Category Archives: Arrival of the Shakers in America

The Glorious Sixth

I can never remember if my first experience of something Shaker was nearby at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach, Florida (a captivating exhibition that contemplated the similarities between Shaker furniture and traditional Japanese furniture), or if it was on my first big road trip on my own, in autumn 1989, at a stop at the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, New York, where I had a memorable sandwich (cheddar, apple, and carrot with maple mustard on hearty wheat). Aside from the sandwich, though, the visit was not very good. The museum left me feeling sad and depressed. Everything about it suggested that the Shakers were long gone, relics of the past.

Somehow, in the weird serendipitous stumbling manner in which I’ve managed to get through my years, I ended up going a few years later to the mountains of North Carolina to study the book arts at the Penland School of Crafts, meeting a guy there named Seth Thompson. He would end up becoming my husband 20 years later, but perhaps more important to the story, he happened to be from Maine, from a neighboring town to Chosen Land, the sole remaining active Shaker Community in the country. Or the world, for that matter. Seth also happened to work there sometimes as a tour guide and in the herb gardens, and so he had a working relationship with the Shakers, especially with Brother Arnold Hadd, who, like me, is a letterpress printer. I’m not sure if the idea to print a book at Chosen Land was Seth’s or mine to begin with, but we approached the Community with the idea, and they said yes. Or “yea,” in the Shaker manner (they answer with “yea” for yes and “nay” for no). I was welcomed, in fact, each summer while I was in grad school, to research, write, set type and print and make books.

Chosen Land is the polar opposite of my experience in Old Chatham. It is a place full of life and love and timeless beauty, and I count my time with the Shakers as amongst the most important days of my life. And today, the 6th of August, is a day of great meaning to them: It is the anniversary of the arrival of the Shakers in America––the day they call the Glorious Sixth.

Here’s the story: On the 6th of August in 1774, a slight woman from Manchester, England, arrived in America at New York Harbor with a small band of followers. Her name was Ann Lee, but her followers called her Mother Ann. They called themselves then the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but they became known as Shaking Quakers, a derogatory name given to them by outsiders to describe the whirling and sometimes frenetic dances that were part of their worship. In their own empowering move, they embraced the name and began referring to themselves as Shakers, and following their arrival in America, the Shaker movement gained momentum. Shaker communities sprouted up throughout New England and west into Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. A short lived community was founded even in Florida.

Sometimes other people in my life get sucked into my serendipity. Today’s photograph, which was shot at a window ledge at the Shaker Store at Chosen Land, was taken by a former student of mine, Charles Pratt. Charles is still in school here in Florida, but he’s up in Maine this summer working as a camp counselor. As luck would have it, the camp he’s working at just happens to be minutes away from Chosen Land. Last weekend, he made his first visit to the Shaker Community. I know the window through which he shot that photograph, for I worked in the Shaker Store myself during my visits there. Just part of the routine. If I wasn’t printing or binding, I might’ve been tending the store, or in the garden weeding, or helping in the fields bringing in the hay. The fact that Charles went to Chosen Land, got a glimpse of the place I know so well, and sent me that photo… well, it meant a lot to me. The connexions we all manage to share still bewilder me.

Each year for the Glorious Sixth, I tell the story of my first time experiencing that celebration. Seth and I were both there, invited to take part in this awe-inspiring night. I’m going to pass on telling that story again this year. Instead, I’m just going to continue being glad that Charles went to visit this place I love so much, and I’m going to keep in mind Brother Arnold and Sister June today, and I’ll remember Sister Frances and Sister Marie, too. If you want to read the story, though, here’s a link to one of those past chapters. Brother Arnold tells me that early in the history of Chosen Land, “More love!” was a common greeting between the Shaker brethren and sisters. And so, to all of you, too: more love.


Photograph by Charles Pratt at Chosen Land, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in New Gloucester, Maine. July 29, 2017.


Simple Gifts

Gift Angel

When Seth and I returned to Maine last month for the first time in six years, our sense of homecoming included not just the actual home we stayed in, but the place itself: the woods, the winding roads, the people, the places we would go. And though we only got to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community once while we were there, that place, which the Shakers call Chosen Land, will always be a place that is somehow home, too.

My first summer internship at the Shaker Press was in 1996. I remember arriving there my first day, completely unsure of what to expect. Brother Arnold Hadd and I had exchanged a couple of letters and the Community agreed that I could come work there on a book project for the summer, but that was about it, save for deciding our subject matter: We would make a book about Deacon James Holmes, the first printer there at Chosen Land. I arrived in early June, fresh from Alabama where I had been living since the winter before, to a land where the burgeoning summer was still a bit unsteady on its feet. I met Brother Arnold; he showed me the print shop: it was in the old dairy cellar of the brick Dwelling House, and it held a Vandercook press that he only used as an imposing stone, a Golding Jobber press that would prove to be the workhorse of our project, and some type cabinets. The type was mostly Bulmer (a close relative of Baskerville) and an odd Victorian font called Graybar. There were other decorative fonts in slanted cases, and there was some wood type, and a defunct refrigerator that held tins of oil-based inks.

