Printer Friendly

Domestic Broils: shakers, Antebellum Marriage, and the Narratives of Mary and Joseph Dyer.

The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times. By Ilyon Woo. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010. Xii + 404 pp. $25.00 cloth/$17.95 paper.

Domestic Broils: Shakers, Antebellum Marriage, and the Narratives of Mary and Joseph Dyer. Edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth A. De Wolfe. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. xxiv + 161 pp. $80.00 cloth/$19.95 paper.

The lives of Eunice Hawley Chapman and Mary Marshall Dyer, as detailed in two recent books by Ilyon Woo and Elizabeth A. De Wolfe, have a great deal to tell us about early-nineteenth-century gender relations, the institution of marriage as it was legally codified at that time, and the burgeoning power of the printed word. They also give great insight into the conflict between utopian societies and the "fallen" world they inhabit (Woo 118)--the difficulty and human cost of substituting one means of social organization for another.

Both Chapman and Dyer were married to men who turned their backs on the "people of the world" to join the utopian communalist religious sect known as the Shakers (Woo 181). Both were forced by their husbands to relinquish their children to Shaker communities--Eunice Chapman for a period of five years, Mary Dyer for life (upon reaching the age of majority, her children chose to remain Shakers). And both wrote powerful, compelling narratives of their ordeals that swayed entire state legislatures to amend or provide exceptions to their own divorce laws.

Eunice Chapman's fight was clearly the more successful of the two, for she obtained both a divorce and full custody of her children. Ilyon Woo's The Great Divorce is a spellbinding chronicle of her fight, hewing closely to biography while pausing frequently to provide historical context and insight into the lives and motivations of James Chapman, Eunice's husband, and the individual Shakers involved in her dilemma, such as Elder Seth Wells and Mother Lucy Wright.

Although the doctrine of coverture subsumed Eunice's legal identity to that of her husband, as it did to all married women in the early nineteenth century, from the very outset of their marriage Eunice resisted James's attempts to assert control in family matters. James, for his part, failed to live up to the role of provider, drinking heavily and losing his small business--the family's only source of income--to creditors. When James sold their house and belongings to pay off his debt and abandoned Eunice and their three children, who ranged in age from two to six years old, he left her in a state of limbo, unable to draw on his support but without rights of contract or property of her own. As Woo observes, "As far as the law was concerned, her identity remained one with her husband's, whether she lived with him or not" (24).

Finding solace with the Shaker community in Watervliet, New York, James embraced Shaker tenets, vowing to give up his family, his property, and all carnal relations and "to open [him]self up fully to a greater, universal, divinely inspired love." Woo acknowledges the unorthodox nature of such requirements in nineteenth-century capitalist American society but suggests that "these self-denying tenets were critical to the Shakers' success," noting that none of the famous "communitarian experiments" of the mid-nineteenth century, such as the Oneida Community, Fruitlands, and New Harmony, survived even half as many years as did the Shakers (29).

Whatever their internal success, Shakers believed their external success relied on conforming to the cultural norms of their era, as Eunice's unfolding story clearly illustrates. Thus, while the Watervliet Shakers accepted James as one of their own, they required him to bring his wife and children into the fold as well, lest they be accused of breaking up a family. In the winter of 1813, Eunice made the first of many trips to Watervliet: to begin with, to see if she could herself convert to Shakerism, and when that proved impossible, to try to retrieve her children, whom James had indentured to the society despite her vehement objections.

The fact that the Shakers accepted the Chapman children without their mother's consent went against their stated policy that "[y]outh and children, being under age, were not to be received as members ... except by the request, or free consent of both their parents, if living" (71) But, as Woo points out, in practice the Shakers were reluctant to give up converts such as James, "who were in their prime and genuinely inspired by the Shaker religion" Particularly when the dissenting parent was a woman, they had a pattern of admitting the father nonetheless, to be followed by his children, who were his to dispose of by law. "A man could rally a mob or press legal charges," she explains, "suing the Shakers for 'restraining' his family or 'alienat[ing] his wife's affections from him.' A woman was much less likely to fight back, lacking the rights that empowered her husband. As a matter of safety, it made sense for the Believers to match their practices to the laws of the outside world" (94).

