Shaking The Faith

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Winner of the 2003 Communal Studies Association Outstanding Publication Award!

When Mary Marshall Dyer (1780-1867) joined the Shakers in 1813 with her husband and five children, she thought she had found salvation. But two years later, she fled the sect, calling them subversive of Christian morality and a danger to American society. When her husband and the Shaker authorities denied her request for the return of her children, Dyer joined forces with an aggressive anti-Shaker movement – an informal yet effective group linked together by their despisal of Shakerism and their determination to thwart the new faith. Distraught, angry, and alone, Dyer turned her anguish into action and embarked on a fifty-year campaign against the Shakers -- and was the centerpiece of the Shakers’ counterattack. The American public followed the debate with great interest, not least because it offered titillating details into the mysterious sect, but also because Dyer’s experiences reflected profound changes in the family, religion, and gender in antebellum America. In this compelling study of Dyer and her world, Elizabeth A. De Wolfe suggests that while neither the Shakers nor Dyer would agree, the latter, a mother without children and a wife without a husband, and the former, a celibate communal sect that disavowed the marriage bond, shared similar positions on the margins of antebellum society.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Winner of the 2003 Outstanding Publication Award, Communal Studies Association

“Elizabeth De Wolfe's account of Dyer's circumstances, motives, and activities as a prominent Shaker apostate sheds new light on a lifelong quest to fulfill her role as wife and mother and on the larger world of career apostates that she entered. Drawing on scholarly resources dealing with gender and family as well as with religious history and print culture, De Wolfe integrates her narrative of this remarkable woman into the larger story of nineteenth-century American religion, society, and culture.” —Stephen J. Stein, Chancellors' Professor of Religious Studies, and Adjunct Professor of History, Indiana University, Bloomington

“In this skillfully researched and deftly written study, Elizabeth De Wolf suggests new perspectives for understanding the Shakers, the role of women in new religious and communal movements, and the problems that a capable woman had as she tried to develop an independent life and have a public impact in a society where women's roles were severely circumscribed.” —Lawrence Foster, author of Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community

“Shaking the Faith tells the compelling story of a woman and a religious sect locked in a dangerous duel on the margins of American culture. Elizabeth De Wolfe vividly exposes the historical roots of questions that continue to perplex contemporary society: What happens when a marriage falls apart? How should a mother behave? What constitutes a proper family? Shaking the Faith offers a fascinating look at the very public fracturing of the Dyer marriage, and explores what the couple's tempestuous divorce revealed about gender, family and faith in the early American republic.” —Nancy Lusignan Schultz, author of Fire & Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834.

“Carefully researched and thoughtfully argued, Shaking the Faith is a valuable case study of one woman's struggle to live up to society's and her own expectations. Elizabeth De Wolfe is particularly adept at connecting Dyer's campaign to larger tensions in antebellum America: the debate over the proper roles for husbands and wives, the relationship between government and the family, and the limits of religious toleration.” —Priscilla Brewer, University of South Florida

Stephen J. Stein
Exhaustively researched in manuscript and published sources...De Wolfe integrates her narrative of this remarkable woman into the larger story of nineteenth-century American religion,society,and culture.
De Wolfe (American studies, U. of New England) examines the fifty- year campaign of Mary Dyer against the religious group she had once belonged to, her successful efforts to gain a divorce from the husband that remained a member, and her less successful efforts to remove her children from the religious group. She argues that be examining Dyer's apostate career, the role anti-Shakerism played in the development of the Shaker faith becomes clear. Anti-Shaker activities forced the Shakers to articulate their views in print and public venues, strengthening their ability to deal with the outside world. De Wolfe further argues that Dyer and the Shakers each challenged family structure and gender roles in their own ways and used the power of print to articulate their visions. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312295035
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Publication date: 4/15/2002
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth A. De Wolfe is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New England.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Shakers and Anti-Shakers 1
Ch. 1 Conversion, Deconversion and Apostasy 19
Ch. 2 The Sympathy and Malice of Mankind 55
Ch. 3 The World Worked Up to Some Purpose 85
Ch. 4 A Spectacle for Remark 107
Ch. 5 In Deep Affliction 137
Ch. 6 Notorious Against Them 169
Notes 187
Selected Bibliography 221
Index 229
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