Shakers, Antebellum Marriage, and the Narratives of Mary and Joseph Dyer
Reconstructs the bitter and widely publicized marital dispute between two early nineteenth-century Shakers
In 1813, Joseph Dyer, his wife Mary, and their five children joined the Shaker community in Enfield, New Hampshire. Joseph quickly adapted to the Shaker way of life, but Mary chafed under its strictures and eventually left the community two years later. When the local elders and her husband refused to release the couple’s children to Mary, she embarked on what would become a fifty-year campaign against the Shakers, beginning with the publication in 1818 of A Brief Statement of the Sufferings of Mary Dyer. The following year the Shakers countered by publishing Joseph’s A Compendious Narrative, a scathing attack on what the title page called “the character, disposition and conduct of Mary Dyer.”
Reproduced here for the first time since their original publication, the Dyers’ dueling accounts of the breakup of their marriage form the core of Domestic Broils. In Mary’s telling, the deceptions of a cruel husband, backed by an unyielding Shaker hierarchy, destroyed what had once been a happy, productive family. Joseph’s narrative counters these claims by alleging that Mary abused her children, neglected her husband, and engaged in extramarital affairs.
In her introduction to the volume, Elizabeth De Wolfe places the Dyers’ marital dispute in a broader historical context, drawing on their personal testimony to examine connected but conflicting views of marriage, family life, and Shakerism in the early republic. She also shows how the growing world of print facilitated the transformation of a private family quarrel into a public debate. Salacious, riveting, and immensely popular throughout New England, the Dyers’ narratives not only captured imaginations but also reflected public anxieties over rapid cultural change in antebellum America.
"A brilliant anthology and discussion of the bounds of marriage in the 19th century, the nature of the Shakerism and the meaning of freedom within that religion."—Portland Press Herald
"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. . . . By presenting the two narratives in their entirety, De Wolfe allows the full complexity of the Dyers' situation to emerge."—Legacy
"From marriages to religious settlements to legal proceedings, Domestic Broils opens a contentious world for readers to explore."—Nova Religio