The relationship between Shaker communal families and the natural families who joined the sect is a most interesting one; yet, to date, it has received little attention in print. As a celibate sect, the Shakers depended upon converts for membership. From the time of the founding of their relatively self-contained communities in the 1780s, it was common for Believers to accept, and ultimately convert, whole families. At the entry or novitiate level of membership, these family units usually remained together, sharing with the rest of the community only work, worship, and the necessities for living. This organizational unit was called the Gathering Order. If their commitment grew and if they then chose to take on the “full gospel life,” all their property was turned over to the community and husbands and wives lived apart forever after.
The specific subject here is the story of two of the most dynamic and best-documented families in all Shakerdom: the Lyman and the Copley families at the Shaker community of Enfield, Connecticut (1790-1917). (This should not be confused with a Shaker community that existed in Enfield, New Hampshire, 1793-1923.) I will explore the interplay between these two families—their natural and communal ties—and present information not generally known about many of the individuals involved. The structure that I have chosen includes a genealogy of the two families and their non-Shaker descendants, along with historical notes, anecdotes, and observations about certain individuals. These two families are uniquely worth studying because of their numbers and their influence on their community—both good and bad. There were no fewer than sixteen members of the Lyman family (including two by marriages to other Shakers) and twelve of the Copley family who, for some period of their lives, lived as Shakers at Enfield. Many of them also held leadership positions. It is no exaggeration to say that with the loss of members from both families—mainly by apostasy before 1890 and by death after that date—the community floundered. In 1917 it closed completely.