Arriving in the American colonies with a handful of followers, Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) became founder and leading spirit of the radical religious sect called the United Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, better known as the Shakers.
Ann Lee was the quintessential nonconformist. A spiritual trailblazer, she led the advance guard of a new era of religious liberty and toleration which would eventually characterize the young nation with which she cast her lot. A person of great personal charisma, Ann Lee was also a true religious and social innovator. The ideals and practices of the Shakers caused them to be among the first in America to advocate pacifism, abolition of slavery, equality of the sexes, communal ownership of goods, and absolute celibacy.
The 18th century was a period of religious awakening, both in Britain and in her American colonies. The revivalistic tone of the times was partly engendered by the cold intellectualism of the established church and its indifference to the needs of the common person. In response to the apathy of the Anglican Church, a number of spiritual societies were formed which were anticlerical and evangelical; they were reacting against the stolid form and ritual of the Church of England by emphasizing heartfelt conversion and spontaneous, enthusiastic worship. Most of these groups were also millenarian, embracing a belief in the imminent second coming of Christ. The best known leaders of the revivals in the 18th century used these radical methods, but remained orthodox in their beliefs. They had no theological quarrels with the established Church, but they espoused a religious libertarianism which went beyond the boundaries of conventional Christian doctrine and practice. It is of note that one of the most original and daring of these groups was led by a woman, which was in itself a revolutionary concept for the time. Women preachers were a curiosity in the 18th century and an unpopular one at that. English journalist, Dr. Samuel Johnson, said at the time, "a woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all."
The second of eight children, Ann Lee was born on February 29, 1736, in a poor district of Manchester, England, known as Toad Lane. Her father John Lee was a blacksmith whose meager income barely fed his family. Except for a parish church record of her baptism in 1742, very little is known of Ann Lee's childhood. There does exist a physical description of her as a young adult; she was said to be short of stature, stoutly built, with blue eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion. According to her followers, "her countenance was mild and expressive, but grave and solemn. Her glance was keen and penetrating."
Since education for a girl of Lee's station was out of the question, she remained illiterate and found it necessary to seek employment in the textile mills of Manchester. By her twenties, she had escaped the misery of the mills, but she was then serving as a cook in the public infirmary and madhouse. Young Lee, who exhibited a religious bent early in life, found the ambiance of the 18th-century industrial city intolerable. Manchester was oppressively overcrowded and unhealthful, its streets choked with filth and squalor. This desperate situation drove many of the working class to seek escape through habitual drunkenness in Manchester's numerous "gin mills." Such alcohol abuse and its resulting moral degradation weighed heavily upon Lee. She was repelled by the "depravity of human nature and the odiousness of sin," as she later recalled. In the midst of this moral decay, Ann Lee developed an early revulsion for sex. As the Shaker Elders related in Testimonies:
So great was her sense of its impurity, that she often admonished her mother against it, which, coming to her father's ears, he threatened and actually attempted to whip her; upon which she threw herself into her mother's arms and clung around her neck to escape his strokes.
In time, Ann Lee would incorporate these feelings into her analysis of human sinfulness. Ultimately she became convinced that the sexual act was the original sin of Adam and Eve and that lust has been the root of all evil.
In 1758, Lee found the spiritual refuge she had been looking for when she affiliated with a religious society led by former Quakers Jane and James Wardley. The Wardley Society, or as it was then called, the "Shaking Quakers," had many things in common with the Quakers (Society of Friends) founded by George Fox, such as the reliance upon "inner light" for the revelation of spiritual truth. The Wardleys, however, had also been influenced by a group of millenarian apocalypticists known as the Camisards or French Prophets. Borrowing from this tradition, the Wardleys taught that the Second Coming of Christ was very near. They also understood the second person of the Trinity to exist in both male and female form. They reasoned that since Christ's first advent was as a man named Jesus, the second appearing would undoubtedly be as a woman. Like those of the Quakers, the meetings of the Wardley Society started out with a period of silent meditation during which the "seeker" awaited the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This was soon followed by more dramatic manifestations akin to those of the Camisards. Worshippers would openly confess their sins and shortly would be carried away with violent shaking, singing, shouting, dancing, and prophesying, primarily by the women. Among the Shaking Quakers, Ann Lee experienced a sense of belonging. The Wardleys were impressed with Lee and felt she had great potential as a member of their society.
