One of the last three remaining members of the dwindling Shaker sect died Monday.
Sister Frances Carr died at the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine, “after a brief battle with cancer,” according to a statement on the community’s website.
It continued, “The end came swiftly and with dignity surrounded by the community and her nieces.” Carr was 89.
Carr was a member of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, a Christian group formed in 1747 in Manchester, England. They earned the name the Shakers when critics began calling them “Shaking Quakers” because of “their ecstatic and violent bodily agitation in worship,” according to Sabbathday Lake’s website. The Shakers eventually abandoned this particular dancing-style worship, but the congregation adopted the term, according to the Associated Press.
The religious sect moved to the United States when Ann Lee, one of its leaders (known as Mother Ann) who was imprisoned in England for her views, fled to the New World with eight of her followers in 1774. Eventually, the group established its first American community in New Lebanon, N.Y. Slowly, it blossomed into 18 communities across the Eastern United States, including locations in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Massachusetts.
The last remaining community is Sabbathday Lake, which now has only two members.
This is not a surprise. The Shakers practice celibacy, in addition to pacifism, equality of the sexes and communal ownership of property.
As its members didn’t have children, the sect grew both by converting adults and by raising orphaned children and, when they reached age 18, giving them the option to remain a member of the sect or to leave the community.
This helped it reach its mid-19th century, pre-Civil War height of about 5,000 members.
Carr, for example, was taken in by the Shakers when she was 10, because her parents couldn’t care for her, the AP reported. But as the communities ceased this practice — and not many, if any, adults were converting to the unique way of life — the religious sect’s numbers began decreasing significantly.
Although it may sound like an old-fashioned religious sect by today’s standards, at one time the Shakers were considered progressive. As PBS noted, “Seventy-five years before the emancipation of the slaves and 150 years before women began voting in America, the Shakers were practicing social, sexual, economic, and spiritual equality for all members.”
In their Southern communities, members freed all of their slaves in 1817 and began buying other black believers out of slavery, PBS reported.
And, although many often confuse Shakers with the Amish, members actually embraced modern technology. The Sabbathday Lake community, for example, has Internet access and computers.
More than that, because the Shakers remained self-sufficient by growing their own food and designing their own tools, and “believed that God dwelt in the details of their work and in the quality of their craftsmanship,” they are thought to have invented several time-saving devices, such as the circular saw, the flat-bottomed broom and the spring-loaded clothespin.
“To the Shaker, everything is a gift from God,” Brother Arnold Hadd said in a short documentary released by the Maine community. “Everything. Whatever we’re doing, that’s a gift. And we try to labor on that gift to bring it forth into a perfection.”
One of the outcomes of this perfection was Shaker furniture, which is renowned for its “minimalist design and unstinting quality,” according to a description from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is one of the many American museums to display some of these pieces. It continued:
Rejecting excessive ornament because it ostensibly encouraged the sin of pride, Shaker furniture makers focused on overall form and proportions, developing creative solutions such as asymmetrical drawer arrangements and multipurpose forms to add visual interest without resorting to pure decoration. Most Shaker pieces were originally painted or stained, both to protect the wood and to make it more attractive. Colors were strictly regulated by the Millennial Laws, with blues, greens, reds, and yellows the most popular and monochromatic treatments preferred. Many pieces that now have clear finishes were repainted or refinished by subsequent owners.
But the production of such pieces may be nearing an end.
Before her death, Carr apparently didn’t like when people called her, 60-year-old Hadd and 78-year-old Sister June Carpenter the “last” Shakers — she was convinced others would eventually convert to the religious sect, something Hadd still hopes for.
“Every day the prayers go up that we will get people to come, that we get competent vocations,” he told the AP. “It’s a calling from God.”
Carr and Hadd weren’t the only ones to feel this way. The now-deceased Sister Mildred Barker told PBS that she wasn’t worried about the sect.
“This is God’s work, and what could bring that to an end? Nothing that we humans, that mortals do,” she said.
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