Lee, Ann (1736–1784)

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Lee, Ann (1736–1784)

British-born religious figure and founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, commonly known as the Shakers, who is believed by her followers to be the second, and female, incarnation of Christ. Name variations: Ann Lees; Mother Ann Lee; Ann Lee Standerin; Ann Stanley. Born Ann Lees on February 29, 1736, in Manchester, England; died near Watervliet, New York, at the Shaker colony of Niskeyuna on September 8, 1784 (The Albany Gazette's obituary mistakenly reports her death as having occurred on September 7); daughter of John Lees (a blacksmith and tailor) and Ann (Beswick) Lees; married Abraham Standerin (later called Stanley), on January 5, 1761; children: Elizabeth (d. 1766), and three who died in childbirth or infancy.

Began attending revival meetings led by Quakers Jane and James Wardley (1758); had revelation that she was the second coming of Christ (1770); sailed for the New World (1774); helped establish the first Shaker colony at Niskeyuna, New York (1776); took missionary tour through New England (1781–83).

In the United States, the history of women and the history of religion are intrinsically intertwined. This distinctive connection influenced many issues ranging from definitions of women and their social roles within society, to the very events and social values that not only shaped their lives but also had an impact on the lives of all Americans. During the greater part of American history, church participation was one of the few public opportunities available and accessible to women. As Arabella Stuart Wilson notes, religious work gave women "a sphere of activity, usefulness, and distinction, not, under present constitution of society, to be found elsewhere." For this reason, among others, women largely outnumbered men as converts in the great awakenings, and it was predominantly women who remained active in religion and who continued to be involved in religious movements. Consequently, American history is filled with women, like Ann Lee, who made remarkable religious, social, and political contributions and who shaped and formulated the religious experience of America.

Ann Lee was born Ann Lees in Manchester, England, on February 29, 1736, the second of John Lees and Ann Beswick Lees ' eight children. John was a blacksmith who worked at night as a tailor to support his family. Of Ann Beswick Lees almost nothing is known, although Shaker tradition maintains that she was "counted a strictly religious, and very pious woman." John, a later convert to his daughter's movement, was likewise regarded "though poor, [as] respectable in character, moral in principle, honest and punctual in his dealings, and industrious in business." Ann, like the majority of children of her class and time, received no formal schooling (she would, in fact, remain illiterate her entire life) and went to work at the burgeoning textile mills at age eight. Like her contemporaries, Lee worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, moving about in various textile jobs, from spinner, to cutter, to dyer. At age 20, she gained a much less dangerous and physically damaging job as a cook in the Manchester Infirmary, which was also the local insane asylum. Her early childhood and young adulthood were made more difficult by the added responsibilities of raising her siblings and keeping house for her family following the early death of her mother.

At the time of Lee's birth, Manchester possessed the highly charged atmosphere of the Evangelical Revival that swept England in the 1740s and 1750s. Such famous preachers as George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley of the Methodist movement, as well as many other sectarians ministers, visited and held revivals in Manchester. While each individual and each sectarian movement carried a slightly different message of God and salvation, all preached of the necessity of experiencing a "new birth" in the holy spirit and a moving personal experience with religion in order to gain salvation and a oneness with God. It was this context of Evangelicalism and revival that cultivated and nurtured Lee's growing distance from her family's Anglican Church and the development of her own highly personal religious beliefs and message.

It was within this climate that James and Jane Wardley founded a sectarian group in 1747. Originally Quakers, the Wardleys experienced visions that led them to separate from the Society of Friends and develop a unique form of expressive worship, probably influenced by the French Camisards who had immigrated to the Manchester area in 1685 after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The practices of this new sectarian group involved physically expressing the presence of the holy spirit through chanting and dancing. The Wardleys and their growing number of followers believed that religious fervor was a gift of the holy spirit and the experience of this gift led to the emotive and physical style of worship that gave the group its name, the "Shaking Quakers," later the Shakers. The Wardleys also prophesied that the second coming of Christ would be soon and, most significantly, in the guise of a woman.