The irony is not lost on Woo that a society founded by a female charismatic, Mother Ann Lee--believed by her followers to be the manifestation of Christ's Second Coming--and led, at the time of the Chapman conflict, by another woman, Mother Lucy Wright, would allow such differential treatment of parental rights based on the gender of the convert. But the Watervliet Shakers consistently deferred to James's rights as a father in what they maintained was a private dispute between husband and wife. In his quest to join the Shakers and to provide his children with both the physical sustenance afforded by their neat and prosperous community and what he believed to be spiritual salvation, James frequently asserted that his rights as a husband and father had been violated by Eunice's refusal to join with him, going so far as to place an ad in a local paper withdrawing from her the use of his credit on the grounds that she had abandoned him.

Eunice underwent a period of struggle over whether to join the Shakers and renounce her own Calvinist faith. She suggested a number of compromises: She would live among the Shakers without converting; she would be granted custody of her daughters, if not her son. James rejected them all. Thus she turned to the outside world to plead her case. Relocated to an Albany boardinghouse by James, who was legally responsible to provide her room and board, she began through family connections to meet with legislators in the state capitol.

Woo's account of Eunice's legislative battle to regain her children and her own legal identity--with the attendant rights to own property and earn her living--makes for the most riveting section of the book, as the reader, following the deliberations of the New York legislature, comes to understand the social implications of the Chapmans' marital conflict. Woo astutely analyzes the laws and mores of the era, painting a vivid picture of a legislative process that feels startlingly direct and refreshingly vigorous.

Divorce was very difficult to achieve in New York, granted only on grounds of adultery. Eunice was thus forced to "petition the legislature for a personal 'act of relief' that would grant her an exception to the existing laws" (165). While the legislature did not grant her a "legislative divorce," it did pass an "Act Concerning the Custody of Children," which "enabled women who were divorced or merely separated to apply for custody of their children" and "to use writs of habeas corpus" to locate them (166, 168). But when James secretly transferred the Chapman children to a different Shaker community in Enfield, New Hampshire, Eunice was unable to benefit from the new law.

Toward the end of the legislative session of 1816, a New York State Senate committee recommended that a bill be passed "declaring that all persons having families and who shall hereafter attach themselves to the society called Shakers, shall be considered as civilly dead"--thus turning the tables on behalf of wives abandoned by Shaker husbands (192-93). While waiting for a new session to start, and the bill to be debated, in 1817 Eunice wrote and published a pamphlet about her situation titled "An Account of the Conduct of the People Called Shaker."

Woo emphasizes the extraordinary nature of this act and of Eunice's other lobbying efforts in an era when women were condemned for speaking in public. She notes, as well, the exceptional capability of this woman to represent her own cause: "Fortunately, Eunice's hearers seemed to forgive her for her transgressions ... so movingly did she speak of how she and 'other poor distressed women' had been 'robbed of their husbands and children, and all their property, and left friendless and forlorn, to the mercy of the world' (176). As an author, she proved to be a gifted manipulator of literary conventions, crafting the story of her conflict with the Shakers along the lines of an Indian captivity narrative: "These terrifying, often lurid first-person accounts ... were immensely popular, and they featured a built-in motivation for writing. Witnesses to the events were duty-bound to tell their story in order to warn others and save them from a similar fate" (199-200). Woo's analysis of genre and the possibilities afforded Eunice to represent herself in inexpensive print media draws on Elizabeth A. De Wolfe's fascinating discussion of these same issues in Shaking the Faith: Women, Family and Mary Marshall Dyer's Anti-Shaker Campaign, which Woo credits with stimulating her own thinking on these subjects. She adds to De Wolfe's discussion an absorbing history of the various printers and newspapers willing to publish Eunice's salacious accusations, which charged the Shakers with despotic behavior and hinted at sexual perversion; of the refutations written by James and the Shakers; and of the effect these publications had on their legislative battle and upon public opinion.

