Biography of Ann Lee, Founder of the Shakers

Mother Ann Lee led the Shakers from England to the United States

Portrait of Group of Pennsylvania Shakers
Portrait of Group of Pennsylvania Shakers.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Ann Lee (February 29, 1736–September 8, 1784) was the charismatic leader of the Shakers, officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. The illiterate daughter of a blacksmith in Manchester, England, Lee endured a difficult childhood and troubled marriage before leading a group of "shaking Quakers" to upstate New York. The Shakers became an active evangelical group with communities throughout eight states in the Northeast.

Shakers were known for their pacifism, celibacy, egalitarianism between the sexes, unique form of worship, and impressive achievements in the fields of agriculture, design, and music. By the end of the 20th century, Shakerism was essentially extinct, but its legacy continues.

Fast Facts: Ann Lee

  • Known For: Founder of the Shakers
  • Also Known As: Mother Ann
  • Born: February 29, 1736 in Manchester, England
  • Parents: John Lee or Lees; mother's name unknown
  • Died: September 08, 1784 in Watervliet, New York, United States
  • Spouse: Abraham Standerin
  • Children: Four children, none of whom survived infancy
  • Notable Quote: "You should make the way of God your occupation. The way of God is to be learned as much as a trade. You learn to have faith, learn to believe. A man that has a trade is industrious to work at it and get a living. And you ought to be as industrious and as much engaged in the way of God."

Early Life

Ann Lee was born on February 29, 1736, in Toad Lane, a poor neighborhood of Manchester, England. Ann was the second of eight children born to a blacksmith, John Lee, whose income barely fed his large family. Ann was baptized in 1742 but received no schooling; as a young girl, she went to work in the textile mills to help support her family.

A sensitive young woman, Ann was able to leave the mills to find employment in the local infirmary but was nevertheless overwhelmed by the filth and poverty of Manchester. She spoke out against alcohol and developed a strong aversion to sex. Her distaste for sex was such that she actually lectured her mother against engaging in sex, even with her own husband.

The Wardley Society of Shaking Quakers

'Shakers near Lebanon', c1870
'Shakers near Lebanon', c1870. Members of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Community, Lebanon Springs, New York State, 'dancing' at their meeting. Artist: Currier and Ives.  Print Collector / Getty Images

In 1758, Ann discovered the Wardley Society, a group of "shaking Quakers," a religious society led by Jane and James Wardley. The Wardleys, like the Quakers, believed in the "inner light" as the source of revelation and spiritual truth, and, like the Quakers, they started their meetings with silence, waiting for the spirit to move members to speak. Unlike the Quakers, however, the Wardleys were influenced by the Camisards (French prophets) who believed that the Second Coming of Christ was near. They also believed that, while Christ's first coming was in male form, the second coming would be in female form. "Shaking Quaker" worship quickly moved from silent meditation to dramatic confession of sins, singing in tongues, shaking, and prophesying. Ann Lee found a home with the Wardley Society, and they were equally impressed by Ann.

Marriage and Pregnancies

Four years after she joined the Wardley Society, Ann's father pressed her to marry his apprentice, Abraham Standerin. Despite Ann's reluctance to engage in sex, she became pregnant and gave birth four times. Each of her children died either in infancy or young childhood. These experiences were devastating for Ann, who saw the deaths of her children as a judgment on her for her sins and determined to remain celibate.

This period of depression and introspection lasted for nine years, during which time Ann refused to share her bed with her husband. Standerin, despite his frustrations with his wife, remained loyal to her for a period of time. A few years later, he traveled to America with her.

Jail, Visions, and a Journey

Members of the Wardley Society were often jailed for reasons ranging from blasphemy to disrupting the peace. In some cases, conflicts with the authorities were a result of the Wardley Society members disrupting other congregations and accusing married members of "whoredom."

It was in 1770, during a period of incarceration, that Ann Lee received a vision. In this vision, according to several sources, Lee saw that sex between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was the cause of humanity's separation from God. It was further revealed that she was the incarnation of the second coming of Christ, as foretold in Genesis and the Book of Revelation. She left jail as Mother Ann, or Ann the Word, a mystic and leader of a sect dedicated to celibacy and confession of sins.

Quite a few members of the Shaking Quakers, including some of Ann's family, accepted her vision as spiritual truth and followed her teachings as the “first spiritual Mother in Christ.” They continued to follow her when, in 1774, a vision led her to form a perfect church in America which would become the model for the Millenium. With the help of a wealthy follower, Ann and a group of followers sailed to America.

Mother Ann Lee tombstone
Mother Ann Lee tombstone.  Doug Coldwell / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Mother Ann in America

In 1774, Mother Ann and her followers arrived in New York City where Ann's husband, Abraham, finally left her forever. A member of the group leased land in upstate New York, and, in 1776, the Shakers founded their first model farming community in a Niskayuna (now called Watervliet) New York. The community was completely celibate; women and men shared leadership and worked side by side as equals.

Even in their new surroundings, the Shakers found life difficult. As pacifists, they were unwilling to pledge their support to the American revolutionaries, and several Shakers (including Mother Ann) were jailed for being disloyal. Ann continued to preach, even through the windows of her prison cell;. Following her release she set out on a four-year missionary tour throughout the northeastern part of the new United States.

Though the new nation was undergoing a religious revival, the Shakers' unique theology and principles made it difficult to build a following. Nevertheless, Mother Ann, her brother William, and Shaker leader James Whittaker were successful in laying the groundwork for communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Many new Shaker converts had been members of non-mainstream groups which, like the Shakers, had been persecuted.

Death

Mother Ann's missionary tour was exhausting and involved a variety of hardships including physical assault. By the time she returned to Watervliet, she was ill; within a year both she and her brother had died. She died on September 8, 1784, at the age of 48, leaving James Whittaker, Joseph Meacham, Lucy Wright, and several other disciples to carry on the creation of multiple Shaker communities across eight states. Ann Lee was buried in the Shaker Cemetery in Watervliet, New York.

Legacy

Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed, and the Elders with Her
Title of a very first book about Ann Lee Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed, and the Elders with Her published by Shakers in 1816. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons 

Ann Lee's personal story was documented by her followers in books which narrated her words, revelations, and actions (Testimonies of the Life, Revelations, and Doctrine of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee). These books, along with Mother Ann's personal influence, helped to shape the growth of the Shaker movement throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s.

Shakers were and still are well known for their egalitarian and pacifist beliefs, their celibacy, and their industry. Just as importantly, they are remembered for their significant contributions to American agriculture, design, and music.

Sources:

  • “About the Shakers.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-shakers/about-the-shakers.
  • Ann Lee, A Woman of Great Faith, libertymagazine.org/article/ann-lee-a-woman-of-great-faith.
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Ann Lee.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Ann-Lee.
  • “First Shaker Settlement.” Shaker Heritage Society, home.shakerheritage.org/.