Lee joined this group in 1758, at age 22, and rose slowly in the movement. It was only following her arranged marriage on January 5, 1761, to Abraham Standerin (later called Stanley), an apprentice of her father's, and her subsequent and speedy loss of three children in childbirth and infancy, and the loss of a fourth, Elizabeth, in 1766, that Ann began to truly question her life and beliefs. According to the Testimonies, a collection of memories and narratives compiled by the Shakers following her death, Lee began "laboring" in an effort to find the holy spirit and new birth. She particularly dreaded sexual intercourse and, after seeking the advice of Jane Wardley, proclaimed her desire to lead a celibate life. Her husband, while not participating in her beliefs or in the movement, agreed.

Lee began active and increased participation with the Shaking Quakers in worship services and started preaching in public. She quickly drew the attention and disapproval of the authorities (it was considered blasphemous for a woman to speak out in such a way) and was arrested and fined countless times and, on occasion, jailed. After disturbing a service at the Anglican Cathedral in Manchester in 1770, Lee was locked up for the fourth time in the insane asylum. During this incarceration, she experienced a series of visions. First, she saw Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and it was revealed to her that she had been correct—sex was the root of all evil and the ultimate reason for humankind's separation from God. Second, and more significant than these revelations, Lee had a vision of Jesus who revealed to her that she was the next manifestation, the second appearance of Christ sent to bring completion and fulfillment and to serve as the full incarnation of the divine. According to her accounts of these visions, Christ had suffused her being, making clear that she was his female counterpart. God was both male and female as were the humans that God created. Jesus was the male messiah and the Catholicism that followed him failed to bring complete purity to the world. Now the second appearance of Christ had occurred in a female messiah, Ann Lee. With her, women and men were again equals, and Eden could therefore be restored.

Her visions and her new birth revitalized and recreated Ann Lee. She was immediately recognized by the Shaking Quakers as the fulfillment of their prophecies and, as the head of their society, recognized and regarded as their "Spiritual Mother," Ann the Word, or Mother Ann. Her family, including her husband, father, and siblings, joined the order and all adhered to her revelations, that the weakness of the flesh caused all sins and depravity among humankind and that the millennium had arrived.

Life for the group in Manchester became increasingly difficult the more Lee and her followers preached in public and spoke of the second appearance or coming as an established fact. Already a difficult concept, their assertion was made more difficult by their belief that Ann was this second appearing. The Shakers were arrested continuously for creating public nuisances, disturbing the peace, and interrupting various religious services. As rumors about the Shakers' beliefs and form of worship spread, charges of heresy, witchcraft, and fanaticism soon followed. In 1774, Lee declared that the group must journey to America to establish the true church and to search out the "people of God in America" whom she had seen in a vision.

Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.

—Mother Ann Lee

Lee and a small group of followers, including her brother William, niece Nancy, foster brother James Whitaker, and husband, set sail on May 19, 1774, from Liverpool aboard the Mariah. Landing in New York City, the group remained there for 18 months, attempting to gather funds and to locate the exact spot for their proposed colony. During this period, Lee's husband left her and the Shakers. The first colony was subsequently established at Niskeyuna, near Watervliet, New York, in the summer of 1776.

The early years of the colony were difficult, as were the early years of all new settlements in the wilderness of America. While the first four years brought no new converts, they were formative in laying the groundwork of the colony, the rules of conduct and beliefs. A communal form of living, accompanied by the physical separation of men and women except in meetings, worship, and dining, was established. All property was held in common, and governance was concentrated in the hands of a select group of Elders, comprised of an equal number of men and women, chosen by the ministry. The construction of buildings and the cultivation of the land was accomplished, and the Shakers, through the benefits of communal labor, quickly produced an abundance of crops for sale and became leaders in the market of garden seeds and medicinal herbs, providing a source of income for their movement and expansion.

While many, if not all, of the communitarian movements and groups of the late 18th and 19th centuries were millennial, in that they awaited the coming of the millennium (the 1,000-year reign of Christ), the Shakers were post-millennial. They believed they were living in the after days and fully expected that soon God would gather in the elect and then, in the spirit realm, convert and save all humankind. Shaker traditions, such as never leaving a task unfinished and hanging up their chairs before retiring at night, all reflected this sense of immediacy. The belief that they were living in the after years in immediate expectation of heaven provided further argument for their practice of celibacy, as there was no need to have offspring. This was predicated both on Lee's visions and on Jesus' saying that "in resurrection they neither marry, nor are they given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven."