But before any printing, we needed a story. And so I spent weeks in the Shaker Library, researching. I read everything I could find about Deacon James and I looked at everything he had printed. Deacon James first came to the Sabbathday Lake Community as a young man in the late 1700s but it turns out he didn’t become a printer until he was in his 80s. Someone had given the Community some metal type; Deacon James decided the only thing to do was to build himself a press so he could use the type. He built the press in the garden shed, where it remained until the 1950s, when it was tossed out during one of Brother Delmer Wilson’s big clean-ups. In the library, I got to handle all the small books and broadsides that the good deacon had printed… and I got to look at the Shaker Library’s collection of beautiful gift drawings: drawings that were made by Shakers through inspiration they received as gifts from Shakers who had gone before them. They are amazing, each and every one, and Brother Arnold and I decided to use details from these drawings to illustrate our own book about Deacon James.

The board shears / paper cutter was located in the Sisters’ Shop, one of the other beautiful Shaker buildings in the village, the one that also houses the Herb Department, where the Shakers have been packing culinary herbs and herbal teas since 1799. Whenever I had to cut paper for a project, whether for the book or for some other print project, the very air I breathed was spiced with the fragrance of herbs: barrels and barrels of them in the work room, and an attic full of herbs hung to dry. And when I came up with the idea of making our book look like it was found in Deacon James’ old garden shed, Brother Arnold suggested we make a dye from the old butternut trees by the Trustees’ Office. So we gathered up the nuts and boiled them up into a dye in the old Shaker Laundry, in the basement of the Sisters’ Shop, in sight of one of the first washing machines ever made. The Shakers were the first to make washing machines, and they came up with many other conveniences that eventually became part of our everyday modern lives. (This one looks nothing like a contemporary washing machine, though: It’s made of granite and wood. I’m sure it saved plenty of time in its day, but they don’t use it anymore!)

I don’t remember which building we were in when we dyed the book covers and the seed packets we printed for the book, but I do remember we were working on the floor beside a large loom. And we bound the books anywhere we could, sharing the work: Seth and I bound some at the saltbox where we were living; Brother Arnold and the other Shaker sisters and brothers bound the rest when they could in the Dwelling House. And just as suddenly as my summer had begun, it was just about wrapping up: it was early August by then, and my first semester in the MFA in the Book Arts program at the University of Alabama was about to begin. But our book still needed a proper ushering into the world. As it turns out, one of the most important days of the year for the Shaker Community is the Sixth of August, or, as they call it, The Glorious Sixth. It seemed an auspicious day for the book’s unveiling, for it marks the day in 1774 when their founder, Mother Ann Lee, arrived in America from Manchester, England, with a small band of followers to settle here and start life anew. They eventually ended up in Watervliet, New York, and from there the Shaker way spread. At the peak of the Shaker movement in the 1800s, there were more than 6,000 Shakers living in communities throughout New England and Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and even a short-lived community here in Florida. For all of these Shakers, August 6th would be held as a special day in the Shaker year.

It continues so today. These days, the Sabbathday Lake Community is the only active Shaker community left in the world, and there are three Shakers there at Chosen Land: Brother Arnold, Sister Frances, and Sister June. There were more that day in 1996, but since then, some have passed on, and some have left the Community. In fact, many have come and gone over the years, trying the Shaker life. And there are friends. So many of them. Friends who are more like family, and so any gathering at Chosen Land is a big, bustling affair. The preparations for that Glorious Sixth celebration in 1996 were all hustle and hubbub until the supper bell rang, and supper was outside, at wooden picnic tables on the lawn outside the Dwelling House. I probably had trouble buttoning my trousers that night, because the Shakers fed me well all summer long. Brother Arnold and I unveiled our book, presenting a copy of it to each brother and sister. We called it Collected and Compiled by J.H.: The Story, in Many Voices, of Deacon James Holmes, for in researching the book, I realized that the good deacon’s story is best told as a community, which is the basis for Chosen Land and Shakerism in general.

After supper and after our book unveiling, with the setting sun, the magic of the evening truly began. Our small band ventured off to the 1794 Shaker Meeting House, the heart of the village, across the road. We entered as is the Shaker custom, women through one door, men through the other, and we sat on our opposite sides of the room, facing each other, as is also the Shaker custom for each Shaker Meeting. And it is deeply ingrained in my memory what happened next, as the light continued to fade into the darkness of evening, as the dim and flickering lamplight became the only source of light: in the faces of the sisters and other women across from me, I felt I could discern the faces of Shakers throughout time. We may have entered the Meetinghouse in 1996, but it didn’t seem to remain 1996. Sacred spirit filled that sacred space. We sang the song the Shakers always sing for this night: a song called “Mother;” it calls to mind the early history of the Shaker movement. It begins with the words At Manchester in England, this blessed fire began / And like a flame in stubble, from house to house it ran. Certainly tonight Brother Arnold, Sister Frances, and Sister June, the three Shakers that remain in this world, will be singing this old song, and I know they will be joined by an extended gathering of friends. The friends will be from “the world” but still will feel a bit like family, the extended family that radiates out from the Shakers. Chosen Land is a bit like home, after all, and even though Seth and I won’t be present, we will remember all who gather there, especially as the light fades this evening.


