Ann Lee (1736-1784)
Ann Lee was born in England and was baptized and raised in the Society of Friends, commonly called the Quakers. Child labor was practiced during the time of her youth and she worked from a young age, as a cotton baler, later in a hat factory (where she was no doubt exposed to mercury, a toxin which led to the phrase “mad as a hatter), and finally as a cook. At the age of 16 she joined a Quaker sect called the Wardley’s, which later became known as the Shakers. The Wardley’s believed that the convulsive shaking they practiced was a purgative cleansing them of sin, literally the effects of sin leaving the body.
After marriage Lee had four children, all of whom died in infancy, and she developed the radical beliefs that marriage was an unholy state and celibacy led to spiritual and physical perfection. Her preaching brought her to the attention of the authorities of the Church of England, and she was arrested and fined on several occasions for heretical teachings and practices. The Church of England considered the Shaker’s activities to be a form of dancing and were thus breaking the Sabbath, on which dancing was prohibited. By 1770 she had risen to such prominence within the sect that her followers declared her to be the perfection of God in female form, and titled her as “The Mother of All Things.” Thenceforth she was Mother Ann.
Mother Ann fled to America with several of her followers in 1774, arriving in New York City with her husband. They remained in New York until 1779, although Ann’s husband deserted her. As pacifists they supported neither side in Revolutionary New York, but the British occupation was hard on all sides, and in 1779 the Shakers relocated to a community outside Albany. At first the community, which was another form of a commune, was able to thrive and some outsiders were attracted to the Shaker beliefs and lifestyle.
By 1781 Mother Ann and some select followers were recruiting new members in New England. By this time her followers were calling her the second coming of Jesus Christ. In her role as the messiah she preached the separation of men and women, with celibacy a requirement of salvation. While there were some who were attracted by her message, the Shaker’s met with angry factions in New England and New York, which frequently drove the sect out of whichever town in which they were staying. Physical violence against the Shaker’s was not uncommon, and many towns forbade their entry as a means of avoiding mobs within their communities.
By 1784 Mother Ann had become weakened by the effects of her travel, the reactions of mobs, and the difficulties encountered throughout her lifetime. She died at the Shaker community in Watervliet, New York in September of that year. Her followers believed that she had been the incarnated feminine side of God, literally the messiah in the form of a woman. The Shakers continued to grow as a sect during the First Great Awakening, reaching their peak about 1826, before gradually fading from existence.