A concise history of the United
Society of Believers called Shakers
Charles Edson Robinson,
CANTERBURY COMMUNITY—CONCORD—WATTANUMMON’S FIELD—
DONATION OF BENJAMIN AND MARY WHITCHER—FATHER
JOB BISHOP—PETER AYERS—DAVID PARKER, TRUSTEE—
ELDER HENRY C. BLINN—SR. MARY WHITCHER.
The Society of Shakers at Canterbury, N. H., is located on gracefully I rising ground, overlooking most of the surrounding country, high up on the Canterbury hills, twelve miles north-east of that beautiful City of Elms—Concord, the capital of the State.
To a person shut up within the walls of city life, who longs to breathe the pure air of heaven, no more enjoyable trip could be planned for an outing than a ride over the hills from Concord to Canterbury. Passing out from the city between the noble elms which line each side of Main street, forming a perfect arch in summer, to the north end, or head of Main street, by the old ancient landmark, the Rev. Timothy Walker estate, the first lot in the first range laid out in Penacook* (Concord,) in 1726. Here on the brow of Horseshoe Pond Hill, lived Parson Walker, in a log house, until 1733-4, when he built the two-story gambrel-roofed house, which is said to be the oldest two-story dwelling house between Haverhill, Mass., and Canada. This house, with some modern improvement, still stands surrounded by the stately elm trees set out by Mr. Walker’s own hand in 1756, and is now owned and occupied by his great grandson, Hon. Joseph B. Walker, as his residence.
Passing these beautiful grounds, we make a sharp turn to the right, down the hill, crossing the tracks of the two branches of the Boston and Maine Railway divisions of the Contoocook Valley and Northern railroads, we strike into the Interval road skirting Horseshoe Pond, once the ancient bed of the Merrimack River now a mile distant.
At this point we see within the Horseshoe vast acres of green grass called Horseshoe Island, and a little further on is Wattanummon’s Field, still known and called such, after an Indian chief of this name, who, at the time of the arrival of the first settlers, was living in a wigwam on the little rise of ground just over the brook, which is the outlet of the pond into the Merrimack, and over which we are about to cross by a stone bridge, called Wattanummon’s Bridge.
A well preserved tradition respecting Wattanummon’s dominion over this field is extant, and almost any old farmer in that locality will tell you of the advent of Captain Ebenezer Eastman and his men, in the summer of 1726, into Wattanummon’s field to cut the grass, when the old Indian chief and two of his sons sallied forth with their guns to prevent the trespass. Eastman and his party, seeing the warlike approach of the land claimants, laid aside their scythes and waved a flag of truce in the shape of the demijohn, the contents of which were so well known to the Indian. When within speaking distance, the brave Wattanummon called out in his broken English ; ,,My land! my land! no cut ! no cut !” and raised up his gun as if to shoot. Eastman hastened to reply ; “Yes, this is your land—your grass. Won’t you come and take a drink with me, and we will talk it over?” The old Indian drew himself up with dignity as he took the proffered cup, and said ;
* A powerful tribe of Indians, known as the Penacooks, were found occupants of the soil which is now Concord, by the first white explorers in that region in 1638. This territory was known as the Plantation of Penacook from 1725 to 1733. It was then incorporated as the township of Rumford, which name it retained until 1765, when it became incorporated under the name of Concord.
“Yes, yes ; me drink first ;” and drained the cup to the last drop. Eastman then poured out another cup for one of the sons, when the chief interposed, saying ; “He little, he no drink ;” and taking the cup, drank it himself, ex¬claiming ; “Ugh, it good ! it good ! Yes, my land ! my grass ! all ‘mine ; ev¬erything mine !” Then, as the warming contents of his draught began to tell upon his generous nature, he loftily stretched forth his arms, exclaiming; “My grass, all your grass ! You good white man, have him all !” Which liberal offer Eastman hastened to bind with another cup of rum from the jug, which he presented to the chief in exchange for grass.
