It is one of the most intact and authentic surviving Shaker community sites, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
The site is operated by a non-profit organization established in 1969 to preserve the heritage of the Canterbury Shakers. Canterbury Shaker Village is an internationally-known, non-profit museum and historic site with 25 original Shaker buildings, four reconstructed Shaker buildings and of forests, fields, gardens and mill ponds under permanent conservation easement. Canterbury Shaker Village "is dedicated to preserving the 200-year legacy of the Canterbury Shakers and to providing a place for learning, reflection and renewal of the human spirit."
Visitors learn about the life, ideals, values and legacy of the Canterbury Shakers through tours, programs, exhibits, research and publications. Village staff, largely volunteer, conduct tours and its restaurant serves traditional Shaker lunches and dinners spring, summer and fall.
The Canterbury site was one of two communities existing in what was known as the New Hampshire Bishopric. The New Hampshire bishopric contained Canterbury village and the Shaker village of Enfield, New Hampshire. A bishopric was composed of two or more communities in the same area or geographical location. They were designed as a way to organize communications and events amongst villages and acted as an administrative unit, which represented the governing body of the United Society of Believers.
In 1782, Israel Chauncey and Ebeneezer Cooley from the Mount Lebanon village of Shakers traveled to Canterbury and converted several prominent figures of the community. These figures included, Benjamin and Mary Whitcher, and the Wiggin and Sanborn families, who later donated land to house the Canterbury Village community of Shakers. Through a donation of land from local community members, the Canterbury Village was founded in 1792. The village expanded over time and in 1850, the site contained with a community of 300 housed in 100 buildings.
The Shakers were organized in a hierarchical system of four levels. The first level to which every member of the community was involved in was the family. Above the family were members known as elders and eldresses, deacons and deaconesses. The third level usually consisted of two men and two women who formed a ministry, which governed over the individual communities. Finally, the fourth level was the bishopric, which governed the local communities.
Over the period in which the Canterbury Village existed as a working Shaker community, various inventions from mainstream society were adopted by its members. As Stephen Stein highlights in his definitive guide to the Shaker society, The Shaker Experience, “New means of transportation, sources of power, complex machinery, and communication devices transformed community life and came to symbolize the views of modern Believers.”
In 1901 the New England Telephone Company installed telephones at the Canterbury Village site. As Stein outlined this would have changed community life in the sense that the installation of the telephone eradicated the need for long distance travel between Shaker communities.
The Canterbury Village had its own powerhouse, which was constructed in 1910. The cost of the powerhouse was $8,000 and at first, the generator powered the electric lights in sixteen community buildings. The Canterbury members were also given a television set after its invention in the 1950s by friends of the community.
The Shakers of Canterbury also had laborsaving inventions of their own, which contributed greatly to their economy. The Canterbury Shakers patented a washing machine, an accomplishment that was recognized by mainstream society in the form of a gold medal at the Centennial Exposition in 1876.
Music was also an important part of Shaker life at Canterbury. Among the many Canterbury Shaker spirituals are the hymn, "Celestial Praises" from 1841, and the song, "We Will All Go Home With You" from 1862. Between 1842 and 1908 there were eleven different Shaker hymnals published by the Shakers at Canterbury.