The Shakers’ Last Dance
A new book by journalist Jeannine Lauber shows Shaker life as being different from popular perception.
Maine is home to one of the last communities of Shakers at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester. Part of a religious movement that began in the eighteenth century and spread throughout the Northeast before falling into decline at the turn of the twentieth century, the Shakers became famous for their craftsmanship and unconventional religious beliefs and traditions. The Shakers’ practices of celibacy and “ecstatic worship” (from whence came the term Shaker) prompted suspicion, disdain, and mean-spirited rumors from their neighbors.
But a new book by journalist JEANNINE LAUBER shows Shaker life as being different from popular perception. In this exclusive excerpt she documents an eye-witness account of the last ecstatic dance to take place among the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake.
Many changes have occurred over the course of Shakerism regarding ecstatic worship — the free and unencumbered physical expression of the manifestation of the spirit. From its wild, erratic, sometimes chaotic beginnings among the earliest Shakers, to the ritualized and highly rehearsed spiritual dances of the early 1800s, to the simple hand movements and foot stomping accompanying today’s motion songs, what is most important is simply the fact that it remains.
“In the time of Mother and the Elders (1774–1784) there was no such thing as we think of as the ‘dance,’ ” explains Brother Arnold of Connecticut. “It was all ecstatic worship. It was whirling, twirling, it was running, it was leaping, it was dancing, it was rolling on the floor. Nothing discernible as a ‘dance’ was part of their worship.”
While dancing remains a pastime in the existing Shaker communities, no one has “shaken” under the influence of the Holy Spirit during Shaker Meeting in a very long time. The word “shake” itself is an insufficient description for what can happen when a believer surrenders his or her will to that of the spirit, opening a portal into their soul.
Sister Frances, of Lewiston, is the only person alive to have witnessed the gift of a Shaker being swept up by ecstatic worship. It is a sacred story, one she tells with power and conviction. The year was 1938.
“I remember a very, very moving experience. I had not yet moved into the Dwelling House so I was probably between the ages of ten and eleven. It happened upstairs in the Winter Chapel .
“Picture this, if you will. In the front of the chapel was Eldress Prudence, Sister Jenny, Eldress Harriet, and Brother Delmer. They faced the congregation because they were the Elders, they were the hierarchy within the church. And then there were probably six or seven benches with people on each bench. The older sisters, the ones who really had come through, were on the front benches, and then they gradually went up until there was a bench for little girls, and then a little row of chairs for the very tiny children five or six years old.
“It was very full, and Meeting was going along, and it must’ve been a very good Meeting because all of a sudden that spirit penetrated the Meeting. I want you to remember there were all these young people. There were a few boys also at that time. All of a sudden it was quiet, and Sister Eliza Jeffers was brought abruptly to her feet. She was the most unassuming, gentle person I’ve ever known — she was seventy. She had very blue eyes and white hair piled up in a little bun on her head. All of a sudden she began to whirl. She began to go around in a circle.
“Eldress Prudence immediately left her seat, went over to Sister Eliza, never touched her, but just circled her so that . . . I mean, if this was God-given, God was going to keep her protected, but perhaps Eldress Prudence didn’t realize that . . . didn’t want her falling on a bench, or something. Eldress Prudence just circled her and stayed right there. Sister Eliza was in front and there were benches between us, but she was just sort of whirling around and around and around. She was on her feet. I believe her eyes were closed. It only lasted a few minutes.
“And then I remember seeing Sister Eliza. She was pale as a ghost. She sat down. Remember what I told you about the Meeting room being filled? There was not a sound; not one snicker or gasp from a young person; not from the boys; complete silence. It was toward the end of Meeting, and after a brief interval, someone else got up and spoke and Meeting continued. And when it was over, we just filed out. Everyone filed out in absolute silence. I’ll never forget, the children just left and went back to their house in complete silence. It was overwhelming. It really was. I was very moved.
“I wasn’t frightened, but I was certainly caught up in it. Everyone must’ve been. Because, you’d expect children, or even the little girls to say ‘Ohhhhh!’ or something, but there was nothing. Nothing. Absolute silence. That was the last manifestation of the spirit that has ever happened in the Shaker church.
“Sometimes when it’s Pentecost Sunday, and we’re all gathered together and we read about the room suddenly being seized and everybody shaking, I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we all began to have that spirit?’ But we don’t.
“When people ask me, ‘Do Shakers shake in church?’ it makes it sound like it’s a deliberate effort, and it isn’t. Unless that power takes you over you’re not going to shake. If it’s God’s will for it to happen, then it will happen. I don’t think that my wanting it to happen will make it happen. You can’t make yourself have this manifestation.
“We don’t have the same spirit that they had in the early days. Things change. At that time, people were desperately seeking to know more about the Spirit of God, of the Christ, of Mother Ann. Perhaps they needed it more.
“Perhaps it will come back. I don’t know.”
Excerpted from Chosen Faith, Chosen Land; Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 200 pages; $30. Available at www.DownEast.com
Image courtesy of Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community