Elder David Parker
David Parker, Shaker ministry elder and first trustee, was born May 12, 1807 in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Andrew and Rachel (Smith) Parker.
When he and brother George were placed by their mother at Canterbury Shaker Village in 1818 after the death of their father, they were joining their older brother Nathan who had come the year before. Although his brothers left the Society as teenagers, David made a life-long commitment to Shakerism. He early displayed enough intelligence and ability that at the age of 19 he was appointed assistant trustee of the Church Family. Confidence in David’s business prowess proved justified, and over time he developed the reputation as “the great moving spirit in all their temporal interests, and through his activity, energy and enterprise he gave to the Canterbury Shakers a name and fame far beyond the limits of our country.”
Although Canterbury rightfully claims David as its son, he also played a significant role in the life of the Society at Enfield. In 1837, David Parker was named to the New Hampshire ministry as associate to First Elder Joseph Johnson. During his tenure as a ministry elder, David divided his time equally between Enfield and Canterbury, devoting his attention to both the temporal and spiritual life of this community. Writing from Enfield in 1839 he reported,
“In all of our meetings, which are very interesting public and private, we are favored with divine manifestations of power, in bowing, jerking, turning, speaking and singing in unknown tongues &c. New songs of various description are constantly received day and night, some by immediate revelation, some in vision. Important special messages are given and sent to different individuals, to encourage, and strengthen, and to confirm them.”
“In our temporal concerns we are onward. By industry, economy, and close application to duty, we acquire a competency for our support, and have added some to our buildings. The great stone house, 100 by 58 ft, 4 stories, which was commenced in the Church here some years since is not finished. It is now ready for the plasterers. This building with other important additions and repairs to mills and other buildings, have absorbed the principal part of their surplus capital, but as The Church here are quite efficient and able bodied, and having been successful in disposing of their wares & garden seeds, we believe they may be able to complete this house without any actual distress.”
In addition to keeping a close eye on daily work and worship, Parker joined Enfield Trustee Caleb Dyer’s negotiating efforts with the Northern Railroad. Together they were able to influence the decision to bring the trains up the east side of Mascoma Lake rather than the west. Original plans for the route would have seriously encroached on Shaker land and in Parker’s words, “would be a curse to us, as it must run near its shore, and of course would probably run through the Church’s garden.”
David Parker was well suited to his role in the New Hampshire ministry, but in October of 1846, much to his sorrow, he was summoned to New Lebanon to learn that he would be returned full time to Canterbury as its lead trustee. Brother William Willard, a much loved young Believer had apostatized the month before, abandoning his responsibilities as first trustee. Parker seemed to be the only logical choice to replace him.
There was now a vacancy in the ministerial order and Elder Abraham Perkins would become associate to Elder Joseph Johnson. Enfield would lose not only their direct connection with David, but the constant presence of their beloved Elder Abraham. David wrote from Enfield, “The separation now required seems like a bitter cup indeed; and in the silent hours of the night, while these lines are being penned, the tears are gushing from the eyes of the writer; yet so it is and so it must be.”
Because the Canterbury and Enfield societies had many shared economic interests, David Parker remained a close colleague of Enfield’s trustee, Caleb Dyer. They coordinated business trips to major cities, shared resources and agreed on market territories. Together they traveled to the west, including to Groveland, NY, first to purchase, and subsequently to monitor their investments in a farm that would supply them with wheat, oats and broom corn.
As the 1848 investigation of the Shakers before the New Hampshire Legislature took shape, David Parker worked closely with Enfield leaders to provide records, gather political support, and develop a defense against the charges being made against both Enfield and Canterbury. In the hearings much of the criticism leveled against Shaker leaders, particularly by Enfield and Canterbury apostates, was directed at Dyer and Parker. At the trial’s conclusion David wrote to New Lebanon,
“ I now know what it is to see our religion, our sacred writings and our orders reviled and trampled upon. I know what it is to see our members most shamefully vilified and abused. If they distilled 10,000 evil spirits into one person and then reduced that one to fourth proof he would not be so vile a wretch as the Petitioners counsel attempted to make me and others.”
Perhaps because of the abuse he endured, David Parker was sensitive to the difficulties and setbacks other Shaker communities suffered. As first trustee at Canterbury he was not only willing to provide needed financial help when others were in trouble, he encouraged his fellow communities, particularly Enfield, to do likewise.
In 1863 when Canterbury and Enfield Shaker brothers were called up for military service in the Union Army, David Parker became the spokesperson for both Societies, arguing before President Abraham Lincoln for their conscientious objector status. He gathered statistics on war pensions Shakers had never claimed and made them the basis for arguing against “purchasing” substitute fighters in the Civil War.
On November 7, 1863 Canterbury’s “Current Record of Events” noted, “At this date, Bro. David Parker returned from Washington, D.C. with the glad news that the Shaker conscripts would be granted a furlough till summoned by the War Department, and the summons were indefinitely postponed.”
Enfield’s First Trustee Caleb M. Dyer was mortally shot on July 18, 1863 and died from his wounds two days later. His network of financial dealings in behalf of his society were almost as far reaching and complex as Parker’s were in behalf of Canterbury. But the state of his written accounts left much to be desired, and when he died, that failure cost the Enfield Society dearly. David Parker traveled to Enfield on the 22nd of July to pay his respects to his fellow trustee and Shaker brother. However, he was not able to help Enfield fend off the claims made against the society by opportunistic business partners.
David Parker understood that although he was highly regarded by the World’s business community, he would ultimately be judged by his faithfulness to his Shaker family. As he stated in a letter to Elder Grove Blanchard of Harvard, “I feel it a duty to leave my business, should I be taken away, as far as in me lies the power, so that the Society may be satisfied with all my doing and transactions.”
David Parker died on January 20, 1867 at Canterbury, New Hampshire, leaving an honorable record of faithfulness to the trust placed in him. He is buried in the Church Family Cemetery at Canterbury.
Obituaries with biographical sketches of David Parker appeared throughout the United States after his death. This one, published by the American Traveler in Boston, Massachusetts on February 2, 1867 (p. 4), provides some new information about him.
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen