Thursday, November 21, 2019
Biography - American Shaker Founder "Mother" Ann Lee 1736-1784
Ann Lee (1736-1784), founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, commonly called Shakers in the United States, was born in Manchester, England, one of 8 children of John Lees, a blacksmith living on Toad Lane, & his wife. Ann later shortened her surname to Lee. She had no schooling. Early in her teens she went to work in a textile mill, preparing cotton for the looms & cutting velvet & hatter’s fur. There she was distinguished for her “faithfulness, neatness, prudence & economy.” She was a serious girl, “not addicted to play;” she brooded often about sin & the world’s wrongs.
In her twenties 2 events occurred which changed the courser of Ann Lee’s life. In 1758, she joined a society led by James Wardley, a tailor, & his wife Jane, former Quakers, who upon coming under the influence of the French Prophets, or Camisards, had separated from the Friends. From their manner of worship, which consisted of singing, dancing, shouting, shaking, & speaking in new tongues, they became known as “Shakers.” They prophesied that the 2nd coming of Christ was at hand, but otherwise had no definite creed.
The 2nd turning point in Ann’s life was her marriage. At the urging of relatives, she reluctantly consented to wed Abraham Standerin (Stadley or Stanly), a blacksmith employed in her father’s shop. She was still a member of the Church of England, for the banns were published in the Cathedral, Ann & Abraham signing by mark only. After the marriage (Jan. 5, 1762) the couple made their home with her parents, where in the course of the next few years 4 children were born to them, all of whom died in infancy. The deliveries were difficult, & Ann was near death after the birth of the last child.
This unwanted marriage which ended in tragedy, took its toll of the young wife. Worn by hears of toil in the mills, subject to the wretched conditions of an overcrowded slum, she broke down completely. Obsessed by the fears that the deaths of her children were a punishment for her concupiscence, her “violation of God’s laws,” she mortified herself, foregoing sleep & all but the meanest food, until, weak & wasted, she felt “as helpless as an infant.”
While Ann Lee was wasting away in jail, in the summer of 1770, she claimed that "by a special manifestation of divine light the present testimony of salvation and eternal life was fully revealed to her," and by her to the society, "by whom she from that time was acknowledged as mother in Christ, and by them was called Mother Ann."
"She saw the Lord Jesus Christ in his glory, who revealed to her the great object of her prayers, and fully satisfied all the desires of her soul. The most astonishing visions and divine manifestations were presented to her view in so clear and striking a manner that the whole spiritual world seemed displayed before her. In these extraordinary manifestations she had a full and clear view of the mystery of iniquity, of the root and foundation of human depravity, and of the very act of transgression committed by the first man and woman in the garden of Eden. Here she saw whence and wherein all mankind were lost from God, and clearly realized the only possible way of recovery."
"By the immediate revelation of Christ, she henceforth bore an open testimony against the lustful gratifications of the flesh as the source and foundation of human corruption; and testified, in the most plain and pointed manner, that no soul could follow Christ in the regeneration while living in the works of natural generation, or in any of the gratifications of lust."
Returning to the Wardleys, she once again found protection from the buffetings of fate. Now she had a mission, one that elevated her, about 1770, to leadership in the society. Two years later, when the Shakers began to carry their crusade into the streets & churches, they experienced their first “persecution.” Twice, in 1772 & 1773, Ann & her companions were arrested & imprisoned for breach of the Sabbath. She was confined to the “Dungeons” & from there transferred to Bedlam, the Manchester Infirmary. In these prisons she had her “grand vision” of the transgression of the first man & woman in the garden of Eden. Here she received her divine commission to complete Christ’s work. “It is not I that speak,” she told her followers, "it is Christ who dwells in me.” This intimate presence (“I converse with Christ; I feel him present with me, as sensible as I feel my hands together”) was later interpreted by her followers as constituting the second coming of Christ.
