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God Among the Shakers: The Search for Stillness and Faith at Sabbathday Lake





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About the book:

The Shakers have long been a misunderstood Christian sect. At the time of their arrival in America in 1774, they were persecuted as witches who spoke in tongues and participated in wild orgies; today they are known more for their handcrafted furniture than for their beliefs or history. While their name stems from their original practice of employing frenetic dancing as a way to invoke the spirit of God, the modern Shakers work toward an inner stillness through labor, simplicity of living, and prayer. Though often confused with both the Quakers and the Amish, with whom they share certain traits, the Shakers are unique in that all of their members are converts (they are bound to lifelong celibacy), they embrace technology when it allows them to work more efficiently, and while they have turned away from the values of modern society, they do not insulate themselves entirely from the outside world, particularly when it comes to working with other denominations for humanitarian causes. Though thousands joined the faith in the 19th century, today only eight Shakers remain, all of them working together on a farm in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. It was there that Suzanne Skees, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, spent a month living and working with the Shakers in an effort to understand and document their way of life.

Ostensibly a work of journalism, Skees's motive for writing God Among the Shakers was as much personal as professional: "I went to the Shakers to look for God, who lately had been absent from my harried, distracted days.... I was living the American dream. Striving to build a career, family, and home. Along the way, however, hope had been lost to frenzy, and my spirit had dried up...." It is this effort to analyze, if not remedy, her lapsed spirituality that provides the most insightful passages of the book. She views her immersion into their community as a personal test of faith, and the approach--along with extended quotations--results in a candid and colorful view of the Shakers that often reads like a series of intimate conversations. Skees successfully conveys the appeal of their approach to life while acknowledging the difficulties in achieving simplicity in an increasingly complex world.

Though her prose occasionally leans toward sentimentality, her firm grasp of the history and theology of the Shakers makes her book informative, but it is her honesty in detailing her own transformation that makes it rewarding. --Shawn Carkonen

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