LEE, ANN (1736–1784), English visionary and founder of the American Shakers. Growing up in a poor, working-class family in Manchester, England, Ann Lee was attracted in 1758 to the Shakers, a religious group that engaged in ecstatic dancing and other charismatic activities. Married in 1762, Lee had four children, all of whom died in infancy or early childhood. She interpreted these losses and the pain that she experienced in childbirth as a judgment on her concupiscence. In 1770 a vision convinced her that lust was the original sin in the Garden of Eden and the root of all human evil and misery. Only by giving up sexual intercourse entirely, following the heavenly pattern in which "they neither marry nor are given in marriage," could humankind be reconciled to God.
The Shakers and the celibate message that Ann Lee introduced among them experienced little success in England, where the group was sporadically persecuted but generally ignored. In 1774 Lee and eight of her followers emigrated to America and two years later settled at Niskeyuna (now Watervliet), New York, near Albany. Between 1781 and 1783, during the troubled aftermath of the American Revolution, Lee and the Shakers undertook a major proselytizing effort in New York and New England in the course of which they attracted support primarily from Free Will Baptists. Ensuing persecution, including brutal beatings and harassment, weakened Ann Lee and her brother William, contributing to their premature deaths in 1784.
Although Ann Lee's involvement with the Shakers in America lasted only a decade, her influence at that time was profound and has continued to be so during the groups's subsequent two-hundred-year history. Intelligent, dynamic, and loving, she was revered by her followers. They came to believe that in "Mother Ann," as they affectionately called her, God's spirit had been incarnated in female form just as they believed that in Jesus, God's spirit had been incarnated in male form. Whether Lee herself ever claimed such quasi divinity—except in ecstatic utterances subject to symbolic interpretation—is questionable. Yet the conviction that Ann Lee was the second embodiment of Christ's spirit and the inaugurator of the millennium is central to the Shaker faith.
Scholarly treatments of Ann Lee are found in Clarke Garrett's Spirit Possession and Popular Religion: From the Camisards to the Shakers (Baltimore, 1987), and Edward Deming Andrews's The People Called Shakers, new enl. ed. (New York, 1963). Anna White and Leila S. Taylor's Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message (Columbus, Ohio, 1904) provides a perceptive Shaker assessment of the life and spirit of Ann Lee. The most valuable primary source on Ann Lee's life and beliefs is the rare Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations, and Doctrines of Our Ever Blessed Mother Ann Lee and the Elders with Her, edited by Rufus Bishop and Seth Y. Wells (Hancock, Mass., 1816).
Lawrence Foster (1987 and 2005)