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For Celibate Sect, Not Much Shaking Goes On Any Longer


Now there are four. Or maybe it's three. Only a few people know for sure. There are only three or four members of the curious religious sect called Shakers still alive in the world. They are elderly women, living in a small community in Maine. Almost two centuries ago, followers of the Shakers' charismatic founder Ann Lee established communal settlements from Maine in the Northeast to Kentucky in the mid-South. One colony, in Ohio, gave its name to what is now the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights.

Onlookers gave the sect its name as they watched its true believers twitch and clap loudly -- shaking off the sins of the world as they sang and danced. President James Monroe, who stopped at a Shaker settlement in the 1820s, noted in his journal that, in his words, "The singers began increasing the violence of their actions as they were warmed by the Spirit."

Shakers emphasized honesty, hard work, and simplicity. Shaker missionaries walked the countryside, seeking converts. And converts were essential, because the Shakers lived as celibate brothers and sisters. There could be no new children to build the ranks, which helps explain why there are so few Shakers left in the world.

A few appointed Shaker traveling salesmen brought the sect money by selling high-quality Shaker garden seeds, fruit preserves, straw hats and brooms, oval boxes, and furniture. That distinctively simple yet solid furniture is highly prized and valuable to this day.

After the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, tens of thousands of Americans headed westward in search of fortunes and a new life, and lots of Shakers left the fold. It was the beginning of the slow demise of their sect. Some Shaker settlements became museums and still draw visitors, curious to find out what all that moving and shaking were about.

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