Just five miles west of Pittsfield on old US-20, Hancock Shaker Village is one of the best-preserved remnants of the religious sect known popularly as Shakers, but formally as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, whose utopian communities flourished in the years before the Civil War. Shakers, as outsiders called them because of their occasional convulsions during worship, were dedicated to a communal life conspicuous in its equality between men and women, a natural corollary to their belief in parity between a male God and a female Holy Mother Wisdom.
The English-born leader of the group, Ann Lee, was in fact regarded by Shakers as the female, and second, incarnation of Christ. Although Puritan theocracy was ending, preaching this gospel did not endear her to many New Englanders in the decade following her arrival just prior to the American Revolution. During that war, Lee and her “children” sought their Heaven on Earth, as seen in her visions. Mother Ann died near Albany, New York, in 1784, before any communities based on her precepts could be founded.
Hancock Shaker Village, third among the 24 settlements built in the nation by Lee’s followers, was founded in 1783 and survived 177 years, outlasting all but two other Shaker communities. It’s been preserved as a living museum (413/443-0188 or 800/817-1137, daily Apr.-Nov., $20 adults), with exhibits, tours, and working artisans interpreting the rural lifestyle and famous design skills of the Shakers. Appreciation of the efficiency, simplicity, and perfect workmanship consecrated within the “City of Peace” can quickly fill a couple of days if you let it.
The center of Shaker activities was just west of Hancock, along US-20 across the New York border at New Lebanon, where a few buildings still stand today. Other large Shaker communities in New England included Sabbathday Lake in Maine (the only one still “alive”); one at Enfield, New Hampshire (east of Hanover); and another at Canterbury, New Hampshire (south of Franconia Notch).