For the past decade or so, on my annual trip to Maine every summer, I have thought about attending a Shaker service. Each year I talk myself out of it.
It’s an hour-long drive and seems a little far to go, given that there are closer churches. It also strikes me as a little voyeuristic; I would be going more from curiosity than a desire for worship.
The Shakers, if you are unaware, are an ascetic Christian sect probably best known for their simple yet exquisite hand-made furniture. They came to mind as my local newspaper last week reported the death of one of their members at age 89 Ordinarily the death of a church member doesn’t warrant international news coverage, but Frances Carr’s death leaves just two Shakers alive I think it is pretty safe to say their community, and an important part of American history, is slated for extinction.
Christian practices vary (as do Christian beliefs) and what sets the Shakers apart is what has doomed them. Some of their beliefs, such as living a simple lifestyle, resonate well with 21st century sensibilities. On the other hand, living a celibate lifestyle doesn’t seem all that attractive. That certainly was a stumbling block for many who were initially attracted to the group.
I once visited a church where, as I was informed at the post-service coffee time, “no-one asks you to believe anything hard.” That struck me then as just wrong, and thirty years later it still doesn’t sit right with me. Nowhere in scripture are Christians promised that life will be easy; indeed, if anything it is the reverse.
I admire the Shakers for their steadfastness, for sticking to their beliefs in the face of dwindling numbers. (Even though I don’t agree with some aspects of their theology that doesn’t mean I can’t respect them.) It would have been easy to compromise for the sale of community continuity, but they have chosen not to do that. I cannot help but be impressed.
Perhaps they have failed somewhat in what should be their primary mission, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. I don’t know how to judge that. Indeed, such judgement is not my responsibility, and I’m not even sure of my opinion. After all, it is pretty impressive that the death of Frances Carr has generated such worldwide publicity. Maybe that is a way of spreading the gospel, in that people who have never heard of the Shakers before might be inclined to investigate what they believe. You would think there is no sense to allowing your community to literally die off, but maybe that indeed is God’s purpose for the Shakers. As it says in Ecclesiastes, To everything there is a season, a time and a purpose under heaven. Perhaps the Shakers feel that purpose has been fulfilled for their group.
I am moved by the Shakers deep, abiding faith, their devotion to principle in a changing world. When this community is no more, as seems inevitable, we will all be the poorer for it.