Crossing the Merrimack a little further on, and the tracks of the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad, we find ourselves in the pretty little village of East Concord, which, less than sixty years ago bid fair to be the most central portion of the town, owing to the manufacturing interests then ex¬pected to be built by the Sewall’s Falls Locks and Canal Corporation which had nearly completed a dam across the Merrimack, and had construct¬ed a canal two miles in length through this part of the town. But the failure of the enterprise in the panic of 1837, dashed the hopes and depleted the pockets of some of the strongest advocates of the scheme, to such an extent that they were willing to retire from the contest. However, recently the subject of building a dam across the river at the same spot has again been agitated, and a company has been organized, with George F. Page as presi¬dent to promote the enterprise. As Mr. Page is one of the largest stock-holders in the company, and is well known as the very popular president of the Page Belting Company in Concord, the enterprise is looked upon as a pronounced success, and the citizens are looking forward with much interest to the establishment of the Concord Electrical Light Works, as well as other manufacturing interests in that part of the city.
From this point on, for ten miles to the Shaker village, we pass up a gradual rise of land until we reach the Shaker settlement. On the way, we pass some of the best farms in the Granite State. The Shaker village itself has a wonderfully clean and neat appearance. The houses, church, school build¬ing, workshops, barns, stables and sheds are kept in the best of repair, show¬ing unmistakable evidence in every department that the followers of Ann Lee are grounded in the faith that “cleanliness is next to godliness.”
The Canterbury Society was organized in 1792, Benjamin Whitcher hav¬ing generously donated his fine farm of one hundred acres of land, then val¬ued at two thousand one hundred and fifty dollars, to the Community. He, with his wife, Mary Shepard, had located at an early date on tha spot in the then wilderness of Canterbury, on the tract of land which was purchased for him by his father, Benjamin Whitcher, in 1774. It was several years before they had any neighbors—none within a distance of several miles. In time a meeting house was built, located but two miles from their home, but, following out the established order of those days, it was of the Congregational denomination, for the support of which the law of the State taxed every family whether they were believers in the doctrine preached or not. The refusal of any to pay the taxes assessed, was followed by the visit of the sheriff, or his deputy, and the seizure of any property of the delinquent in sufficient amount to cover the debt and all costs of collection, was made, oftentimes to the great hardship of the unfortunate. But as this was all done for the promo-tion of the gospel and the support of the minister, those refusing or neglect¬ing this divine order of things were regarded by the established church as reprobates of the lowest type.
We are told that the remarkable revival of religion which passed like a tidal wave over the New England States in 1776, paved the way for the acceptance by Benjamin and Mary Whitcher of the doctrine of Mother Ann Lee.
On the formation of the Society, Benjamin Whitcher was appointed one of the presiding Elders, while his wife was chosen as one of the directors of the temporal interests of the Community.
Prominent among the founders of the Canterbury Community was Father Job Bishop, who, in 1817, on the occasion of the visit of President James Monroe to the Enfield Society, on his tour through New England, made him this characteristic Shaker speech, which has gone down into history : Job Bishop, welcome James Monroe to our habitation.”
Associated with him was the venerable Peter Ayres, who died at the advanced age of ninety-seven in 1857, and whose quaint donation to the Shakers is made mention of on page 29 ; also Elder Henry Clough and John Wadleigh, the old unpensioned Revolutionary veteran, who was present and engaged in the memorable battle of Bunker Hill, on the 17th of June, 1775. He was a soldier of the Revolution for five years; was at the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga, in 1775, at the surrender of Burgoyne in October, 1777 ; in the Rhode Island expedition bf 1778, and at the surrender of Cornwallis, at Yorktown, Va., October 19, 1781. But, true to his Shaker faith, which he espoused in 1789, he positively refused to apply for, or to receive, any pension from the government for his services in the army, to which he was entitled by the laws of our country.