Image: One of the illustrations from our book Collected and Compiled by J.H.: The Story, in Many Voices, of Deacon James Holmes, First Printer of the Sabbathday Lake Shakers. It is a detail from one of those Shaker gift drawings I found in the Shaker Library, circa 1830 to 1860, a period of Shaker history known as the Era of Manifestations, a time of very active spiritual revivalism that expressed itself mainly in song and art. The Shakers who drew these gift drawings felt they were acting as medium between the spiritual world and this world, receiving gifts that they then transferred to paper and shared with their Shaker brethren and sisters.


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Chosen Land


The Sixth of August is an important day for a small group of folks Seth and I know and love in Maine. They call each other brethren and sisters and they respond to questions in the old style yea and nay. They are the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake and there are four of them, currently: Sister Frances, Sister June, Brother Arnold, and Brother Brian.

August 6 marks the anniversary of the arrival of Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee in America. It is a day the Shakers call The Glorious Sixth. Mother Ann and a small band of followers left England and came to New York in 1774. Their official name was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but they were ridiculed for their whirling dances and outsiders began calling them Shaking Quakers, which was meant to be derogatory. They embraced the name and soon began referring to themselves as Shakers. The movement found fertile ground in America and Communities were founded in the 1700s and 1800s throughout New England and New York and west to Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, and there was even a short-lived southern Community in Florida, up near Kissimmee.

Don’t let the yeas and nays fool you: the Shakers are a progressive bunch. From the start, they stressed equality of the sexes and the races. They refer to God as Mother/Father and women have always held prominent leadership roles. Early Shakers were quick to jump on board with technology and even invented many early versions of tools we use even to this day. A prominent Shaker motto is “Hands to work and hearts to God,” a tenet of their belief handed to them by Mother Ann. Technology was useful in helping them make the work they had to do more beautiful, more prayer like. To that end, the things that Shakers made in their Community industries over the years have become known for their exquisite craftsmanship. And there have been many things: furniture, of course, as well as oval boxes, poplar ware, even the culinary herbs and herbal teas they package today (which we offer at the Convivio Bookworks website and which the Sabbathday Lake Shakers have been selling since 1783).

And so today it will most likely be Brother Arnold who prepares a big meal for the Community and friends who will gather. Perhaps they will eat out on the lawn or in the dining room of the Dwelling House. Come sundown, they will gather up and head across the street, to the 1794 Meetinghouse, a building so beautiful in its simplicity. There are no column supports to interrupt the openness, which gave the early Shakers plenty of room for their ecstatic dancing. The Shakers today do not dance, but still the building inspires. Whenever I am there, I look at the wide plank floor. I think of all the Shakers who whirled and danced on that floor. I look at the beams painted with blueberry milk paint, the original paint from 1794, still blue, still the hue of sky at dusk.

There will be readings and set Shaker songs. One song that is always sung on this night begins At Manchester in England, this blessed fire began / And like a flame in stubble, from house to house it ran…. There will be testimonies from anyone who is moved to speak, followed always by Shaker spirituals inspired by those testimonies. And through it all, despite the lanterns, night will slowly descend on the Meetinghouse and the Community gathered, wending its way, weaving its magic.

Seth and I were there with them only once for this occasion, in 1996, when I was a printing intern with Brother Arnold. And I remember always what happened as the room filled with darkness and lamplight. The women sat on one side of the room and the men on the other, as is the Shaker custom, and in the faces of the sisters and other women across from me, I could discern the faces of Shakers throughout time. We may have entered the Meetinghouse in 1996, but it didn’t seem to remain 1996. Sacred spirit filled that sacred space.

Seth and I will be thinking of our Shaker family tonight as the sun sets, as we do each Sixth of August and so many times through the year. We will think of them and remember this night and our privilege of sharing it with them. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers call their home Chosen Land. To be there is to understand why. Especially on the Sixth of August: it is one night where this title becomes particularly apparent.


Image: This is the most famous of the Shaker gift drawings received from the spirits in the Era of Manifestations: a mid-nineteenth century period of intense Shaker spiritual revival. The drawing is called “The Tree of Life” and it was seen and painted by Sister Hannah Cohoon at City of Peace (the Hancock Shaker Community in Massachusetts) on July 3, 1854.