The Causes of the Decline of Shakers in Alfred

Sarah Bouley
Massabesic Middle School, 7th Grade


“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘Tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.”
By Joseph Brackett

Shakers in Maine first started appearing in the 1790’s from England. The first Shaker colony was in Watervliet, New York but they quickly branched out to other territories. At one time you could find Shaker colonies as far south as Narcoossee, Florida and as far north as Sabbathday Lake, Maine where some Shakers still live to this very day. They were a religious branch off of the Quaker religion and were often called “Shaking Quakers” because they moved and shook while praying in church. Their main goal had been to free themselves from politics and wealth and live a life that was simple and free from vanity. In order to reach this goal, Shakers believed in the equality of races and genders and that everyone had equal rights. This made the Shakers a very close community. They were strict, however. Shakers weren’t allowed to be married and men and women had very little interaction with each other. Due to the fact that the Shakers had wanted to free themselves from the outside community, they were constantly manufacturing useful things to prove their independence from society. The things they built were practical and useful and intended to last a long time to ensure quality. They were very resourceful and created things such as the flat broom, the clothespin, and the metal pen. Their ideas are still widely used in our daily lives today!

Shakers in Alfred owned farms and tended to their crops, livestock, gardens, and shops. They were a very independent group of people. Over time, hundreds of Shakers came to call Alfred their home. Shakers lived very modestly; they valued simplicity and looked for harmony in all things. In short, Shakers were simple, hardworking, kind people who tried their best to make their religion well known. Probably the best known Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” best describes who the Shakers were and what they believed in. This hymn was composed by Alfred native, Joseph Brackett, in 1848. The song rejoices being simple and pretty much sums up what being a Shaker is all about. It explains how Shakers enjoy the simple life and how they don’t mind being humble because it makes them better people by doing so.

Shakers were very productive people. They were always busy. Much of Alfred was made up of large agricultural fields where the Shakers tended to their crops. They not only worked in agriculture, but they also were experienced in woodworking, tanning, and farming and owned the buildings to do so. Shakers understood the true meaning of simplicity and they all worked hard together to keep their community working and vibrant. The Shaker community was practical too. There were houses for the people to live, stables, shops, a schoolhouse, a church, and a hospital. Every day the Shakers of Alfred were working hard to keep their community running steady and efficiently. So why did Shakers start to disappear? It seems like they had a productive community. They had a good thing going for them.

The Shaker population started to decline slowly in the 1860’s. One of the reasons the Shaker population started declining was because of the fact that many people didn’t believe in the Shaker’s religious views. As time went on, more and more people practiced other religions instead, such as Catholicism. Many people believed in God, but they thought it was more practical to worship Him without such strict rules governing their everyday lives and controlling whatever they did. To be a Shaker meant to leave all freedom of choice and opinions. This was especially difficult because society was becoming freer in terms of personal opinions. Especially after the Civil War, many people proved that they couldn’t handle the strict rules of the Shakers and gave up the Shaker way of life for a more free way of living.

Another reason was that Shakers also had a difficult time keeping up with new and improved technology that was being created. This progression competed with their way of life and they found it harder to make a living. People wanted new ideas and ways to live their lives more efficiently, and the Shaker way of life became less appealing. People were learning to accept the new and changing society and they didn’t want to dwell on the past. The country had just finished a very bloody and terrible war that devastated many, many families in this country. After the Civil War ended, the importance of being closer and more together with friends and families was far greater than the rigid rules that the Shakers had created. Because of this, some of the Shakers converted back to previous religions or just quit in general, and less and less people wanted to become Shakers.

A third reason the Shakers population started declining was because Shaker rules were so strict. To be a Shaker meant to give up one’s opinions and vanity and to serve God humbly. This proved to be too difficult for many people and many of them just wanted to have the freedom to worship Him without these rules. The qualities of being a Shaker that had attracted people in the past weren’t as promising as they had been before. All of this eventually led to the end of the Shakers in Alfred and the United States. Many people who had converted to Shakerism realized that the Shaker way of life wasn’t as fulfilling and free as it had appeared to be at first and quit the Shaker way of life.

By the 1900’s the end of the Shaker way of life became evident. Their rigid rules, a changing economy, new and improved technology, and different religious views had led the way to the end of the Shakers. Today there is only a small group of them left here in Lake Sabbathday, Maine. We can’t deny that the Shakers left an unforgettable mark here in our country though, and hopefully we will continue to remember the lasting memory of them here in Alfred, Maine.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/shaker/can.htm

http://www.alfredshakermuseum.com/history/simple-gifts/

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2011/03/18/september-17-2010-the-shakers/7026/

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