Granite State of Mind, #75: Shaker Village, Canterbury
During my studies of the early American republic era in college, I was fascinated by Second Great Awakening, the burst of evangelical Protestant fervor that characterized the earliest years of the 19th century in the new nation, especially in upstate New York. This religious movement, combined with the seismic changes of the Commerical (or Market) Revolution, set in motion many of the fundamental precepts that defined the American ethos for the next century and a half (and perhaps beyond). Part of this explosion of faith included breakaway utopian sects and societies, intent on either bringing out the return of Christ through good works or divorcing themselves from a sinful society and waiting for the coming millennium. Among the bewildering array of these groups were the Shakers.
The Shakers had begun about a half-century earlier, across the Atlantic in England. The Quakers were moving away from physical displays of enthusiasm during worship, and the "Shaking Quakers" continued to employ the more frenetic behaviors that gave them their name. They also adopted central tenets of pacifism, celibacy, and simplicity, as well as a communal lifestyle. These took root in northeastern America during the Second Great Awakening alongside other revivalist Christian sects, and the landscape became dotted with Shaker villages, including the New Hampshire bishopric, with settlements at Enfield and Canterbury.
The Canterbury Village was the more successful, reaching a peak of 300 members and 100 buildings in 1850. But attracting new members became more difficult as faith-based reformist agendas were sidelined during the hurtling progress of the Industrial Revolution and the social upheaval of the Civil War. When celibacy is one of your primary beliefs and recruitment lags, you're in trouble, and the Canterbury Shakers were reduced to 100 by the dawn of the 20th century. In 1939 the last male Shaker at Canterbury died, and in 1957, with fewer than 16 remaining members, the Eldresses closed the society's covenant forever. No new members would be admitted to the Shakers, and the last remaining member at Canterbury passed away in the early 1990s. Only two living Shakers remain, at Sabbathday Village near Poland, Maine.
Canterbury Shaker Village today is a museum, and all of us New Hampshire kids have been there on field trips. I love historic sites, whether they be full of costumed reenactors like Strawbery Banke or Plimouth Plantation or simply a place where we can catch a glimpse of times gone by, hear the whispers of how other people lived and what they believed. I love that New Hampshire has more than its share of those places, testimony to the depth and breadth of history in our granite hills.
The Shakers were remarkable for more than the simple beauty of their furniture, so sought after by collectors. They were committed to community, to shared economy, and to equality of the sexes (Shakers believe God is both male and female). It would be tough to make celibacy work writ large, but an emphasis on community and a belief in sexual equality seem like pretty darn good ideas to me.