Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers, the Woman Clothed with the Sunby Richard Francis
Ann Lee is perhaps one of the most remarkable and mystifying women in the history of Western culture. Few could have imagined that humble beginnings in Manchester, England, would lead to the illiterate daughter of a blacksmith overcoming personal anguish and increasingly Puritanical sentiments in England and rising to become a visionary religious leader, thought by… See more details below
Ann Lee is perhaps one of the most remarkable and mystifying women in the history of Western culture. Few could have imagined that humble beginnings in Manchester, England, would lead to the illiterate daughter of a blacksmith overcoming personal anguish and increasingly Puritanical sentiments in England and rising to become a visionary religious leader, thought by her followers to have been the second incarnation of Christ.
After the deaths of her four children, Ann was committed to an insane asylum. While committed she received the revelation that she was Ann the Word, the female embodiment of Christ. Upon her release, she assumed leadership of the Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, a local religious cult known for erratic fits of divine shaking, passionate song and dance, speaking in tongues, and a belief that the millennium heralding the end of the world had come. Escaping persecution, she emigrated with a small band of Shakers to America in 1774. Charges of witchcraft and spying followed Lee wherever she went as she began an ambitious mission of conversion, establishing communities across New England.
In the first serious biography about this spirited, captivating leader, Richard Francis provides “the best portrait to date of . . . [a] heroic, indomitable, mesmerizing woman” (Sunday Telegraph), a trail-blazer whose feminizing influence upon Christianity was marked progress for women of her time and long after. He also demonstrates the aura and strangeness of the radical Shakers during their militant years and in so doing, poignantly recreates a “remote prophetic world” (Evening Standard), bursting with mystery and intrigue.
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Ann Lee was born on 29 February (as one might expect of a miraculous person) in 1736, second oldest of the eight children of a blacksmith and his wife living in Toad Lane, Manchester, a fairy-tale address if not a fairy-tale place. Toad Lane is still there it's the approach road to Victoria Station, slightly separated from what is now the heart of the city, but linked to it by the new developments that have followed the enormous damage caused by an IRA bomb in 1996. Now, mundanely, it's called Todd Street. Back in 1552 it had been Towd Lane; in 1609 it was described as `Crooked Lane alias Tode Lane'. By 1618 it had become New Street alias Toade Lane. Names seem to slide and mutate in Ann Lee's vicinity. Spelling was only just becoming standardised, and in any case Ann herself was illiterate. Her family was actually called Lees, but the s somehow got lost during her travels. She married a man called Abraham Standerin, whose surname is also recorded as Stanley or Standley, but reverted to her maiden name when she rejected earthly marriage.
Manchester in the mid-eighteenth century is not likely to be equated with the city as it is now; but equally it shouldn't be confused with the Manchester of the period of Dickens's Hard Times, with its thundering machinery and factory chimneys belching out smoke. That mid-nineteenth-century industrial city is almost as far away from Ann's childhood as we, on the other side, are from it. When Ann was about ten years old two Manchester engravers and booksellers called Casson and Berry published a new edition oftheir Plan of the Towns of Manchester and Salford. Their map is illustrated by a view of the town from the north-east. In the foreground we see huntsmen, fields, the River Irwell with its boats and fishermen; beyond, buildings rise picturesquely from the rural scene. The two mapmakers had their business in Manchester and it was in their interest to give their locality a good gloss, but the map itself meticulously depicts the little fields and allotments peppered among the Manchester streets. Toad Lane, like most of the other thoroughfares, has courtyards behind the houses and then a patchwork of strips of land behind the courtyards. There were fields to the south of it (the Plan shows south at the top), with Shude Hill circling them beyond, and then the countryside. St Ann's Square was the most elegant part of the town; its paved surface, its charming church and its neatly spaced trees are all shown to advantage in an engraving inset on the border of the Plan. Thirteen years previously, however, St Ann's Square was known as Acres Field, and as late as the 1780s aged locals could remember how in bad seasons the corn had to be harvested before it was ready because the lord of the manor insisted on his right to set up the annual Acres Fair promptly on 19 September each year.
