Friday, September 14, 2012

Moses Johnson, Master Builder

Moses Johnson is known as the builder of Shaker meeting houses, or churches, although he built many other structures, as well. He apparently was a journeyman carpenter when he joined the Shakers at Enfield, New Hampshire, in 1782. He was thirty years old and brought his wife and three children into the Society with him. He was one of the original signers of the covenant at Enfield. He was sent to Mt. Lebanon in 1785 to build a church there and his design for that meeting house set the pattern for all of the early Shaker meeting houses. Sources vary, but he built at least 10 meeting houses at the various New England Shaker communities. All looked the same, inside and out. There were two entrances, the brethren on the left and the sisters on the right. They were unique among Shaker buildings in having gambrel roofs, and there were three dormers on each side. A chimney marked either end of the building.

Meeting houses were the only buildings that could be painted white, and the interiors were to be painted blue. While no particular blue was specified, the practice came to be a Prussian blue that became known as "meeting house blue." The interior had to be open to allow the dances and marches of the Shaker worship service. Johnson accomplished this by giving his buildings boxed beams that transferred the weight of the roof and upper floors to the outside walls by means of boxed knee braces. Wainscoting reached the lower edges of the windows and was faced with benches for the world's people who came to observe. Shakers sat on benches that could be moved to open floor space for the dances. Stairs at either end of the room led to ministry apartments on the second floor. In a few of the meeting houses, a small third floor was finished into rooms for visiting ministry from other communities.

The meeting house at Hancock, in the top photo, was moved there in 1962 from the Shirley community to replace one that had been torn down in 1938. It dates from 1793. The 1792 Canterbury meeting house, above, is distinguished mainly by the color of the doors and its surroundings. They were the same size and layout, but the Canterbury meeting house interior has been modified. The stairs were removed to provide more seating for the world's people and an ell was built in the rear to house stairs to the ministry apartments. The interior also was repainted a light blue around 1875, although the upper floor retains the original meeting house blue. Like Hancock, it too is now part of a museum.

The 1794 Sabbath Day Lake meeting house is still in use as worship space by the last remaining Shakers, and still welcomes the world's people. Like Canterbury, the interior stairs were removed for additional seating. In this case, the ell containing the new stairs was placed at the end of the building.

These three are the only Moses Johnson meeting houses that retain more or less their original appearance and function. Two were sold, moved, and modified to become private residences. The first meeting house at Mt. Lebanon was extensively modified, including getting a gable roof, and eventually became the home of the headmaster at Darrow School. All of the rest have been lost. But the Moses Johnson design lives on.

This private home, currently offered for sale, was built to mimic a Moses Johnson meeting house. The main floor is even open, except for a window-enclosed kitchen, and painted meeting house blue. It can be yours for a mere $1.125 million.


  1. It again seems to be a design that works, symmetrical and pleasing.

  2. Another interesting blog on the site. I have to get over there! Nice job Jim.