Eunice was eventually granted a full divorce through a legislative "Act for the Relief of Eunice Chapman" (234). Armed with the "Act Concerning the Custody of Children," Eunice threatened the Shakers with a continued smear campaign if they did not reveal the whereabouts of her children. Although Watervliet Shakers maintained their ignorance, a Shaker apostate told Eunice where to find them. Ironically, she finally acquired custody of the children, not through legal channels, but by abducting her son from the Enfield Shaker community (the same community that would later house the Dyer children) with the assistance of a mob. Two years later, she quietly retrieved her daughters, since by then James and the Shakers--undoubtedly cowed by her legal victory in New York--were no longer able or willing to resist her.

Of Eunice's letters to the Shakers, Woo writes: "Her threats are severe, even violent, and substantiate complaints that she was a harassing figure with a delusional sense of her dues and capabilities." But, she maintains, "without such a large sense of self-worth and purpose, Eunice would not have been able to achieve all that she did. It was her extraordinary faith in herself. and God, along with her awareness of the gender expectations of her times--the understanding that women were the frailer sex, in need of male protection--that empowered her to exploit these expectations and, ultimately, to subvert them" (286-87).

The Great Divorce paints a full and gripping portrait of this exceptional woman and the times in which she lived. The only flaw in the book is perhaps one of genre: Although Woo takes care to present the Shakers' side of things, including James's perspective as a Believer, she is ultimately constrained by her narrative approach, which focuses on the heroic individual whose "story bears witness to what a single person can accomplish with a single-minded goal, then or in any period, and ultimately, to how history is made" (345). This focus inevitably disadvantages the Shakers, as the value of their collective enterprise is not legible in such terms, and the individual Shaker biographies Woo presents lack the spice and interest of the story of "this exquisite little woman" who was "in possession of a powerful allure that would now be called sex appeal" (237, 9). Although Woo acknowledges in her notes that "[u]ntold numbers of men, women, and children led deeply fulfilling lives as Believers," and provides a short list of books "provid[ing] other views of the sect" than Eunice's, including Priscilla Brewer's Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives, her close authorial alliance with the woman who is her subject undermines her best efforts to present those views convincingly in The Great Divorce (355).

Elizabeth A. De Wolfe's Domestic Broils: Shakers, Antebellum Marriage, and the Narratives of Mary and Joseph Dyer is far less narratively driven, and as such, allows for more polyvocality. Narratives written by wife and husband, in 1818 and 1819, respectively, as introduced and edited by De Wolfe, allow us to engage in the kind of readerly activity their contemporaries experienced: a "he said, she said" comparison of the accounts of another marriage run aground on the rock of Shaker communalism. De Wolfe includes reproductions of the original covers of both tracts, Mary's A Brief Statement of the sufferings of Mary Dyer, occasioned by the society called Shakers, and Joseph's A Compendious Narrative, elucidating the character, disposition and conduct of Mary Dyer, from the time of her marriage, in 1799, till she left the society called Shakers, in 1815, heightening the reader's pleasure in actively grappling with primary source materials.

While furnishing important biographical and legal details--and relating Mary's struggle to Eunice's--De Wolfe's introduction frames the Dyers' pamphlets largely in terms of their publishing context and the conventions of popular literature both authors employ to make their cases: personal narratives, divorce-trial narratives, and anti-Shaker narratives. This context is invaluable. When we learn, for instance, that the anti-Shaker narratives by male writers that preceded Mary's and Eunice's tracts employed certain tropes in common with their accounts of Shaker wrongdoing, such as "hypocritical elders hiding a secret, unspecified abuse, and the elders' mysterious power to delude believers," we come to understand these nineteenth-century women not just as desperate mothers but as powerful rhetoricians (18).

Mary Dyer's biography, although similar to Eunice Chapman's in many ways, differs in one important respect: In 1813 she willingly became a Shaker along with her husband, Joseph, and entrusted her children to the Shaker community of Enfield, New Hampshire. Two years passed before she sought to leave the community, only to be told to her horror that her five children, ranging in age from seven to fifteen, were legally indentured to the Shakers and could not be released with her. De Wolfe suggests that Mary's initial voluntary association with the Shakers weakened her case with the legislature and the public. Eunice Chapman, by contrast, had never joined the sect; her children were entrusted to the Shakers by her husband, without her knowledge or consent. While the New Hampshire legislature eventually passed a bill permitting divorce when a spouse had joined a sect that negated the marital bond, by the time Mary Dyer obtained her divorce in 1830, her children were adults, and four of them had already chosen to remain Shakers.