Of course, at the time of Ann's birth and during her life there, Manchester was growing and developing. Daniel Defoe, visiting it during the 1720s on his tour of England and Wales (at the time when locals were still growing their corn and potatoes in Acres Field), described it as `the greatest meer village in England', and in the subsequent decades it became greater, while retaining, to modern eyes at least, some of the qualities of an overgrown village. An issue of the Gentleman's Magazine of 1739 claimed that there had been substantial development in the town over the previous twenty years, and proportionately that was true, but one must bear in mind the proportions: what it was talking about was two thousand houses. In 1717 Manchester had had a population of around eight thousand. By 1757, the total for Manchester and Salford combined was 19,839. The first proper census, which was taken in 1773 the year in which the thirty-seven-year-old Ann, having disrupted a church service, found herself in the local House of Correction cheek by jowl with a highwayman called Long Ned gave the joint Manchester and Salford population as 27,246.
Ann was born into an environment where you could still see fields and trees. Her father, John Lees, practised one of the most evocative of all trades, though epithets like `village' or `harmonious' hardly apply; he was the equivalent of the modern small-time mechanic, repairing people's horses when they broke down. He almost certainly ran his own business, and in a town with a growing population and economy it is likely that his services were in demand. Ann's beloved brother William took up the same trade, and her husband Abraham was a blacksmith too, living at their house, so almost certainly these two at least were employed in her father's business. Nevertheless, she claimed to have been poor and by modern standards she certainly would have been.
It was undoubtedly a crowded household, with up to ten people crammed into a few rooms, no money to spare for luxuries and, even more significantly in view of Ann's later development, no privacy. In common with members of artisan families from medieval times to the late nineteenth century, she would have been able to hear her parents, and perhaps in later years married siblings, having sex through partition walls or even in the same room. Her followers recorded that Ann's hatred of `fleshly cohabitation' dated from early youth, and that she often warned her mother, who was a pious woman also called Ann, about its snares. The story goes that on one occasion her father got wind of this threat to his sex life and tried to whip the child, `upon which she threw herself into her mother's arms, and clung around her to escape his strokes'. She seems to have been a preoccupied, introverted girl in any case, with a neurotic or at least a melancholy edge to her nature. `When I was a child,' she later told her followers, `my mind was taken up with the things of God, so that I saw heavenly visions, instead of trifling toys.' On another occasion she said that in her childhood she would lie in bed at night seeing beautiful colours and heavenly scenes, but even in the midst of these visions she felt distraught at the prospect of them coming to an end, and dreaded the sound of her mother getting up in the morning, because she would open the windows and let them escape.
Toad Lane was in the large shadow of Christ Church, Manchester's most important place of worship, which dates from the late medieval period, though it has been so modified and worked upon over the centuries that not much survives to give a sense of its age. Under the choir stalls, however, there are some carvings, misericords, dating from the late fifteenth century, including a charming one which shows a family of piglets dancing to a tune played by their mother pig. It had been founded as a collegiate church, that is, one with an extra retinue of clergy, but it did not become a cathedral until a century after Ann's birth, when Manchester itself had grown to a scale commensurate with its bulky parish church (the reason for its original collegiate status was simply that its parish responsibilities stretched over large tracts of south Lancashire). St Ann's Church had been erected in 1708, twenty years before the square that took its name, to provide a slightly lower form of worship, halfway, it was said, (both geographically and ritually) to the Cross Street Chapel where the nonconformists worshipped. Ann's fate, however, was tangled up with the church nearest her home, and in 1742 when she was six years old she was christened there.