After her release from confinement, the Shakers received a “revelation” that the opening of the gospel would occur not in old England but in America. Accordingly Ann - now called Mother, of Mother of the New Creation - sailed for America on May 19, 1774, accompanied by her brother William, her chief disciple James Whittaker, & 6 others, including, strangely enough, her husband. They landed in New York on Aug. 6 & for a time went their separate ways in search of employment. Her husband Abraham found solice in drinking & left his wife. Whittaker, William Lee, & John Hocknell, the only “wealthy” members of the sect, eventually acquired a tract of land in Niskayuna (later Watervliet), near Albany, N.Y., where the Shakers settled in the spring of 1776.
Here, after 4 years of isolation, came their first opportunity to preach the gospel, as an aftermath of a New Light Baptist revival in & around New Lebanon, N.Y. Hearing of a people who proclaimed that the millennium had already begun, disillusioned subjects of the revival flocked to Niskeyuna to see “the woman clothed with the sun.” Conversions rapidly increased. The prophetess was imprisoned for several months in 1780 on false charges of aiding the British, her pacifist principles having roused suspicion among her patriot neighbors. But after her release she continued her work, carry out, in 1781-83, an arduous but successful proselyting mission into parts of eastern New York & New England. When she died, in the fall of 1784, soon after her return to Nisheyuna, the foundation had been laid for eleven communities. She was buried in the Shaker cemetery at Niskeyuna. Her immediate successor, James Whittaker, lived only three more years, but her work was carried forward & systematized by the next heads of the society, Joseph Meacham & Lucy Wright.
Mother Ann Lee must have had a magnetic personality, for during her career she attracted individuals from every walk of life, & after her death her spirit persisted as an ever-present mother image in the order. Physically she was of medium height, with a fair complexion, blue eyes, & chestnut brown hair. Her teaching was simple: confession was the doorway to salvation, celibacy its rule & cross. She envisaged a fellowship like that of the primitive Christian church, where “all that believed were together & had all things in common.” Like the Quakers, she took a firm stand against slavery, the taking of oaths, the bearing of arms. Repeatedly she counseled neatness, economy, charity to the poor.
While she strictly enjoined celibacy on her followers & for a time seems to have condemned marriage in the outside world as well, she later modified her views, holding that marriage was permissible on the “Adamic plane,” but that there was a higher plane, one nearer perfection, a “resurrection order” that was free of all carnal lust. In this order all should have equal privileges regardless of sex, race, or temporal possessions.
Mother Ann Lee was obsessed about “lust” & her messianic pretensions, but she did inspire a movement deeply religious in aspiration & essentially democratic in practice. Her advocacy of equal rights & responsibilities for women in the Shaker society anticipated the feminist movement in America. Her belief in an equalitarian order, in the dignity of labor, & in the rights of conscience accorded with American idealism. Hers was probaby the most successful experiment in religious communitarianism in American history.
A little more about Mother Ann's theory of lust & salvation -- from a volume of "Hymns and Poems for the Use of Believers" (Watervliet, Ohio, 1833), Adam is made to confess the nature of his transgression and the cause of his fall, in a dialogue with his children:
"First Adam being dead, yet speaketh, in a dialogue with his children.
"Children. First Father Adam, where art thou?
With all thy num'rous fallen race;
We must demand an answer now,
For time hath stript our hiding-place.
Wast thou in nature made upright—
Fashion'd and plac'd in open light?
"Adam. Yea truly I was made upright:
This truth I never have deni'd,
And while I liv'd I lov'd the light,
But I transgress'd and then I died.
Ye've heard that I transgress'd and fell—
This ye have heard your fathers tell.
"Ch. Pray tell us how this sin took place—
This myst'ry we could never scan,
That sin has sunk the human race,
And all brought in by the first man.
'Tis said this is our heavy curse—
Thy sin imputed unto us.
"Ad. When I was plac'd on Eden's soil,
I liv'd by keeping God's commands—
To keep the garden all the while,
And labor, working with my hands.
I need not toil beyond my pow'r,
Yet never waste one precious hour.