On January 5, 1762, four years after Ann Lee met the Wardleys, she was coerced by her father into marrying his blacksmith apprentice, Abraham Standerin. A simple and good man, Standerin was hardly compatible with his complex and headstrong mate but over the next several years Lee gave birth to four children, all of whom died in infancy or early childhood. These events left Ann Lee deeply disturbed and assaulted by guilt. According to Edward D. Andrews:
The tragic experiences of these years not only undermined Ann's health, both physical and mental, but strongly conditioned her views toward sex and the institution of marriage. She saw the deaths of her children as a series of judgments on her "concupiscence." Fearing to stir up the affections of her husband "she began to avoid her bed, as if it had been made of embers." She was afraid to sleep lest she "awake in hell," and night after night she walked the floor, "laboring for a sense of the word of God."
Standerin did not easily accept Lee's resolve to remain celibate. But neither argumentation nor priestly intervention enabled him to thwart his wife's intention to be the "bride of Christ." Oddly, Standerin did not leave Lee at this time, but stayed and joined the Shakers himself.
The dark night of the soul which Ann Lee endured after the death of her children lasted for nine years. This period of introspection and ascetic behavior finally came to an end during one of several imprisonments where Lee received the vision which Shakers came to regard as the birth of their movement. During her tenure with the Wardleys, Lee was jailed on several occasions for disturbing the peace. The boisterous, bizarre form of Shaker worship inspired suspicion and hostility in their neighbors. Some of these conflicts with the authorities occurred because of the Shaker habit of interrupting local congregations during services by bursting into their services to rail against the worldliness of the church and to accuse all married couples of whoredom.
During a lengthy incarceration in 1770, Lee beheld the "grand vision of the very transgression of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden, the cause wherein all mankind was lost and separated from God." It was further revealed to her that she was the female successor to Jesus, the incarnation of the second coming of Christ. She felt filled and united with Christ in such completeness that from then on she referred to herself as Mother Ann or Ann the Word. Ann Lee emerged from this experience with a confidence born of mysticism, the status of a martyr within the society, and the undisputed new leader of the sect. As Mother Ann, she boldly proclaimed her gospel at every opportunity. The message was uncomplicated: life with God begins by confession and is perfected by denial of the lusts of the flesh through celibacy.
As her tirades against Church and society increased in vehemence, so did petty arrests and incidents of mob violence against Lee and her group (which now included her spouse, her father, and her brother William). Some years earlier, she had been enthralled by George Whitefield's stirring description of the spiritual awakening in the American colonies. In view of the restrictions faced by the Shakers in England, the prospect of creating a community in a virgin country was very attractive. Thinking that their movement might grow if it was transplanted to America, the little group was encouraged by various visions they had of the converts awaiting them in the New World.
John Hocknell, one of the few Shakers of material means, booked passage to New York for Lee and her eight disciples on board the ship Mariah. After a voyage of three months, the first Shakers arrived in New York harbor on August 6, 1774. During a two-year sojourn in New York City while they worked to save money and—in classic Quaker fashion—await the "leading of the Spirit," Lee's marriage to Abraham Standerin disintegrated. Standerin had made one final attempt to coerce Lee into cohabitation by bringing a prostitute into their bedroom and threatening to marry her if Lee did not consent. When Lee refused to renounce her vows of celibacy, Standerin departed from her company. She never heard from him again.
By 1776, the Shakers knew that the time to leave New York had come. Revolutionary fever was raging in the city and war with the British was imminent. The growing passion for war included hostility toward anything British. Because they were newly arrived from England, because of their strange customs and their lack of enthusiasm for the patriot cause, the Shakers were accused of being Tories (British sympathizers). Actually the Shakers supported neither the British nor the Americans; they were uncompromising pacifists who had little interest in the outcome of the war.
Once again, John Hocknell was the group's benefactor. He purchased a tract of wilderness land a few miles from Albany which offered the remote location desired by the sect. After a few months of clearing the land, Mother Ann and the others took up residence at Niskeyuna, New York, in September of 1776 and began creating the first Shaker community.
