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Book Review: Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers by Richard Francis

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The Shakers are a quintessentially American religion or, at least, they are often portrayed as such when they are discussed. One recent essay, for example, has suggested that the Shakers are emblematic of ‘the American Soul’.

However, as with so much American culture the Shakers, or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing to give them their proper name are (for there are a few Shakers still surviving) an English export with Ann Lee the leader of the Shakers having led a small number of believers across the Atlantic to settle first in New York in 1776. But that is to move ahead too quickly. From whence did the Shakers come? The sleeve of Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers, The Woman Clothed with the Sun explains that it tells the story from “blacksmith’s daughter to female messiah, the true story of Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker movement.” Whether these are the words of author Richard Francis or of a publicist they concur with one of the central themes of the book, namely that Shakerism cannot be understood without reference to the complicated personality and leadership of Ann Lee.

I am no expert on the Shakers but I can already see that such an argument is a theologically loaded one. Like the argument as to whether Charles Parham or William Seymour is rightly the founder of Pentecostalism the choice to label Ann Lee as Shakerism’s founder represents a statement on the theological and ritual core of the faith. It seems to me that at least two other contenders have a legitimate argument to be the Shaker’s founding mother or father.

First we have the James and Jane Wardley. Both were Quakers who were disenchanted with the apostasy of Quakerism seen, by them, in the cessation of shaking in meetings for worship (the term Quaker comes from the tendency of early Friends to quake in the presence of God; that is, they literally shook). Hence this Wardley group which met predominately in Bolton but grew to include Manchester although the number of ‘shakers’ was never large. In these meetings which,the like many other religious movements of the time were strongly millennial, the presence and judgement of God was felt as believer shook in their bodies. Analogous to the argument for Parham and ‘tongues speech’ is the question: if shaking was the sine qua non of the Shaker movement, must the Wardleys be surely seen as the founder of Shakerism?

After all, Ann Lee was herself a congregant of the Wardley group and directly received the gift (to use Shaker parlance) from the Wardley’s innovation. An interesting question which the Wardley question poses is to what extent Quakerism influenced the development of Quakerism. They may in their early days have been called The Shaking Quakers but there is little in in Francis’ characterisation of the Shakers that leads me to think that there was a significant incubation of Quakerism in the nascent Shaker movement.

But after Ann Lee there was another who revolutionised the Shaker movement and transformed it into something that make it resemble the shakerism we know (or at least, vaguely know about today), that being the person of Joseph Meacham. Meacham was a convert of Ann Lee’s and was previously a Baptist minister (as were a number of the early converts to Shakerism once they had emigrated to America). In a classic example of Weber’s routinisation of charisma Meacham pulled the Shakers back from a ecstatic shaking and ritualised shaking making the defining feature of Shakerism controllable. In addition, he created an alternative and largely bureaucratic hierarchy and, most importantly, established Shakerism as a communistic religion, something that had never previously been codified. In this then Shakerism as it is presently practised finds its clearest source.

But, for Francis, it is Ann Lee who represents the human(?) source of Shakerism’s birth and early growth. Francis does not even so much as discuss the issue but I think the last words of the book give a clue to why he has adopted such an approach: “Many see [Shakerism] as a repository of Old American values, or an innocent way of life in touch with the environment, where self-help is combined with caring, spiritual integrity, and purity are all important.”

There is some validity in that perspective, but it sentimentalises and marginalises the original strangeness and energy of the movement, its assault on family life and sexual love, its encouragement of bizarre and irrational behaviour. Ann Lee remains such a powerful figure because she was so utterly uncompromising and completely certain of herself. One can apprehend her in terms of her historical significance and her cultural importance, particularly for enormous and undervalued contribution to feminism. But in the end one must experience Ann Lee as she herself experienced her faith — directly, personally, viscerally.

What was it about Lee that set her apart from her contemporaries as a religious entrepreneur? (incidentally, I am far from convinced the case for Ann Lee’s “enormous … contribution to feminism” is at all demonstrated). Perhaps I am reading too much into the text but it seems that for Francis this “irrationality” is at the heart of Shakerism, and by extension, all religion. At the least, as the most exuberant there seems to be an argument that this period of charismatic Shakerism represents an authentic core. Of course, I have no knowledge of Francis’ own religious proclivities, but such a view is certainly not unique to atheists of a certain stripe, as many a Christian primitivist would be sympathetic to the view (of whom the Shaker were, arguably, an instantiation).

But that is enough by way of preface, what of the book itself? Richard Francis is evidently predominately a novelist but has two other (intriguing looking) non-fiction books to his name, Transcendental Utopianism and Judge Sewall’s Apology. However, that he is a novelist does not surprise me; in an engaging book Francis has introduced the strange and charismatic Ann Lee to a general readership which, given the paucity of studies on Shakerism, is a positive. It is also written on the back of some solid historical research and will, I suspect — despite its popular feel — be of great use to students of religious history.

I purchased Ann the Word to learn more about early Shakerism and, truth be told, I am not too much wiser. Aside from shaking itself there are other early beliefs such as the ambiguous role of Ann as a Christ figure (Ann the Word) and their wider theology, especially in relation to other groups of the time. For example, how was Ann Lee’s Shakerism different from that of the Wardley’s?; Why was there such an emphasis on Sexual abstinence (one presumes it is, like Paul’s invocation of the same in 1 Corinthians. linked to a particular view of the apocalyptic)? Or what was it that attracted the New Light movement to Shaker religion? At base those stories are simply not told, a point which an Economist review also comments on. As such, this is an incomplete story since it was as a religious leader that Ann Lee is known (to the extent that she is known).

There is no doubt that Ann Lee was a highly charismatic religious leader (in this respect, together with their mutual emphasis on divine femininity, she reminds me of Octavia, another eccentric English religious leader of another time). One thing is sure: any vision that one may have of a Shaker religion as a reserved ‘meek and mild’ phenomenon will have that view – in its historical guises at least – challenged. It is certainly not the last word as a biography of Shakerism’s most enigmatic figure, but it is certainly a worthwhile, interesting, and enjoyable place to start.

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