"But in a careless, idle frame,
I gazed about on what was made:
And idle hands will gather shame,
And wand'ring eyes confuse the head:
I dropp'd my hoe and pruning-knife,
To view the beauties of my wife.
"An idle beast of highest rank
Came creeping up just at that time,
And show'd to Eve a curious prank,
Affirming that it was no crime:—
'Ye shall not die as God hath said—
'Tis all a sham, be not afraid.'
"All this was pleasant to the eye,
And Eve affirm'd the fruit was good;
So I gave up to gratify
The meanest passion in my blood.
O horrid guilt! I was afraid:
I was condemn'd, yea I was dead.
"Here ends the life of the first man,
Your father and his spotless bride;
God will be true, his word must stand—
The day I sinn'd that day I died:
This was my sin, this was my fall!—
This your condition, one and all.
"Ch. How can these fearful things agree
With what we read in sacred writ—
That sons and daughters sprung from thee,
Endu'd with wisdom, power, and wit;
And all the nations fondly claim
Their first existence in thy name?
"Ad. Had you the wisdom of that beast
That took my headship by deceit,
I could unfold enough at least
To prove your lineage all a cheat.
Your pedigree you do not know,
The SECOND ADAM told you so.
"When I with guile was overcome,
And fell a victim to the beast,
My station first he did assume,
Then on the spoil did richly feast.
Soon as the life had left my soul,
He took possession of the whole.
"He plunder'd all my mental pow'rs,
My visage, stature, speech, and gait;
And, in a word, in a few hours,
He was first Adam placed in state:
He took my wife, he took my name;
All but his nature was the same.
"Now see him hide, and skulk about,
Just like a beast, and even worse,
Till God in anger drove him out,
And doom'd him to an endless curse.
O hear the whole creation groan!
The Man of Sin has took the throne!
"Now in my name this beast can plead,
How God commanded him at first
To multiply his wretched seed,
Through the base medium of his lust.
O horrid cheat! O subtle plan!
A hellish beast assumes the man!
"This is your father in my name:
Your pedigree ye now may know:
He early from perdition came,
And to perdition he must go.
And all his race with him shall share
Eternal darkness and despair."
The same theory of the fall is stated in another hymn:
"We read, when God created man,
He made him able then to stand
United to his Lord's command
That he might be protected;
But when, through Eve, he was deceiv'd,
And to his wife in lust had cleav'd,
And of forbidden fruit receiv'd,
He found himself rejected.
"And thus, we see, death did begin,
When Adam first fell into sin,
And judgment on himself did bring,
Which he could not dissemble:
Old Adam then began to plead,
And tell the cause as you may read;
But from his sin he was not freed,
Then he did fear and tremble.
"Compell'd from Eden now to go,
Bound in his sins, with shame and woe,
And there to feed on things below—
His former situation:
For he was taken from the earth,
And blest with a superior birth,
But, dead in sin, he's driven forth
From his blest habitation.
"Now his lost state continues still,
In all who do their fleshly will,
And of their lust do take their fill,
And say they are commanded:
Thus they go forth and multiply,
And so they plead to justify
Their basest crimes, and so they try
To ruin souls more candid."
The "way of regeneration" is opened in another hymn in the same collection:
"Victory over the Man of Sin.
"Souls that hunger for salvation,
And have put their sins away,
Now may find a just relation,
If they cheerfully obey;
They may find the new creation,
And may boldly enter in
By the door of free salvation,
And subdue the Man of Sin.
"Thus made free from that relation,
Which the serpent did begin,
Trav'ling in regeneration,
Having pow'r to cease from sin;
Dead unto a carnal nature,
From that tyrant ever free,
Singing praise to our Creator,
For this blessed jubilee.
"Sav'd from passions, too inferior
To command the human soul;
Led by motives most superior,
Faith assumes entire control:
Joined in the new creation,
Living souls in union run,
Till they find a just relation
To the First-born two in one.
"But this prize cannot be gained.
