Leaving the Shakers for Love

A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine wrote to the last remaining community of Shakers at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, seeking permission to stay with them for a couple of weeks and observe their day-to-day lives and worship and then create poetry based on her observation and participation. Her lofty goal was not without precedent---the Quiet in the Land project had done it in 1996---but her query was met with silence. Undeterred, my friend and her mom set out to visit Sabbathday Lake (along with a number of other Shaker historic sites) in the summer of 2007.

While visiting Watervliet, New York, site of the first Shaker village in America, my friend first heard rumors that one of the four remaining Shakers living at Sabbathday Lake had renounced his vows and left the community to pursue a romantic relationship with a journalist who had recently written a piece on the community. Upon reaching Maine, the rumor was confirmed to be true, and my friend and her mom joked that the Shakers’ silence in response to her initial inquiry was because they were afraid of losing the only other remaining male member of the community.

So it was with interest that I read “He left the Shakers for love” in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks ago. The story---written by Stacey Chase, the journalist who fell in love with Shaker Wayne Smith while profiling the community---details the development of their romance, beginning with seemingly innocent flirting during her initial trips to the village and culminating in their September 2008 marriage. I was struck while reading by a couple of things. Chase curiously compares Smith’s renouncing his Shaker commitments in pursuit of love to other defectors throughout history:

Seven months after we met, he renounced his religious vocation and vow of celibacy after 26 years at the Sabbathday Lake community to pursue our relationship. It was 2006, and he was 43. “Sometimes you just know,” he says, tapping his heart, “here.”

Others have made similar sacrifices: King Edward VIII abdicated his throne; Maria Kutschera, later von Trapp, left the abbey; and, recently, Miami priest Alberto Cutie abandoned the Catholic Church. Only . . . the English monarchy and Roman Catholicism weren’t facing extinction. As the youngest Shaker (in 2006, the other members were 49, 67, and 79), Wayne would likely have become the last Shaker, and that prospect weighed heavily on him. His sudden departure not only shocked the three remaining Shakers, but it was as if it validated the protracted, public deathwatch of the Shaker faith.

I also found interesting the conditions of his leaving the community---Smith was granted a three-month grace period “to extricate himself from life at Sabbathday Lake,” while the community pooled together their limited collective resources and provided Smith with a used truck and $9,000 cash with which to start his new life. The two discreetly dated during the grace period (Chase remembers that they “dated discreetly, but it felt sickening, as if I were seeing a married man”), and then three months to the day that Smith officially became an ex-Shaker, he proposed. Despite the assistance provided to Smith upon his departure, “most of those associated with the [Shaker] order distanced themselves from Wayne---which stung him deeply.”

In Chase's telling, their story is one in which love trumps religious commitment, and everything works out in the end. Today the two are happily married, share a common faith (Smith converted to Methodism prior to their marriage), and Smith works as a maintenance worker at a biotechnology firm---a seemingly mundane ending to this anything-but-ordinary episode of amorous defection. Not particularly familiar with other instances of defection from the Shaker community in the past, I’d be interested in how this fits into that larger framework. How common is dissent and defection in Shaker history? Are there instances similar to this? How do the remaining Friends view the dissenter? Anybody know?


Elizabeth said…
I'm more familiar with the inverse occurrence in Shaker history--families joining the Shakers and naturally disbanding. Husbands and wives separated to live celibate lives. If a marriage is on the rocks, why not join the Shakers? But, I would like to think they joined out of religious conviction. There are also stories of poor families leaving children to the Shakers to raise. In one particular story, when the parents returned to claim their daughter years later, the child refused to join her biological family in favor of staying with the Shakers.