In 1814, a number of Shakers were drafted to perform military duty, but refused to serve. They were thereupon arrested and brought to trial. They pleaded their own cause, and so successfully, that all but three were dis¬charged. The three unfortunates, in order to meet the requirements of the law, were fined a moderate sum. Even this the Shakers refused to comply with, solely on the ground that it was against the fundamental principles of their religion to countenance war either directly or indirectly. For this refusal to comply with the laws of the nation they suffered imprisonment. However, at the close of the war, the President, by special proclamation, remitted the fines, and in 1816 the State of New York passed laws exempting the Shakers from doing military duty in time of peace.
Again, in our late Civil War, quite a large number of Shakers were drafted for service, but upon appealing to I resident Lincoln for exemption, an order was issued by the Secretary of War furloughing them “until called for.”
That the Shakers, collectively and individually, remained true to their faith, may be seen in the records of the Pension Department, which show more than a half million dollars now standing to the credit of certain soldiers in the war of the Rebellion, who, after the close of the war were made converts to the faith of Mother Ann Lee and join.d the Society of Shakers, but have re¬fused to accept the money standing to their credit, on the ground that they could not stain their hands with the proceeds of funds given as a premium for services rendered in a cause so foreign to their ideas of humility and love to¬wards all mankind.
With the Canterbury (N. H.) Society of Shakers I have long been familiar. My earliest recollections of them date back to my childhood. Well do I remember the kindly face of that genial prince of Shakers, David Parker, whom everybody knew, as the chief manager of the Community at Shaker Village in Canterbury ; of his business visits upon my father at some seasons of the year almost every week ; of his pleasantly chucking me under the chin when a lad of no more than four years of age ; and of his asking me if I didn’t want to go with him and grow up a Shaker. And my memory of the Shakers becomes more vivid as I recall the Second Advent craze which passed over New England a little later on, and caused so large a number of worthy individuals, believers in the “Miller doctrine,” to neglect all worldly business and give themselves up solely to religious services ; of their giving away all their earthly possessions; of their assembling in the old churchyard cemetery in Concord, N. II., on the memorable day of the 23d of April, 1843, clothed in white raiments, to witness the second advent of the Son of Man in the heavens, and by him to be caught up in the air with the rising “dead in the Lord,” as the graves would open at the blast of Gabriel’s trumpet, and they depart with him to everlasting joy, leaving behind the earth and all things earthly to be destroyed with unquenchable fire. Alas! poor deluded souls! the day and night passed with no unusual occurrence.
David Parker, in his day, was doubtless one of the most widely known of all the Shakers. He was remarkable for his industry, thrift and shrewdness, but combined with absolute honesty, which stamped him with the reputation of being perfectly reliable in every business transaction. He was born in Boston, Mass., on the 12th of May, 1807, ,and at the early age of ten was admitted to the Shaker Society in Canterbury. Here he received a good, thorough and practical education. That he improved his opportunities, and had more than ordinary ability, was made manifest when nine years later, at the age of nineteen, he received the appointment of assistant trustee. From that time till the date of his death, on the 20th of January, 1867, he was known as one of the most active and honorable business men in the State.
In May, 1837, he was appointed to the ministerial order of the Shakers. In October, 1846, he was again called to take charge of the financial interests of the Community. It was from his efforts before the Legislature of New Hampshire, at Concord, in the summer of 1848, that the inquisitorial arraignment of the Shakers which had been instigated by some who at a former period had been members of the fraternity, fell flat. On this occasion he acquitted himself as an able advocate in defense of that institution, against the vilest of insinuations as well as the direct defamatory charges of his accusers. At his urgent solicitation, a committee of the Legislature was ap¬pointed, delegated with the power to make a most searching investigation in¬to every department of their private life, sacred order and spiritual records. This committee reported that they had been accorded every facility for a most thorough investigation and that the standard of morality among the Shakers was of the highest type, and they honorably acquitted them of all the charges brought against them. Other well known, prominent Shakers of a quarter of a century ago will be brought to mind, by the residents of New Hampshire, on the mention of the names of such Shaker brothers as Francis Winkley, Israel Sanborn, Caleb M. Dyer, Elder John Lyon, and also of Thomas Corbett, the originator of the celebrated, Corbett’s Shaker Sarsaparilla, which has been manufactured by the Society for more than half a century, all of whom have long since passed over the river, but in their day and generation were not surpassed in ability, and integrity in the community by any citizens. Today, Shakerism is well represented by such men as Elder F. W. Evans, the great expounder of Shaker doctrines, at Mount Lebanon, N. Y., Elders J. S. Kaime, H. C. Blinn, and N. A. Briggs at Canterbury, with many others we might mention.
