The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times; by Ilyon Woo

February 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm (Book review, books, History)

I recently received two invitations to make a piece of Shaker furniture. The first one arrived just today via e-an mail from the Shaker Workshops Online Catalog. “Don’t let cabin fever get you down,” it exhorted me. Instead, build a chair like this one from one of our kits!

The second invitation fell into my hands in the form of a slight yet beguiling volume pulled off the library’s new nonfiction shelves last week: Was I right to see these two instances as invitations? Or, should I rather consider them gifts…

In The Great Divorce, author Ilyon Woo explains: “In Shaker parlance, a ‘gift’ meant an inspiration, a revelation, or an order from above.” And this of course puts us in mind of  “Simple Gifts.” The melody of this Shaker hymn, originally penned by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848, attained its apotheosis through Aaron Copland’s sweeping symphonic treatment in his “Ballet for Martha,” Appalachian Spring * :

If you’re like me, the hymn and the furniture pretty much sum up what you know about “The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, known as the Shakers or Shaking Quakers” (so denominated in the Wikipedia entry). I had also heard that the sect was celibate, able to replenish or increase its ranks only through acquiring converts from the outside world. This was a tricky business, as the outside world was perceived as being full of snares for the unwary – or for the wary also, in some cases.  But Ilyon Woo’s book is about those who knowingly choose to become part of a Shaker community and those, like Eunice Hawley Chapman, who  make a try at the life but reject it. Her story would have stopped there except for one critical point: her estranged husband James did join. He joined, and he took his and Eunice’s children with him.

In early nineteenth century America, he had every right to do this. In accordance with the laws of the time, the children was his property. So, for that matter, was Eunice. Never mind that James was an alcoholic who deserted his family on several occasions and failed to provide for them on a consistent basis. Men did far worse and still retained their rights in the law. Even more crucially, their wives’ divorce petitions were repeatedly rejected,  even in cases where physical abuse had occurred.

The Great Divorce describes an epic legal  battle that played itself out in the New York State legislature. The logistics may have been complicated, but the reason for the action was simple and straightforward. Eunice Chapman’s three children – George, Susan, and Julia – had disappeared behind the high walls of the Shaker community. She wanted them back, and she was prepared to go to any lengths and use any tools to hand in order to achieve her purpose. (You’ll be surprised by just what those tools were.)

Ilyon Woo provides a fascinating glimpse into the Shaker world, from its founding in England by Mother Ann Lee to its establishment in the New World in the early nineteenth century. Some admirable qualities characterized the Shakers. The communities they built with their own hands were models of cleanliness and efficiency, contrasting favorably with some of the cities and towns of the period, with their poor sanitation and general slovenliness. Members of the sect were staunch pacifists. In addition, their settlements provided a haven for those who were living in dire poverty or suffering some kind of abuse in the outside world. This was particularly true of women and children. The relentless industry of the Shaker men and women not only produced the furnishings and smaller objects for which they became famous; it also resulted in an abundance of food deliciously prepared and graciously served up at meal times.

A precisely choreographed form of social dancing formed an integral part of the Shaker worship service (click on picture to enlarge):

Shakers, their mode of worship, a lithograph by D.W. Kellogg

But you gave up much when you joined the sect. You could not own anything, you were expected to feel, or at least to express, nothing but the mildest affection for your fellow beings. Idle talk was discouraged; idleness in general was not tolerated. The men and the women had prescribed clothing which they wore at all times. The activities for each day, including and especially the Sabbath, were set out in advance and did not vary.

As I made my way through this thoroughly engrossing narrative, my feelings about the Shakers kept changing. Believers, as they called themselves, were for the most part caring, generous, and above all, kind. The level of commitment to the community and the striving to attain perfection before God were impressive, even moving. At the same time. the almost aggressive plainness of their surroundings seemed oppressive. Beauty belonged  solely to the spirit, and was not to be indulged in where material objects were concerned. A chief value advocated by the sect was the loss of all that made an individual unique, as he or she merged with a group that became almost like a single organism. For me, that loss of selfhood was the single most incomprehensible and troubling aspect of a Believer’s life within the Shaker community.

