Canterbury Shaker Village was established in 1792 when followers of founder Mother Ann Lee formed their seventh community in Canterbury, NH, which remained prominent for 200 years. The Village has operated exclusively as a museum since 1992 when the last Shaker sister in residence, Ethel Hudson, died. The few remaining Shakers live at the Shaker Village in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. At its height in the 1850s, 300 people lived and worked in over 100 buildings on 3,000 acres at Canterbury Shaker Village.
The religious group that we know today as the Shakers was formed in 18th-century England when dissidents from various religions, including English Quakers and Methodists, formed a religious society based on prophetic doctrine. The group, formally called the United Society of Believers, were known as Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, because of their use of ecstatic dance in worship.
The Shakers emigrated to the United States in 1774 and eventually established nineteen self-contained communities from Maine to Kentucky. Canterbury Shaker Village is one of the oldest, most typical and most completely preserved of the Shaker Villages. The Village contains the only intact, first-generation Meetinghouse, built in 1792, and Dwelling House, built in 1793, in their original locations. Overall, the Shakers were the most successful communitarian society in American history.
The Shakers’ revolutionary Christianity shocked their contemporaries. They challenged almost every mainstream ideal of American society during their time. Shakers believed in communal ownership, pacifism, dancing in worship, equality of the sexes, celibacy, and living simply. Most Protestants of the day found that bringing dancing, whirling, and clapping into a sacred space and elevating it above the word of God, spoken by an ordained minister, was sacrilegious. But to the Shakers, the dancing signified a communal, not individual, relationship with God, which was a powerful symbol of the Shaker cultural system.
Despite the monastic characteristics of their communities, the Shakers were not primarily a contemplative religious society. According to founder Mother Ann Lee, the Shakers devoted their “hands to work and hearts to God.” They believed in community ownership, but were aggressive entrepreneurs, launching industry after industry, developing and adopting new technologies, and reinvesting the earnings into community enterprises to encourage greater growth and productivity. At their height, they were highly successful in competing with the outside world. By the 1830s the Shakers at Canterbury were rich in buildings, land, cash, wood lots, livestock, produce, industry, community possessions, and community skills. The Shaker “brand” quickly became known for quality, integrity and reliability. Shakers cared for the poor and used resources and profit for social good.
Today, the museum at Canterbury interprets 200 years of Shaker life through its exhibits, buildings, gardens, programs, and tours. The museum has an enviable collection of Shaker objects, manuscripts, and photographs along with surviving architecture from all periods of its history. Canterbury Shaker Village is a unique resource for learning about Shaker architectural intent and early Shaker community planning and design, as well as the many periods of Shaker life. The postcard-perfect setting hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, making it one of New Hampshire’s most popular cultural attractions.