A view into the simple lifestyle and social order of largely extinct religious group

canterbury shaker

We have always had a great love for Shaker crafts – particularly the furniture and textiles. So, we decided to take a slight detour on our journey through New England to visit the Shaker Village in Canterbury, NH. The journey itself from the Interstate 93 was along a narrow, curving road lined with trees in their full autumn adornment. The tree line was occasionally broken by openings complete with domestic animals. It reminded us of England (I guess this is why this is New England). The only thing that was un-English was the weather which was bright and warm – unseasonably so for the end of September.

The Shaker village of Canterbury is set in rolling green hills – a serene and comforting setting. It is clear to see why they chose such a spot. The buildings of the village are plain and their whiteness is starkly set against the green countryside. No Shakers actually live in the Canterbury Village anymore so it is a museum to a religious order which is largely extinct.

The Shakers, a Protestant religious denomination officially called The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, originated in Manchester, England in 1772 under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee, who moved the nine-person group to New York in 1774. The name “Shakers,” originated from the term “Shaking Quakers” and came about as a description of their rituals of trembling, shouting, dancing, shaking and singing. The Shakers built 19 communal settlements that attracted some 200,000 converts over the next century. Strict believers in celibacy, Shakers maintained their numbers through conversion and adoption of orphans. Turnover was very high; the group reached maximum size of about 6,000 full members in 1850, but now has only four members left.

We chose to take a tour around the main dwelling house of the village, which is a large four level building. As with all things Shaker the house is very organised, being symmetrically divided into the brothers and sisters sides of the building. Other than the division of their dwelling into sexes everything else about the Shakers was communal – they shared their place of worship, gathering (eating and sitting areas) and resting places (not really bedrooms – all they did was literally sleep there, six or eight to a room). Whilst the Shakers believed in frugality they differed from communities like the Amish in their acceptance of technology in making life more productive. They for example adopted electricity at an early stage and on this particular site were generating their own electricity from acid vats at the turn of the 20th century – later moving to steam and gas driven generators. We visited one bathroom in the sisters side of the dwelling which had wonderfully detailed wood paneling, linoleum flooring, ceramic sinks with hot and cold running water and flushing toilets (they had developed a rudimentary sewage system). This bathroom was pretty much as it would have been around 1905 – and would have compared to any available in the houses of wealthy families in New England. Not many people could live the Shaker way (for one, celibacy would have not worked for me) but there was a lot to admire in their standard of living and the values by which they lived.

We spent a good three or four hours at the Shaker village before heading off to continue our journey.

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