A distinctive religious community began in Canterbury, N.H., in 1782 as an informal assembly of new converts to the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers.
The community was formally organized as the Canterbury Shaker Society in 1792. To guide this and other Shaker communities, formal rules began to be established by the senior Shaker leadership based at the New Lebanon Society in New York.
These rules would guide the Shakers in their personal behavior, worship services, administrative and religious governance, and architecture. Though men and women generally engaged in different types of work, they were considered equal.
In 1793 a second Shaker community was organized in Enfield, located on Lake Mascoma, about 47 miles northwest of Canterbury. The two settlements were designated as a “bishopric,” which allowed the groups to work together as a unit on issues of mutual concern.
Over the next several decades both villages developed the means to support themselves through agriculture and commerce. Their members built residences, barns, workshops, meeting houses, laundries, and other structures necessary for their existence.
These and other Shaker communities were organized internally into “families”— groups of 30-90 men, women, and children who lived and worked together in a set of buildings within the larger village campus. The families, and the community as a whole, were led by elders and eldresses, and deacons and deaconesses.
One person who played an important role in the early development of the New Hampshire Shakers was Zadock Wright. It is unclear where he may have originated, but in the 1760s he became an early settler of Hartland, Vt., located on the Connecticut River about nine miles north of Windsor.
At the start of the American Revolution in 1775-1776 Zadock tried to remain neutral, but he was branded as a loyalist and his property was confiscated. He escaped to Canada where he enlisted in the Queen’s Loyal Rangers, a British army regiment made up of Americans. He was appointed as a Major.
In 1777 the regiment served as advance troops under General John Burgoyne. The unit took heavy casualties as it engaged in battles at Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y., and in Hubbardton, Vt. and Walloomsac, N.Y. (Battle of Bennington).
Wright grew discouraged with the war, so he deserted. He was arrested by New York authorities and was made a prisoner of war in Albany. With his life in ruins, Wright faced a spiritual crisis.
Some acquaintance told him about the Shakers, and he became intrigued. When the leader of the sect, Mother Ann Lee, was locked up in the Albany jail in the summer of 1780, because the Shakers would not support the Revolution, Wright was given permission to meet her in her cell. He was able to speak with her and with some of the Shaker elders who were also being held in the prison.
Wright poured out his troubles to them, and according to the 1816 Shaker book “Testimonies”, “Mother looked on him and said … ‘God will deliver you.’ Though, at that time, this appeared to Zadock impossible; yet, the declaration from Mother made a forcible impression upon his feelings.” A few weeks later, Wright was released through a prisoner exchange, and he returned home to Vermont. He converted to Shakerism and devoted his life to the faith.
In 1790 Wright was listed in the census as the “head of household” of a group of 31 men, women, and children living together in Enfield. This was the beginning of the new Shaker community. Wright later moved to the Shaker village at Canterbury.
In 1796 the first written Covenant was signed at Canterbury that spelled out the rights and duties of the village’s members. Prior to that time the members had pledged their commitment verbally. The document stated that, among other things, the members would “freely give and contribute our time and talents, as Brethren and Sisters, for the mutual good of one of another, and other charitable uses …”
Wright signed the document along with over 100 fellow Believers. In it he was named as one of the three deacons entrusted with the care and oversight of the worldly needs of the community.