In the mid-19th century, Shakers practiced their faith in farming communities from Maine to Kentucky. Numbering 6,000 at their peak, they gave up worldly possessions, marriage and sex, instead devoting themselves to prayer and work. They also wrote songs, thousands of them — including "Simple Gifts," which endures in popular culture despite dating back to the 1840s.
The religion, however, has not been sustainable. There are just three followers left: two elderly women and one middle-aged man, who live at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Me. Stored away in their village library is a collection of 10,000 Shaker songs.
"We believe that everything we have is a gift, a gift from God," says Brother Arnold Hadd. In his late 50s, Hadd is the youngest Shaker and oversees their small farm where they raise cows and sheep and grow vegetables and herbs.
"Of all the gifts that we have had, the one that has remained constant since 1747 when we began to today is music," Hadd says. "It tells our history. It tells our theology. It tells about our daily living."
Shakers lived a communal lifestyle. Everyone was encouraged to write songs; singing united them in worship. In the past, their villages would arrange to sing the same song at the same time of day as a way to feel connected across geography. But some of them, like "Bright Angels Descend," haven't been sung in more than a century.
"'Bright Angels Descend' is another one that I found in a manuscript that basically nobody in the world is singing today, so that's exciting for us in the group," says Chris Moore.
Moore is not a Shaker: He's a musician from Yarmouth, Me, who started coming to Sabbathday Lake as a teenager and became entranced with Shaker themes of faith, humility and the beauty of nature. Moore remembers watching community members sing these songs in their signature style: a cappella, with no harmonizing and no instruments.
"At the time, as a young person, I didn't have any idea of what I was being given the gift to witness," he says. "But now it's become apparent how lucky I was to be in the room while that was happening."
Now that there are only three Shakers left, Moore is determined not to let their songs vanish. He started a singing group dedicated to Shaker music, which has since performed in front of live audiences at the Shakers' meeting house.
Moore says he hopes that Shaker songs can be part of a revival of 19th century folk music, which might preserve a chapter in American cultural history after the last Shaker is gone.