The story of Eunice Chapman’s struggle to win back her children plays out against the backdrop of a country that even in the early 1800s was on the cusp of legal and social change. Eunice’s law suit was instrumental in bringing those changes about. It is unfortunate that she went after the Shakers as she did, but she felt she had no choice, and once you’re fully apprised of the circumstances, it’s hard to disagree with the actions she took. They were born of desperation. She would surely have left the Believers in peace if they had not been harboring her children and making it nearly impossible for her to see them. This is a convoluted tale, and Ilyon Woo’s ability to explain and clarify its various aspects, especially the legal ones,  while preserving the narrative’s forward thrust is truly impressive. Far from getting bogged down in the details, I actually had trouble putting the book down.

Ilyon Woo does a great job of illuminating an obscure corner of early American life. For instance, here she describes what Eunice, her parents, and her siblings would have encountered when the family emigrated from Connecticut to Durham New York around the turn of the nineteenth century::

…Durham fell along the route of the brand new Susquehanna Turnpike, which was crowded, day and night, with all manner of men–homesteaders and farmers, peddlers and grave diggers, itinerant preachers and traveling portrait painters, as well as herds of cattle, turkeys and other beasts being driven farther west. It was said of this road that the dust never settled, and in the evenings, the fields glowed with the makeshift hearths of campers stopping to rest.

In the course of her travails, Eunice Chapman was influenced by a novel called Charlotte Temple. Written by Susanna Rowson and first published in this country in 1794, Charlotte Temple is the classic seduction tale. Young and impressionable, the eponymous heroine allows herself to be seduced by a callow villain who spirits her off to America, gets her pregnant, and then abandons her on this alien shore to fend for herself. Ilyon Woo calls this novel “America’s first best seller.” 

I’m always finding rather startling stories of true crime in the most unlikely historical tomes. So it was with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale; so it is in The Great Divorce. The case to which I refer was contemporaneous with the Chapman imbroglio. Here’s what happened: one Abraham Kessler had deserted his wife on their wedding day. Five years later he returned to their home, not for the purpose of reconciliation but in order to poison said wife. He had found someone else he wanted to marry, and knew that as things stood, it would be impossible for him to secure a divorce. Woo observes: “The Kessler case provided yet another reminder of the limitations of New York’s marriage laws, trumping even the Chapmans’ in its degree of tragedy.”

Here is Ilyon Woo:


The Shaker Workshops Online Catalog provides a succinct history of the sect; in addition, there are links to fascinating historical sources. I clicked on “Life with the Shakers,” edited by Frederick W. Evans (1888) and was immediately struck by this sentence: “Then all seat themselves and eat the meal with speechless assiduity.” It was once again driven home to me why I am increasingly drawn to reading the classics…”speechless assiduity.” I do love that kind of felicitous phrase making!


*Some of my favorite nonfiction books are found in the juvenile collection of the Howard County Library. The call number for Ballet for Martha is J 784.21 G.


  1. Carol said,

    The Shakers increased their numbers by taking in orphans, who could choose to stay or leave when they reached adulthood. My mother went to teachers’ college in the early 1930’s with a girl who was raised by the Shakers, probably at the community in Canterbury NH. When I asked what she was like, my mother replied, “Strange”. When the state moved to foster care for orphans, the number of Shakers quickly went downhill.

    • Roberta Rood said,


      Thanks so much for this. I’m fascinated that you have this connection to the Shaker communities!

      According to Ilyon Woo, the Shakers were somewhat ambivalent about taking in children (although you are absolutely correct – they did increase their numbers by taking in orphans). Of course they cared for them lovingly & conscientiously, but they added to the Believers’ work load considerably with out themselves being capable of doing much productive labor, and as you say – they were free to leave or stay when they attained their majority.

  2. Elizabeth said,

    Hi Roberta,

    I have always been rather interested in the Shakers and have been a semi-regular visitor to one of the Shaker villages here in Kentucky since childhood. There are no Shakers living there, it is set up as a living history museum. It is beautiful and peaceful.

    A few years ago, my views of the Shakers dramatically shifted. I read the book “The Believers” by Janice Holt Giles. It is based on stories of the early Shakers in Western KY. According to Giles, the Shakers would break up families in an attempt to gain new members. The early Shaker “missionaries” would go around to homes and convert (mostly the husband) and the wife would follow along but once they reached the community, the family would be broken apart. The wife would live with the women, the husband with the men and the children would become part of the community (orphans really). The book really shook me up and changed my view on Shaker life. I no longer romanticize it like I used to.


    • Roberta Rood said,

      Elizabeth, Thanks very much for this. The practices that shocked you in the book by Janice Holt Giles certainly correspond to what Ilyon Woo reports of the early 19th century Shaker communities in New York State & New Hampshire.

      I shall certainly be seeking out Giles’s book.

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