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tv   Elizabeth De Wolfe Shaking the Faith  CSPAN  October 21, 2017 12:43pm-12:54pm EDT

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henry's death that this might be a place for the public to come and see. and when she made that decision in the years before she died, she literally said it's the right things to do. it would be right to leave it for the public to enjoy. >> the help of our spectrum cable partners, c-span is in portland, maine, featuring its local literary community. up next, we speak with elizabeth dewolf on her book, "shaking the faith." >> i learned about shaker history pretty much when i first moved to maine. maine is home to the last active shaker community in new glouster, maine. when i was in graduate school, i was searching for a topic, and my husband actually -- a rare book dealer -- suggested that i hook at the writings of mary dyer. at that time, scholars hadn't
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paid much attention to dyer. they thought she was a crackpot, a lewin tuck. who would write -- lunatic. who would write books for 50 years decrying the shakers? models of new england farm life and history. yet as i read her text, i realized this isn't a woman who's insane, this is a woman who's angry. this was a woman who was placed in an untenable position as a woman in american society in the first decades of the 19th century. the more i read, the more i realized this was more to this story than an angry woman trying to retrieve her children. mary and joseph dyer were new hampshire farmers living in the earliest years of the 19th century. at that time new hampshire, especially in the far north, was still a frontier. and they were seeking security in an uncertain world. and they found it in religion. they became early converts to the religious group known as the
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shakers. the shakers are an american communal sectarian group. they are protestant in their orientation. they live separate from the world and believe that they are recreating the life of christ on earth. salvation is here and present to the shakers. they live communeally, they live celibately, and they live in their own communities. mary and joseph lived on a hard-scrabble farm in northern new hampshire. it was really hard to make a living. they had five children, all very young, so not very effective help for joseph with all of the farming activities. mary was a woman with ambition in a time period when ambition was not a positive thing for women. she wanted to be a preacher. she wanted to speak about religious ideas, but there was very little outlet for that. except in the shakers. so the shakers attracted both joseph and mary for very different reasons. joseph looked forward to living
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with a community of fellow brothers who would share the labor of farming. mary, in a religion that believed god was both masculine and feminine, saw an opportunity to preach. because in shaker society women, indeed, could become preachers. so both saw a better future with the shakers. unfortunately for mary and joseph, not a better future with each other. when mary dyer joined the shakers, she thought she would have an immediate beeline to the top and become a preacher. but that wasn't the shaker way. you had to go through a series of lessons, of learning about the shaker life, of trying the shaker life. and this frustrated mary who had ideas right then and there. so as her husband joseph became more settled in shakerism, mary found herself drawing away. further, biological families were separated in shakerism as a way to realign one's allegiance
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with the entire group. mary as a mother became increasingly concerned about her children, and that was the final straw for her. she couldn't achieve the leadership role she dreamed of, and yet she no longer had her role as a mother. mary thought the only solution was for her to leave and to take the children with her. mary dyer called a meeting with her husband joseph and shaker leaders to explain why she was so unhappy and wanted to leave. the leadership was not that upset. mary dyer was what they called a bad fish caught in the gospel net. so they understood her reasons to leave. more joseph, his -- for joseph, his marriage with mary was long over. but when mary said she would take her children with her, that's when the problem began. by custom and by law, the children belonged to joseph. further, mary and joseph had signed a legal indenture giving
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the children effectively to the shakers until the children reached the age of majority. mary had no legal leg to stand on to remove her children from the shaker village. one winter day while all of the shakers are in their worship, mary is alone in a shaker building with an old man and the youngest of the children, too young to attend the church services. mary saw a passing sleigh approach the village. she distracted the old man, grabbed her youngest child, ran outside and begged the people in the sleigh to take her to nearby hanover, new hampshire. she had effectively escaped the shaker village. but leadership and her husband joseph were right behind her. she made it as far as hanover and immediately went to the home of a friend. but joseph had been alerted by the older shaker man who exposed mary's deception. joseph and several shaker leaders came to the house. by all accounts, there was a
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very vociferous fight with yelling and screaming and crying. joseph, according to mary, ripped the baby from her arms and went back to the shaker village. so mary dyer had left the shakers, but she had left her children behind. this began for mary for the next 50 years an anti-shaker campaign, a campaign to prevent what had happened to her from happening to other women. a campaign to make sure that children could not be taken from their mothers, a campaign to make sure that a mother without her children and a wife without her husband would have a legal identity. as mary dyer found out when she left the shakers and when she left her husband, as a legal and social being she ceased to exist. mary dyer had to really pull out all the stops in order to raise the alarm about the shakers. she led a mob against the
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infield, new hampshire, shaker community, a mob that lasted three nights and three days. she approached new hampshire legislators and very cleverly petitioned for the right to divorce. there was no statute that would allow mary and joseph to divorce. and until mary was effectively a single woman, she was invisible. her first petition failed to be passed. the legislature felt that it was unfair to pass a law to benefit just one woman but said if you can show that you're not the only woman in this position, we'll do something. mary dyer then traveled from town to town in new hampshire, in maine, in connecticut, in the rhode island, in massachusetts from former shaker to former shaker, all who had stories to tell. these, of course, were people for whom the shaker experiment did not work out, and they shared their bitter grapes with mary who very cleverly turned these into, first, pamphlets and
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then books which then spread her cause much further and faster than word of mouth. ultimately, mary dyer was able to change new hampshire divorce law, used that law to divorce joseph, and then she was finally free. mary dyer took the shakers and her husband quite by surprise. she was a formidable opponent. she was ambitious, and she was also very, very smart. joseph immediately published a pamphlet of his own where he claimed he was a poor, poor, suffering husband under his mannish wife who had unnatural tendencies to want to lead and to preach. he accused her of being a disinterested mother instead of caring for her sick babes, she took a horse and went off to a visiting town to give a lecture and a sermon. the shakers also defended themselves in front of the
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courts and in front of the legislature. they invited important people to come to their villages, see their healthy residents, see their happy, well-educated children, pointing out that no one was held hostage. they could, indeed, leave. and the shakers' success as farmers, as entrepreneurs, as educators, as business people was well regarded. and by the 1830s and the 1840s, mary dyer's complaints and concerns about the shakers were no longer believed. she was seen as a bitter old woman, and the shakers as model new england farmers. what people were really thinking about when they were thinking about this scandal between mary and joseph dyer sat in the context of -- set in the context of a celibate shaker community was what should be a proper family. can a communal group be a proper family? can a single mother be a proper family? what were the obligations of husbands to wives, mothers and
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fathers to children? and what about women's ambition? was it proper for a woman to want to do something beyond motherhood? these were the issues that were at the heart of this debate among the shakers. so while the shaker society provided a convenient and poignant backdrop for the dyers' domestic broils, what they were really arguing about were arguments that were at the heart of a very new united states. >> i'm standing on the grounds of the maine historical society where, up next, we visit their library to feature their special collections. >> these are some of the items that i've pulled out to show the breadth of our collections which documents the exploration and the founding of maine from about the 16th century through the modern period. this particular piece is a book from 156 a

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