Ann Lee is the legendary founding mother of Shakerism, a tiny sect that has disproportionately shaped American religious history and domestic design. The first Shakers were English, men and women of humble backgrounds and poor education who broke away from the Society of Friends.
Revelation was the Shakers' key biblical text, and their theology was rudimentary, visionary, and harsh. Convinced that the end of the world was at hand, Shakers lived fiercely in the present, seeking converts but seeing no need to build institutions or produce children.
"To turn, turn, shall be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right," goes the most famous Shaker hymn, and for hours on end, Shakers would dance, weave harmonious patterns of song, speak in tongues, fall into paroxysms, whirl on and on, and at last drop to the ground in a kind of ecstatic, exhausted catatonia.
In England, Shakerism soon died out, but in 1774 Ann Lee was inspired by a vision to lead a band of 16 followers to the New World, where the movement entered the historical record.
Soon after her death in 1784, Ann Lee became a controversial figure in Shakerism, and her illiteracy has posed a huge hurdle to biographers. The 1816 testimonies to her life were soon suppressed and became known as the "Secret Book of the Elders."
Now, Richard Francis, an English novelist and historian who has already written on Utopian communities in New England, has undertaken a full biography of Ann Lee. This elegant, erudite, and carefully researched book will fill an important gap for anyone interested in women religious leaders and the intersection of gender and religion.
Ann Lee, or Lees, was born in 1736, the second of the eight children of Ann and John Lees, a blacksmith of Toad Lane, in Manchester, England. Richard Francis's evocation of Manchester before the Industrial Revolution is superb. Like all working-class children of the time, the Lees children were expected to work for their keep almost as soon as they could trot, and there was no question of school.
In 1758, Ann Lee became a Shaker, or Shaking Quaker, and soon assumed a position of leadership, as several women had before her. In 1762, Ann married Abraham Standerin, a blacksmith like her father. The marriage was not a success. Four children died still-born or as infants, and these deaths no doubt exacerbated Ann's extreme revulsion from sexual relations. Standerin eventually left her.
Under Ann Lee, Shakers fiercely advocated celibacy, kept men and women separate within the community, and urged converts to break with their families.
Unsurprisingly, the Shakers attracted attention. They were soon subjected to attacks, both from mobs and from the local authorities.
In 1774, James Whittaker, one of Ann's youthful followers, had a dream of establishing a church in America. Acting on this vision, Ann and her followers embarked on an old, leaky ship called the Mariah and managed to arrive safely in New York. They settled between the Hudson and Mohawk rivers in a place they called Niskeyuna.
For four years, they lived unnoticed in the wilderness, seeing more of the local Mohawks than of other colonists, impervious to the ferment of the ongoing War of Independence.
The hardworking, handy Shakers made a good living, but for this fiery, impassioned group the solitude and indifference they first found in America were worse than death. Then in 1780, they came to the attention of the Meachamites, a millennialist and perfectionist group centered in New Lebanon. Inexplicably drawn to meet Mother Ann, men and women were literally shaken to the core with a sense of sin, and accepted her as the second Christ they had been awaiting.
In 1781, Ann Lee led a band of followers to Harvard, Mass., where she made handfuls of converts, but also aroused intense opposition. Ironically, Shakers were accused of sexual promiscuity, as well as of spying for the British.
Ann's status as prophet and leader was anathema to many. On one occasion, she was stripped and assaulted by an intemperate mob; several times she was dragged down the stairs head first, her skirts over her head. At the end, she was forced to move from one follower's home to another in constant fear of her life. She died in 1784, worn out by trouble.
Francis eloquently uses Ann Lee as a window into the unrecorded lives of poor, working-class people, painting a vivid picture of early Shaker life. Yet Ann herself is an alien being to this avowedly secular Englishman, and, forced to rely on second-hand testimony, he is unable to take us into her mind or explain how she came to lead so strange and dramatic a life. Francis tells us Ann Lee's greatest gift was her voice and the songs she improvised, but these things cannot be captured in text. Until we hear Ann Lee sing, we won't understand her.
Gillian Gill is the author of the recent biography 'Mary Baker Eddy' (Perseus).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor