Looking Back

A drawing from 1978 depicting the Church Family section of the Shaker village in Enfield as it would have appeared c. 1875. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1799, 19-year-old Mary Marshall of Northumberland married 26-year-old widower Joseph Dyer. The couple lived in Stratford and Stewartstown, and within 10 years Mary had given birth to five children. The Dyers’ marriage was troubled from the start, with Joseph unable to properly support his family. He was often away from home pursuing one scheme or another, and was overly fond of alcohol.

In 1812 the couple found what promised to be a way to achieve peace and joy in their lives and in the lives of their children. They decided to join the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the Protestant Christian sect known as the Shakers.

In the fall of 1812 two of the Dyer children went to live with the Shakers in their community in Enfield. Mary, Joseph, and the three other children joined them the next year. As biological ties were not recognized within the communal and celibate Shaker society, each of the Dyers was assigned to live in one of the three Shaker “families” that existed within the village. And, as was required, the couple handed over custody of their children to the Shakers through indenture agreements.

It was easy enough for Mary and Joseph to step away from their troubled marriage but, for Mary, abandoning her motherly attachment to her children proved impossible. For this, and also because she could not follow the strictures of Shaker beliefs and practices, Mary left the Shakers in 1815. She spent much of the rest of her life battling against the Shakers through her books, speeches and sermons, and she gained fame and influence within the anti-Shaker movement. Mary’s original purpose had been to attempt to gain custody of her children, but later on she aimed simply to cast doubt and suspicion upon the Shakers, condemning them, in particular, for their practice of breaking up families.

A great irony of the Dyer family story is that one of the most effective anti-Shaker activists of the 19th century, Mary Dyer, would have a son — Caleb Dyer — who became one of the most influential of the Shaker leaders in New Hampshire. A second irony is that Caleb’s own dedication to enforcing the Shakers’ contracts governing their custody of minor children led to his demise. Caleb, the lead trustee of the Enfield Shakers, was murdered in 1863 by Thomas Wier, a distressed non-Shaker parent, who was frustrated and enraged that the Shakers would not release his two young daughters from their indenture agreements.

Elder Caleb Dyer was 63 years old when he died. As the lead trustee of the Enfield Shakers since 1838, he had been in charge of all the business transacted between his community and the outside world. The village had prospered under Caleb’s leadership, but soon after his death it was discovered that he had not been keeping proper records. In fact, he kept no written records at all, and had depended on his own memory to keep track of the accounts. His younger brother Orville took over as the new lead trustee, but the village’s finances would never be completely sorted out.

Joseph Dyer, had died in 1858 at age 84, having lived as a devout member of the Enfield Shakers for 45 years. Two of the Dyer children who had also lived in the Enfield village died before him — Betsey in 1824 at age 22, and Joseph Jr. in 1840 at age 31. Orville died in 1882 at age 78. Another brother, Jerrub Dyer, had left the Shakers in 1852. A gifted physician, he continued to practice his profession in secular society. He married Lucy A. Coburn, a former Enfield Shaker, and they had two daughters.

Mary Marshall Dyer spent the last several years of her life in Enfield, where she owned a house in an area called Fox Hollow and another building in the Fish Market section of town. She died on Jan. 13, 1867, having lived to the age of 86. She bequeathed her properties to Jerrub Dyer, who was the executor of her estate. Jerrub buried his mother in the Purmort Cemetery in Enfield. Jerrub died in Lebanon in 1886 at age 80.

Next week: Making a living in the Canterbury and Enfield Shaker villages.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter

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