The baptism is recorded in the Christ Church register as a private one. In the mid-eighteenth century the poorer classes often went through two of the three most important sacramental occasions of their lives, baptisms and weddings, en masse, like Moonies do nowadays, with anything up to a whole churchful being processed at once, and expenses consequently being shared around. Ann's older sister Nancy had been baptised in I734, one of a party of six, and her brother Joseph was one of a similar group in 1741. William, the brother whose life was to be intertwined with her own, preceded Ann by two months though he was four years her junior, being baptised in April 1742, one of twelve on that day. Given that she was the second oldest child, it's odd that Ann was number four to receive the sacrament, though illness might explain both the delay and the privacy of the service when it eventually came. In any case her brothers James and Daniel and her sister Mary have no baptismal entries; the last sibling, George, was entered in 1749.
Like other English artisan children of her time Ann had to go to work instead of to school, and as a result did not learn to read and write. Once again we should avoid judgement from a modern or even Victorian perspective. Dickens and the other great nineteenth-century agitators have made us aware of underfed pasty-faced children being turned into units of mechanical production by the factory system. There were no large-scale factories in the mid-eighteenth century, and people then did not see the issue in those terms. Work, even for very small children, was regarded by social commentators as an opportunity, not a curse. Daniel Defoe noted that one of the great benefits of the clothing trade was that `the very children after four or five years of age, could every one earn their own bread'. Casson and Berry, in the notes to their Plan, give their customary optimistic spin to the fact that women, and children as young as five or six years old, could earn more in Manchester than anywhere else in the country at the trades of spinning, winding or weaving. In the early 1770s, when Ann was just beginning to cross swords with the authorities, the agricultural reformer Arthur Young arrived in Manchester and noted approvingly that `large families in this place are no incumbrance; all are set to work'. The clothing industry had been important in Manchester since Elizabethan times, and Ann was employed preparing cotton for the looms. This work would have been undertaken in a house or a small workshop. It was a harsh way of life but it operated on a human scale. At some point she moved on to being a cutter of velvet.
The fact that Ann's experience in this respect was normal for her time and class doesn't mean that she herself enjoyed it or approved of it. When she was in her forties, and far away in America, she had occasion to give advice to a poor woman called Beulah Rude, who had five children, hardly an unusual number at the time. `Five! Five!' Ann exclaimed. `When you had one, why did you not wait and see if you were able to bring up that as you ought before you had another? And when you had two, why did you not stop then? But now you have five! Are you not ashamed to live in the filthy works of the flesh? You must go and take up your cross, and put your hands to work, and be faithful in your business; clothe your children, and keep them clean and decent; and clean up your house and keep that in order.' One can picture the poor woman's dismay or even rage at being on the receiving end of such a tirade, particularly since the advice was coming a bit late in the day.
Ann's fury may have been triggered in part by a kind of jealousy at seeing a woman with five children when she had lost four of her own. But some of the vitriol is no doubt traceable further back, to childhood experience. In fact she goes against the wisdom of her own time, contradicting Defoe, Casson and Berry, and Arthur Young, with her insistence on seeing children as an economic responsibility rather than as an economic resource. Perhaps in this respect, as in others, she is playing her own small part in forming modern attitudes, despite her uncompromising and unsympathetic tone. One can also wonder, given the stress she always gave to the need for cleanliness, decency and good order, just how clean and decent and orderly the house in Toad Lane had actually been when she was growing up in it.
Ann's childhood is lost to us, just as, in various respects, it seems to have been lost to her. There is a suggestion that her mother died during this period, but she was alive in 1749, when Ann was thirteen, because her name appears on her son George's baptismal record, and there is no record of her death in the following decade. The only glimpse we get of her comes in a testimony from the last years of Ann Lee's own life. In 1780, when Ann was at Harvard town in central Massachusetts (not to be confused with the distinguished university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, some forty miles away), she described a vision she'd had of multitudes of the present and past generation: `I saw them clothed with blackness and darkness, many of whom I knew.' These were lost souls, who had not the path to salvation. `I saw my own natural mother in the same condition, and when I saw her, I cried to God; for I had thought that my mother was a good woman, if there were any good upon earth.'