The Community of Shakers at Canterbury consists of two families, the “Church,” and the “Upper,” or novitiate family. The name, “upper” family is merely a local application to designate it as to its situation in the village.
In the route from Concord, the Church Family is the first reached. Here is located the Trustees’ Office, the Post Office, the Printing Office, school¬house and church.
Visitors alight at the Trustees’ Office, and are ushered into a very homelike reception room ; the floor is covered with a coat of yellow paint and well varnished, with here and there rag-braided carpet mats under the chairs and for the feet ; a library near at hand, well filled with books; a washstand, water and towels in the corner ; wooden blinds hung to the windows in such a manner as to exclude all light or the inclemency of the weather. Not a fly or an insect, apparently, ever enters herein ; not a speck of dust or dirt, giv¬ing to this room a satisfying air of comfort truly refreshing. And later on, as we visit the other departments of the home of this peculiar people, we see everywhere this same degree of comfort, order and neatness.
The buildings are arranged on each side of the village street, enclosed by neat, substantial fences. At the Printing Office, the place of issue of The Manifesto, the Shaker monthly magazine, so ably edited by Elder Henry C. Blinn, we find Shaker maidens handling the type for the next issue, with the same swift movements which are characteristic of the city printing office. As we enter the “editor’s den,” we almost fancy that we have struck a de-partme nt of Barnum’s old museum once on Broadway, on the site of the Herald building. Lying all about the room, yet in perfect Shaker order, are old-fashioned curiosities of every name and description—spinning looms, warming pans, clay pipes and smoking tongs ; the old iron candlestick of the past and the brass ones of later date, including the veritable old pitch-pine knot, which may have lighted, long ago, some poor old soul in the way of truth and Shakerism. In fact, Elder Blinn has made and well arranged a large collection of the relics of the past. His collection of minerals is also exceedingly interesting.
Elder Henry C. Blinn was born in the city of Providence, R. I., July 16, 1824. He joined the Shakers at Canterbury at the age of fourteen. He has passed through all the orders of Shakerism, and has been appointed to all the positions of trust that the faithful Shaker can be honored with in that Com¬munity. Some years ago he was made the editor of The Manifesto, a month¬ly magazine, the only periodical published by the Shakers. This posi¬tion he still holds. The magazine is well gotten up, and contains much interesting matter, not only to Shakers, but to the world’s people.
The Shakers very early saw the advantages which would accrue from la¬bor-saving devices, and their workshops, laundries, dairies and kitchen de¬partments are fitted with the very best and latest improvements for making labor easy. The kitchen of the Church family at Canterbury would gladden the heart of any housewife in the land. In the cooking department—in fact, in every department of female labor, the Sisters take their turns in doing the work each month, so that continuous labor in any one department does not fall to the lot of any Sister. For instance, the bakery is in the charge of two Sisters, who arise at five o’clock in the morning and have their work finished by noon. They bake the bread, pies, cake, and whatever else may be¬long to the bakery. Those who take charge of the general cooking for the family are in another part of the house, and may do all the baking that comes under their charge. At the end of the month they resign their charge to two other Sisters, and pass into another department, thus giving all the Sisters an opportunity to become expert in every department of female labor.
