Heritage Society is holding a special event tonight in Albany to honor Mother Ann and the movement she created.
I feel sure she is pleased.
* Technically, Ann Lee was not the founder of Shakerism but its most significant early convert, who went on to bring the movement to America as its clear leader.