The Niskeyuna community benefited from the revivalistic interest created by the phenomenon of the Great Awakening. These protracted revivals, which occurred widely in the Middle and New England colonies, commonly exhibited the same dramatic physical manifestations that were seen among the Shakers. Thus, people on the frontier were less likely to be scandalized by religious emotionalism. As the revival fires cooled, the Shaker community continued to attract those who ardently looked for signs of the Second Coming. In this way, the Niskeyuna society gained the Reverend Joseph Meacham, its most important convert. A former Baptist, Meacham had been a leader in the New Lebanon, New York, revival. When the revival declined, Meacham looked for evidence of the millennial kingdom elsewhere. Having heard of the curious Shaker prophet, he traveled with some skepticism to Niskeyuna to meet Ann Lee for himself. Persuaded by her personal faith, Meacham's doubts were relieved, and he became convinced that she was indeed the messiah of the new millennial age.
Though their unusual form of worship was always a curiosity, it was Shaker doctrines, such as the condemnation of marriage, and Ann Lee's messianic claims which caused the greatest controversy. The great conflicts of the 1780s, however, had to do with political, rather than theological, matters. The war with England was being waged in earnest and again the rumor arose that the Shakers were British spies. As in New York, the Shakers' pacifism was misunderstood, but this time it resulted in the imprisonment of several Shakers. Events gradually improved when local citizens began to object to the mistreatment of the Shakers, believing that such actions betrayed the ideals of the new republic.
The six months following the release of the jailed leaders was a period in which the Shakers were allowed to "bear witness to their faith" unmolested. Since a number of new converts were from the New England colonies, and an interest in Mother Ann's message intensified in that area, Lee and her two leading disciples, William Lee and James Whittaker, resolved to undertake a preaching mission throughout Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts; in May of 1781, "the three elders" and a few others set out on horseback on a tour that would last more than two years. This mission was of tremendous importance to Shaker history. With the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, serving as home base, several new communities were established throughout New England.
The Shaker message was accepted among some Free Will Baptists and "New Light" Presbyterians. Having rejected strict Calvinism, these congregations showed openness to spontaneous expressions of spiritual worship. Unfortunately the mission was marred by repeated acts of mob violence in which several Shaker leaders were horsewhipped. Mother Ann herself was dragged out of a dwelling and thrown into a carriage to be "shamefully and cruelly abused."
When Mother Ann and her company finally returned home to Niskeyuna on September 4, 1783, the violence of the New England mission had left both her and her brother in a weakened condition. Neither fully regained health. William Lee, the first of the original Shakers to die, "passed into the world of spirit" on July 21, 1784. After the death of her beloved brother, Mother Ann seemed to lose all interest in the world around her. She died on September 8, 1784, a year after the New England trip. Her final days had been spent sitting in her rocking chair "singing in unknown tongues … and holy divested of any attention to material things." Her disciples buried her in a simple wooden coffin, after a rousing Shaker celebration of her life and her passing into the realm of spirit.
Her one important work in her final days had been to pass the reins of leadership to elder James Whittaker. Unlike Lee, Whittaker had a gift for organization and, under his leadership, the movement prospered. He immediately set out to "Gather in Gospel Order" all the Shaker communities, urging them to implement communal living and common ownership of property as demonstrated in the New Testament.
In spite of her convictions concerning celibacy, which doomed the Shakers to eventual extinction, Ann Lee was in many ways a progressive 18th-century woman who made a significant impact on her world. She was a pioneer for justice and equality. She taught by precept and example the equality of the sexes, economic justice, religious tolerance, and true democracy.
Further Reading on Mother Ann Lee
Andrews, Edward D. The People Called Shakers: A Search for the Perfect Society. Dover, 1963.
Campion, Nardi Reeder. Ann the Word. Little, Brown, 1976.
Elders, Shaker. Testimonies of the Life Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Mother Ann Lee. Weed, Parsons, 1888.
Hudson, Withrop S. Religion in America. Scribner, 1965.
Marshall, Mary. A Portraiture of Shakerism. AMS Press, 1822
Melcher, Marguerite Fellows. The Shaker Adventure. Case Western Reserve University, 1941.