How Mother Ann rocked the Republic

Before they took up furniture, the woman-centred Shaker sect carved up 'family values'
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The Independent Culture

Ann the Word by Richard Francis (Fourth Estate, £14.99, 388pp)

Ann the Word by Richard Francis (Fourth Estate, £14.99, 388pp)

This is the first full biography of Mother Ann Lee, a Manchester woman who emigrated to the American colonies in 1774 and established the religion of the Shaking Quakers there. Today, the Shakers are perhaps chiefly remembered for their furniture and as a movement enshrining traditional American values, but during the lifetime of Mother Ann, they constituted a rebellion against contemporary mores and aroused passionate resentment.

Ann and her followers frequently had to face hostile mobs who found their faith threatening. Shakers renounced all family bonds, including the love of husband and wife. They had to live strictly celibate lives and, on joining the sect, were usually separated from their children.

There could hardly be a more dramatic rejection of the cult of "family values" which is now a hallmark of American Christianity. In England, the Shakers remained a tiny, embattled minority once Ann had taken over and persuaded them to become celibate. They were often imprisoned for disturbing the peace. Their worship was noisy, characterised by wild dancing and a peculiar shaking motion, which was thought to announce the presence of God.

It was not an attractive creed to most Mancunians, but once Ann had taken followers to America, the sect enjoyed enormous success. When Ann died in 1784, there were over a thousand Shakers in New England. Forty years later, numbers had quadrupled and Shakerism became one of the most flourishing of many utopian movements in the New World.

Richard Francis's narrative vividly and sympathetically conveys the spiritual excitement of early Shakerism and its touching simplicity. But the book is rather short on analysis and interpretation. Francis suggests, quite plausibly, that the cult of celibacy sprang from Ann's unhappy experience of marriage: all four children died in infancy. He also points out that this type of vehement religious enthusiasm was as much a part of the American experience as the Enlightenment philosophy of the Founding Fathers, who were fighting their revolutionary war against Britain while Ann was founding her communities.

But Francis does not fully explain the appeal of Shakerism, nor does he link it with other American movements which repudiated conventional family structures. The Mormons, who permitted polygamy, and the Oneida Group, which practised free love, show that there must have been widespread discontent with the institution of matrimony. Could it be that the stridency with which some American Christians today call for a return to "family values" is yet another expression of buried unease, an attempt to evoke an enthusiasm for family life by over-compensation?

Shakerism also represented a rejection of conventional gender roles. The mobs that attacked Shakers were often incensed that this increasingly powerful movement was led by a woman. The early Shakers believed that history was approaching its consummation. Jesus had made heaven available and had incarnated the Word of God in male form; Ann was the new Word, the female Christ, whose appearance heralded the End of Days. She was the woman foretold in the Book of Revelation, clothed with the sun, moon and stars, who would take refuge in the wilderness before the apocalypse. Now that Ann had established herself in the American wilderness, the human race could unite with the divine.

After Ann's death, the Shakers remained true to the ideal of female leadership. Ann's cult shows a rejection of the masculine tenor of conventional Christian imagery. She was always called "Mother" by her followers, who seem to have found her presence consoling and maternal. This would have been particularly appealing to New Englanders repelled by the harsh rigour of Puritan society, which was notoriously suspicious of inspired women.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, America experienced an extraordinary upsurge of religious creativity. Like the Shakers, many sects espoused novel visions of Christianity; some, like the Mormons, made new scriptures. Their popularity shows that many found them a helpful way of making the painful rite of passage to the exciting but disturbing modernity coming to birth in the new United States.

The rowdy stamping, quaking and frenetic dancing of Shaker worship also gave people a way of expressing inchoate anxieties about the new era. Ann can be seen as a folk genius, able to assuage tensions and fears in a way that the more aristocratic and rational Founding Fathers could not. Americans have continued to use religion as a means of protecting against the secularist establishment, and of exploring a populist alternative to the prevailing ethos of the US elite.

* Karen Armstrong's new book, 'The Battle for God', is published by HarperCollins