It is interesting to consider the reasons Mary first gave for wanting to become a Shaker: Like her husband, she wished to be a religious leader, an avenue closed off to her as a woman by other religions. She sought an alternative to the hard life she had lived on the family's New Hampshire farm and to bearing the sole responsibility for caring for five children. These are protofeminist desires: As Mary's obituary noted, "she thought and acted with great independence" (26). And yet, of necessity, in her first anti-Shaker narrative (in the course of her life she would write four), she attempts to convince the New Hampshire legislature to intervene in her situation by emphasizing "her reputation as a dedicated wife and loving mother, a woman who was faithful, truthful, economical and hard-working" (19).

The reader gains further perspective from being able to read Joseph's narrative alongside his wife's. As De Wolfe suggests, because Joseph's voice serves as an effective counterpoint to Mary's, it is impossible to determine once and for all whether she was "a desperate mother or a shrill opportunist ... a woman with a religious calling or a self-centered zealot. Was Joseph a cruel cad or a reticent man overwhelmed by a strong-willed wife? Did he find salvation with the Shakers or a convenient escape from his troubled marriage?" (26). By presenting the two narratives in their entirety, De Wolfe allows the full complexity of the Dyers' situation to emerge. This reader would welcome another volume from De Wolfe featuring the primary texts from the Chapman conflict: Eunice's second narrative, titled An Account of the Conduct of the Shakers (1818), James Chapman's "Memorial" to the New York state legislature, and the Shakers' "Remonstrance."

De Wolfe ends her introduction by sketching out a modern-day parallel to the Dyers' situation: "Take away the rural farmhouse and put the Dyers in a suburban housing development; replace the couple's joint desires for preaching with a two-career household. Instead of the Shakers, imagine a family joining a commune or any of the many alternative religious groups that continue to dot the American landscape" (27). Certainly the parallel holds when one considers the conflict between the nuclear family and the commune in existential terms, a conflict the Shakers hoped to externalize by enforcing celibacy within their societies. But it is important to remember that Mary Dyer's and Eunice Chapman's hard-fought battles with the Shakers took place within a nineteenth-century culture and legal system dominated by repressive domestic ideals, including the notions that a woman's only societal role was to provide a domestic sanctuary for her family and that she remained subject entirely to her husband's control.

Internally, the Shakers organization subverted those ideals, but externally they chose to endorse them to protect themselves from social censure. That Mary's and Eunice's narratives attack the Shakers while James's and Joseph's narratives attack their wives underscores the fact that in such conflicts, the husbands alone remained blameless, and thus, empowered. Had the Shakers joined in battling the doctrine of coverture instead of endorsing it, they might not have had to issue the internal proclamation after Eunice's triumph vowing that they would: "never more ... receive a married man into our society whose wife did not believe; nor a married woman whose husband did not believe" (Woo 213). With additional and truly inspired converts, their hundred-year experiment might have lasted even longer. Beyond the power of the determined individual to change history, we learn the pitfalls of self-contained utopianism from Woo's vivid evocation of the life of Eunice Chapman and De Wolfe's insightful framing of the narratives of Mary and Joseph Dyer.


Brewer, Priscilla. Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. Hanover: U P of New England, 1986.

De Wolfe, Elizabeth A. Shaking the Faith: Women, Family, and Mary Marshall Dyer's Anti-Shaker Campaign, 1815-1867. New York: Palgrave, 2004.

Reviewed by Janet Sarbanes, California Institute of the Arts
COPYRIGHT 2012 University of Nebraska Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:'The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times'
Author:Sarbanes, Janet
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2012
Previous Article:Uncle Tom's Cabin in Our Time.
Next Article:Post-Manifesto Polygamy: The 1899-1904 Correspondence of Helen, Owen, and Avery Woodruff.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |