Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ann, the Word

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. (John 1:1) 

John in his gospel sets out immediately to establish the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth by using the Greek term "Logos" or "Word." Ann Lee (1736-1784), the founder of the religious sect that became known as Shakers, was known to refer to herself as "Ann, the Word," a clear reference to her belief that she was The Christ in female form. If that were true, then her presence was the Second Coming that Jesus had promised. Thus her followers went by the formal name of The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing.

She was born in Manchester, England, to a blacksmith father who forced her into a marriage she did not want. This union produced four still births and four living children, none of whom survived beyond age six.  Immersing herself in religion, she rose to leadership in a small group of Quakers who had become charismatics. Ann advocated the dissolution of marriage and a life of celibacy, teaching that sexual relations were sinful and that one must strive for perfection in all areas.

Ann and her followers became known for their wildly ecstatic worship, characterized by whirling, jumping, shouting, speaking in unknown tongues, and fainting. Here they acquired the name by which they became popularly known, Shaking Quakers or simply Shakers. Their preaching in the streets brought resistance, including beatings and imprisonment. To escape this persecution, in 1774 Ann and a small group of followers emigrated to North America, where they eventually established themselves near Albany, New York.

Little remains of this first Shaker community, and what does remain is mostly corrupted. Much of the village named Niskayuna or Watervliet now lies within the boundaries of the Albany airport and has been removed. The meeting house, above, is the best remaining example of Shaker architecture and serves as the museum building for the nonprofit corporation that interprets the site.

Other buildings, such as the brethren's shop, have been extensively modified and used for other purposes. The main reason to visit Watervliet today is the cemetery, where Mother Ann and the other first-generation leaders are buried.

Mother Ann's grave was not set aside for special observance but included among her followers. The only special treatment their returned Messiah received was a headstone slightly larger than the others. Perhaps this is a reflection of Shaker insistence on equality among all members.

Ann died in 1784 at age 48, probably from lingering effects of a beating received during a missionary trip the previous year. She was succeeded by James Whitaker as leader of the Shakers, and on his death three years later Joseph Meacham assumed leadership, along with Eldress Lucy Wright. Meacham and Wright called the believers into "church order," establishing dual leadership by both males and females, bringing them together into communities, organizing them into families, and establishing many of the rules that would both guide and define the Shakers.

Among the changes that evolved were replacing the unorganized ecstasy of Shaker worship with choreographed dances and marches, a large body of songs replacing the wordless (la-la-la) tunes previously used, communal ownership of property, equality of sexes and races, and simple, easily understood guidance based on Mother Ann's teachings (e.g., "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God").

The culture that developed in Shaker communities produced results that have made the Shakers well-known and respected today, although the Society itself is nearly extinct. Communal life and celibacy eased many of the burdens that face most humans. Shakers had time to consider better ways of doing jobs. That free time and their stress on perfection led to many labor-saving and more efficient inventions, such as the flat broom and the circular saw blade. Mother Ann's admonition to "build as if it has to last a thousand years" has left us with many outstanding examples of Shaker architecture. Their insistence on simplicity and functionality produced starkly beautiful furniture and artifacts that are highly prized by collectors today.

Over the next couple of weeks I'll point out examples of some of these developments while visiting the New England Shaker sites that are accessible to the public. And I will introduce you to some other Shakers of historical importance. Please join me.


  1. Me too. I am fascinated by this history. (Can't help thinking that with four stillbirths and four baby deaths behind her she might well think celibacy a better option! Poor woman.)

  2. Don't forget that she didn't want to marry Abraham Stanley in the first place. One could be quite sympathetic to her point of view if her background were known. I might have felt that way myself. Jim

  3. I just drove by here today! I love the site and have been through it but not to the gravesites. There is a craft show Saturday I hope to attend. Shallow I know but the best in our area. Wish I were here when you traveled through. Nice job of displaying the site and I will spend more time there this weekend. Gin

  4. Such an interesting group -- chastity certainly produced some beautiful crafts.