Neither is salvation found,
Till the Man of Sin is chained,
And the old deceiver bound.
All mankind he has deceived,
And still binds them one and all,
Save a few who have believed,
And obey'd the Gospel call.
"By a life of self-denial,
True obedience and the cross,
We may pass the fiery trial,
Which does separate the dross. p. 125
If we bear our crosses boldly,
Watch and ev'ry evil shun,
We shall find a body holy,
And the tempter overcome.
"By a pois'nous fleshly nature,
This dark world has long been led;
There can be no passion greater—
This must be the serpent's head:
On our coast he would be cruising,
If by truth he were not bound:
But his head has had a bruising,
And he's got a deadly wound.
"And his wounds cannot be healed,
Light and truth do now forbid,
Since the Gospel has revealed
Where his filthy head was hid:
With a fig-leaf it was cover'd,
Till we brought his deeds to light;
By his works he is discover'd,
And his head is plain in sight."
Following the doctrines were put forth by Ann Lee, & elaborated by her successors:
I. That God is a dual person, male and female; that Adam was a dual person, being created in God's image; and that "the distinction of sex is eternal, inheres in the soul itself; and that no angels or spirits exist who are not male and female."
II. That Christ is a Spirit, and one of the highest, who appeared first in the person of Jesus, representing the male, and later in the person of Ann Lee, representing the female element in God.
III. That the religious history of mankind is divided into four cycles, which are represented also in the spirit world, each having its appropriate heaven and hell. The first cycle included the antediluvians—Noah and the faithful going to the first heaven, and the wicked of that age to the first hell. The second cycle included the Jews up to the appearance of Jesus; and the second heaven is called Paradise. The third cycle included all who lived until the appearance of Ann Lee; Paul being "caught up into the third heaven." The heaven of the fourth and last dispensation "is now in process of formation," and is to supersede in time all previous heavens. Jesus, they say, after his death, descended into the first hell to preach to the souls there confined; and on his way passed through the second heaven, or Paradise, where he met the thief crucified with him.
IV. They hold themselves to be the "Church of the Last Dispensation," the true Church of this age; and they believe that the day of judgment, or "beginning of Christ's kingdom on earth," dates from the establishment of their Church, and will be completed by its development.
V. They hold that the Pentecostal Church was established on right principles; that the Christian churches rapidly and fatally fell away from it; and that the Shakers have returned to this original and perfect doctrine and practice. They say: "The five most prominent practical principles of the Pentecost Church were, first, common property; second, a life of celibacy; third, non-resistance; fourth, a separate and distinct government; and, fifth, power over physical disease." To all these but the last they have attained; and the last they confidently look for, and even now urge that disease is an offense to God, and that it is in the power of men to be healthful, if they will.
VI. They reject the doctrine of the Trinity, of the bodily resurrection, and of an atonement for sins. They do not worship either Jesus or Ann Lee, holding both to be simply elders in the Church, to be respected and loved.
VII. They are Spiritualists. "We are thoroughly convinced of spirit communication and interpositions, spirit guidance and obsession. Our spiritualism has permitted us to converse, face to face, with individuals once mortals, some of whom we well knew, and with others born before the flood." * They assert that the spirits at first labored among them; but that in later times they have labored among the spirits; and that in the lower heavens there have been formed numerous Shaker churches. Moreover, "it should be distinctly understood that special inspired gifts have not ceased, but still continue among this people." It follows from what is stated above, that they believe in a "probationary state in the world of spirits."
VIII. They hold that he only is a true servant of God who lives a perfectly stainless and sinless life; and they add that to this perfection of life all their members ought to attain.
IX. Finally, they hold that their Church, the Inner or Gospel Order, as they call it, is supported by and has for its complement the world, or, as they say, the Outer Order. They do not regard marriage and property as crimes or disorders, but as the emblems of a lower order of society. And they hold that the world in general, or the Outer Order, will have the opportunity of purification in the next world as well as here.
This posting based, in part, on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971