In every room where a fire is needed, a wood-box, built into the wall, with a trap door near the stove, so that no wood or dirt is to be seen, is a feature characteristic of the Shakers. In the large family dining-room, ample for seating sixty persons, is a long table, with the vinegar cruets suspended over the table, and low-backed chairs—low enough to stand clear under the table when not in use.
Mary Whitcher, Trustee.
The same air of neatness that pervades the laundry is found in the dairy. The cows are milked by the men at six o’clock in the morning, driven to the pastures by the boys, and are driven back to the stables and milked again at five in the afternoon. There is no yelling, scolding, whipping nor maltreating of either cattle or horses; and no dog runs barking, snapping and biting at the heels of the cows—no dog ever finds a home in a Shaker Community.
A visit to the school room at the Shakers is full of interest. Here the children, who have been placed with the Shakers to be reared until they have reached their majority, are educated. And here, it may be truthfully said, they receive the very best common school education. Students graduating from a Shaker school are well fitted to battle with life in any capacity in which they may be placed. The young girls are taught music and have certain hours in the lecture room every day which are devoted to music, reading, talking and visiting.
The Shakers are firm believers in the “early to bed, early to rise” maxim, therefore, as the clock strikes nine, all retire to their couches, to arise with the morning sun.
The dress of the men is plain but neat, like that of prosperous farmers. Formerly they made their own cloth and dressed all alike in uniform color, but now they find it more economical to purchase the usual grade of suit-ings more in conformity with the world’s people. The women still cling to the style of garments adopted in the infancy of the institution, and may be seen in their little lace caps, uniform in style, generally a dress of gray material, and the well-known Shaker bonnet. They are often seen in Concord, N. H., on shopping excursions, in the company of some Elder or Trustee as an escort.
Standing conspicuous among the saintly characters in the Shaker Community was the person of Mary Whitcher, so long and so favorably known to all who ever visited the Shakers at their beautiful home at Canterbury. She might well have been called the Shaker poetess, for the Shaker literature was often enriched by her poetical pen. Mary Whitcher was born in the town of Laurens, Otsego County, N. Y., on the 31st of March, 1815, the youngest of four children. When Mary was eleven years of age, her father moved with his family to Shaker Village, Canterbury, N. H. The site of this Society was the old homestead of Mary’s grandfather, Benjamin Whitcher, who, with his wife and children, embraced the Shaker faith, and dedicated their estate to the perpetual use of the Society. There is still standing one ancient apple tree, left to mark that once fruitful orchard of the Whitcher family, and it still yields its annual quantum of fruit.
The Shakers of Canterbury have contributed the following as showing the esteem in which she was held by them : “The youthful Mary being very intelligent and an apt scholar, was early employed as a school teacher, and subsequently appointed to a responsible position with the Trustees, where for twenty years she identified herself with the interest of the Society in a public manner, and became widely known as an ideal Shakeress. Her benevolent nature, ruled by an enlightened conscience, well fitted her to exemplify that immortal utterance of our Savior : ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’ None were too poor or too unworthy to receive her recognition and care. Later in life, she became an active leader in the ‘Ministry,’ which is composed of two members of each sex, and presides over the two Societies of Canterbury and Enfield, and is the highest office in the Society. This position she retained until failing health compelled her resignation. As her benevolence could not be limited by age or sickness, her good ministries in behalf of her people continued in various ways, particularly in the gifted use of her pen, until her demise, which occurred January 6, 1890, after a patient endurance for six years of intense suffering. The accompanying likeness of her reveals the moral excellence of her character more clearly than any words can describe.” The universal verdict, where she was best known, is : “Our Sister Mary was a most lovable, genial, devoted Christian Shaker.” It was her pen that wrote :
“Who hath a God, hath all the world beside
In which to live and move and to abide;
But he who trusteth not to power divine,
Doth well distrust beyond the scenes of time.”