Simple gifts

I recently heard a story on National Public Radio about an effort to preserve the music of Shakers, a Christian sect founded in England in the 18th century. There’s a certain urgency to the project, because there are only three — yes, three — remaining Shakers in the United States. They farm in the last Shaker village, Sabbathday Lake, in rural Maine.

Brother Arnold Hadd, one of three remaining American Shakers. Photo: Susan Sharon

Brother Arnold Hadd, one of three remaining American Shakers. Photo: Susan Sharon/NPR

Shakers eschew marriage and sex, which compels the snarky part of me to point out the importance of planning. (Founding a Sect 101: Step 1. Create dogma.  Step 2. Choose a propagation plan. Options, in order of descending effectiveness: procreate, proselytize, hope for immaculate conception, or, for sects in which self-apocalypse is part of the dogma – see Step 1 – mass suicide. )

Mostly, though, I’m sad, because there is something lovely in the humble, nature-appreciating Shakers, who, after splitting from the Quakers,  were nicknamed for the physicality of their worship. Shakers believe God is both female and male, and hold both sexes in equal esteem.  In addition to a celibate and communal lifestyle, the sect practices pacifism, prayer and meaningful work. In broader American culture, Shakers are associated with non-materialism — not only with simple living, but the simplicity of their architecture and furniture.

Engraving of Shakers dancing, circa 1840.

Engraving of Shakers dancing, circa 1840.

But music is also an important part of their faith; many Shakers wrote songs, which were sung together as a form of unity in worship. According to NPR,  10,000 Shaker songs are stored in the Sabbathday Village library.

The best known is Simple Gifts by Elder Joseph Brackett, which dates back to 1848.  Two minutes of beauty for your day, here performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krause:

Though Brother Arnold Hadd, 58, may be around for awhile, he will soon be the last of his kind in this country:  Sister June Carpenter is 77;  Sister Frances Carr is 89. They’ll leave a legacy of simple but profound gifts:  of lives lived in peace and by principle; of modest and mindful existence in an age of gross materialism; of reverence for the beauty and fragility of the natural world,  eclipsed in the modern mind by affinity with a coarser, virtual reality.

A prayer for them, then — for the last of the Shakers as they leave our world: May you find yourselves in the place just right; may you be in the valley of love and delight.





  1. I loved reading about this. I am happy you introduced me to their music. I am sad that only three remian. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re most welcome. Thank you for sharing your gentle response.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. a sweet tune
    & tribute, Cate 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!


  3. That’s so beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Learn as well as experience beauty: in the blog itself, in the rendition of Simple Gifts. Thank you Cate as always. Must say though, that the “Founding a Sect 101” had me on the floor.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for the compliment, my friend, and for appreciating the snarky as well as the serious. 🙂


  5. Never heard of Shakers before, but that is to be expected in this corner of the Earth. An interesting article about a noble effort with a forgone conclusion. Let the music live!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amen! Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve always been intrigued by the Quakers and because of the association, the Shakers. It is indeed sad that there are only 3 left. I thank you for sharing this and the music, so lovely. I’m sure I know that tune but did not know it was created by a Shaker…so I live and learn 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome. “Simple Gifts” is a wonderful song, and this rendition heartbreakingly beautiful.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. A beautiful rendition of the first verse and chorus, the one that most people know. It’s hard to argue with Yo-Yo Ma, and Alison Krause. There are at least four verses to this, however, which one may find with a quick web search. These verses are ones I found myself years ago, and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten where. It’s the version I sing when I perform this. I think they make the song much more meaningful.

    Steven K. Smith
    Wordpress blog:

    Simple Gifts

    ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free,
    ‘Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,
    And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
    It will be in the valley of love and delight.

    When true simplicity is gained,
    To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed,
    To turn, and to turn it will be our delight,
    ‘Til by turning, turning we come ’round right.

    ‘Tis a gift to be knowing, ’tis a gift to be kind,
    ‘Tis a gift to wait and hear someone else’s mind,
    That when we speak our feelings we might come out true,
    ‘Tis a gift for me and a gift for you.

    (Repeat Chorus)

    ‘Tis a gift to be gentle, ’tis a gift to be fair,
    ‘Tis a gift to wake and breathe the morning air.
    To walk every day in the path that we choose,
    ‘Tis a gift we pray, we may never, never lose.

    (Repeat Chorus)

    ‘Tis a gift to be loving, ’tis the best gift of all,
    Like a warm spring rain bringing beauty when it falls,
    And as we use this gift we may come to believe,
    That it’s better to give than it is to receive.

    (Repeat Chorus)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for supplying the additional verses. I’d encountered them, too; it’s unclear to me whether they were part of the original or added in subsequent years. They are lovely, in any case.

      Liked by 1 person

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