The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers,
the Woman Clothed with the Sun
By Richard Francis
A Review by Dwight A Moody
For those of us familiar with the various restored Shaker villages around the country (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Kentucky), this narrative of how it all got started will come as a shock. We visit these settlements and confess our admiration at the industry, inventiveness, and orderliness of the saintly people who lived here. But it was not so from the beginning, and this biography by Richard Francis tells us how it really was.
The Shakers began as a particularly animated subset of the Quakers; in fact, they were often called the Shaking Quakers because of their tendency to, well, shake, rattle, and roll in ways that made the more sedate Quakers a bit nervous. It all began in Manchester, England, in the mid-18th century. Ann Lee was born in 1736 and confessed later: “When I was a child, my mind was taken up with the things of God, so that I saw heavenly visions, instead of trifling toys” (7).
Ann was a 22-year-old convert to the new movement, then under the leadership of its founders John and Jane Wardley. Ann was a married woman who gave birth to four children; they all died in infancy. She, uneducated and illiterate but prone to dreams and visions, wrote this, years later: “I often rose from my bed at night and walked the floor in my stocking feet, for fear of waking up the people. I did not let my husband know my troubles, lest I should stir up his affections; and I was careful not to lay any temptation before him. I also prayed to God that no man might suffer in hell on my account. Thus I labored, in strong cries and groans to God, day and night, till my flesh wasted away, and I became like a skeleton; and a kind of down came upon my skin.”
Francis notes here the physicality of this description, a feature of Ann’s life and also of Shaker religion throughout this formative period—but not so much after the movement settled down, soon after her death in 1784 when, as he describes it, “the charismatic leadership of an individual [was] supplanted by a structure built to persist through time” (330).
And charismatic she was! Alternatively soft and stern, consistently in control and always channeling spiritual things to confront financial, physical, and personnel issues. She was always seeing things: angels, candles, fires, dangers, mobs, even the dead.
Her strong and distinctive personality coupled with this otherworldly sense pulled her into the leadership of these Shakers. In 1774, she led a small group of them to escape the opposition (even persecution) in England and board the Mariah for transport to New England. For the next ten years, she was the unchallenged leader of a sect that grew, in her lifetime, to number one thousand adherents, scattered in homes throughout the region.
It was not until after her death at the age of 48 that the movement quadrupled in size, expanded to the old West (Ohio and Kentucky), build self-contained communities (like Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky), hammered out social organization, economic structure, and order of worship while making a name for themselves for quality, inventiveness, technology, and agricultural skill (see the Epilogue).
Before she died, Ann the Word ruled supreme. She was considered by Shakers as the wife of Jesus, the feminine side of the incarnation; she was considered by other residents of New England as a witch, a heretic, and a troublemaker. She and her movement suffered constant harassment and persecution—all right through the very war that was fought for the right and freedom to think, believe, worship, and live without such threats.
O yes, there is the sex. After having her share of it early in life (both listening as her parents engaged and then indulging her husband) she gave it up: partly because he found it distasteful but also because she knew the world was about to end and there was no need for more children. Because of this, and other social and religious reasons, the movement died out in the early 20th century, just as the holiness/pentecostal movement adopted much of its attributes: end of the world, signs and wonders, demonstrative worship, and egalitarian communities.
This book is good and well-written; but it cannot match the lively, almost unbelievable story it tells so well. I learned a lot, and so will you.