It is appropriate that all we see of Ann's mother is this poignant vision, because the people who surrounded her in her early days all have a spectral quality, and Ann herself is only marginally less transparent. This is hardly surprising given that what remains to us of the inhabitants of the past is largely what they have written down or what has been written down about them. These were ordinary people who would normally make little impact on politics or culture or society, and like most of their generation, and every generation, they mostly vanished without leaving much of a trace behind. When, later, Ann began to make her mark, even though she herself was illiterate others began to make their own marks on her behalf: the recorders of the Quarter Sessions, the Manchester constabulary, the local newspapers and, after she began her ministry in America, her followers. But the only event of note we know that occurred during her childhood was a public one: the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.
The Glorious Revolution had taken place more than half a century earlier, in 1688, when William of Orange had deposed the Catholic James II and restored Protestant rule in the combined kingdoms of England and Scotland. Twenty-seven years later, James Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, had attempted to seize back the throne his father had lost and restore the Stuart dynasty in the doomed rebellion of 1715. Thirty more years passed, and his son Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, tried the same again with the sponsorship of the French government. He landed in Scotland, began to assemble an army, and in the autumn of 1745 marched south into England.
There were many gentlemen with Catholic sympathies in Lancashire, and Manchester had provided important support for the Stuart (or Jacobite) cause during the Fifteen, so the Young Pretender probably expected some solid recruitment in the region. The lesson had been learned, however, and while the local Jacobites were happy to toast the `king over the water' they were a little wary as the amateurish Scottish army of just about four thousand men drew nearer. An attempt was made to collect together a Manchester regiment, but only around a hundred volunteers had enlisted when a quixotic character called Sergeant Dickson appeared on the scene with a blunderbuss, and swelled the force by a further one hundred and eighty.
The Young Pretender brought his men into town on 28 November 1745, met with sympathisers, recruited some more supporters and marched south towards Derby on 1 December. He had nowhere near enough troops, however, and just over a week later he returned to Manchester in retreat. One of the local loyalists, Peter Mainwaring, a physician and Justice of the Peace who was to cross paths with Ann Lee in both capacities in later life, ordered the town bellman to go the rounds calling on the people to arm themselves with guns, swords or, more realistically, shovels, and prepare to beat off the Jacobites for a few hours until the Duke of Cumberland could bring his troops to their aid. As a result crowds of people pelted the vanguard of the Young Pretender's army as it passed by Hanging Ditch. Nonetheless the rebels got into the town and some of them went to Mainwaring's house at 12 King Street where, according to Beppy Byrom, daughter of the Manchester poet Dr John Byrom, they were `a little rough' with him. The army headed north the following day, towards disaster at Carlisle followed by utter catastrophe at the battle of Culloden.
The Manchester Regiment was picked out for particularly harsh treatment and many of its members paid with their lives during the bloody reprisals that followed. The heads of two of them, Captain Thomas Deacon and Ensign Syddall, were pickled in spirits and sent back from their place of execution in London for public exhibition outside the Manchester Exchange. Syddall's own father's head had been similarly displayed after the rebellion of 1715; Deacon's father, meanwhile, took off his hat and bowed deeply in respect for his son's head, or at least for his manner of losing it. This gruesome spectacle was in place for three years (while Ann Lee, living a couple of hundred yards from it, went from ten to thirteen), until one night in 1749 both heads disappeared. An eighteen-year-old medical student called Edward Hall had run out a plank from Mrs Raffald's coffee house next to the Exchange and crawled along it to free them from their spikes, later burying them in his own garden.
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Meet the Author
Richard Francis is a novelist, broadcaster, and academic who has taught American literature and creative writing. He is the author of Transcendental Utopias, a study of utopian communities in America, as well as several novels. He teaches creative writing at Bath Spa University College in the United Kingdom.
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