The Shakers were particularly revolutionary for their time. They questioned and overturned the basic societal systems of their day, not only in their belief that the second coming had occurred in the shape of a woman, but in their belief in the equality of women, their total lack of a system of class and wealth, and their dismissal of accepted norms of social interaction in their rejection of marriage and traditional family life. For Shakers, one of the first rules was that men and women should be treated as equals in all matters from spiritual to the governance of the community. "The order of nature requires a man and a woman to produce offspring," said Lee. "He is the Father and she is the Mother; and all the children, both male and female, must be subject to their parents … but when the man is gone, the right of government belongs to the woman. So it is with the family of Christ." Because Shakerism encouraged characteristically "female" traits such as passivity, piety, obedience, and chastity, it raised the status of these traits, and thereby that of women. While Shakerism proclaimed equality of sexes, it was the elevation and admiration of society's stereotypical "female" traits that raised women within the community to levels of equality and leadership. The fact that celibacy was practiced by both sexes eliminated the classical association of the evilness of the flesh with the temptation of women. In this way, the movement carried an implicit emancipatory message to Lee's female followers, for it gave them a voice not merely in the religion but in the day-to-day life of the colony.

Shaker beliefs, such as their open confession of sin regardless of class and rank, their style of communal living, and their renunciation of marriage, appeared to their neighbors to undermine the whole social order and created acute unease in the area. The fact that the Shakers were also spiritualists, believing they could communicate with the dead, did not alleviate tensions. In addition, the Shakers were pacifists in the time of the American Revolution, and, with the expansion of wartime activity in the area, rumors began to spread that the Shakers were harboring British spies and selling food and secrets to the enemy. The Shakers were, therefore, persecuted as loyalists. Two early converts, Joseph Meacham and Clavin Harlow, were arrested in July 1780 on suspicion of supplying food to the British army, and, in August, Ann Lee, her brother William, and James Whitaker were arrested as spies. While the others were eventually released, Lee was held without trial until December 1780 and was only released with the assistance of Governor George Clinton.

Undeterred by the growing resentment in the area, and encouraged by the growing number of new members, Lee and a small group of followers set out on a missionary trip in the spring of 1781 in order to search out "the people of God" who had brought her to America in the first place. In keeping with Lee's opinions about the symbolism of time, the mission set out on the same day that they had sailed from Liverpool, May 19th. This trip, which ranged through Massachusetts and Connecticut, had as its focal point a long stay in Cambridge. The place of residence for the Shakers in Cambridge was called the "Square House," the home of the late Shadrack Ireland, once a disciple of George Whitefield. Ireland, an eclectic preacher and charismatic, had originally built the house for his "spiritual Wives." Eventually, Ireland's followers were converted, and Lee declared that the people for whom she had been searching had been found. After much conversion and preaching while facing an equal amount of mob violence and intolerance, the small group made its way back to Niskeyuna, arriving in September 1783. Ann's brother William died the following summer, on July 21, 1784, most likely from wounds received from those mobs. Ann Lee died six weeks later, on September 8, 1784. Reportedly, her last words were: "I see Brother William coming in a glorious chariot to take me home."

The church organized after Lee's death was called "The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing," or "the Millennial Church." The Shaker movement spread, and new colonies were established in New England and later in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. By 1830, there were 20 well-established and thriving groups. The movement reached its peak between 1830 and 1860.

Lee's illiteracy prevented her from leaving any personal chronicles. The only extant contemporary records of her life are the brief official records of church and government that log not the woman but official events: baptism, marriage, prison, immigration, and death. The only other evidence is the accounts written by friends and followers, with the obvious bias they entail, and the polemical literature of her enemies, with their own biases. The paucity of information specifically about Ann Lee is common for many women of her time and for history in general. While Ann Lee left behind only a few tangible records, she left an indelible imprint on American history and society. A role model for a number of other female spiritual leaders, she left behind a religious movement that lasted for over 100 years after her death, a movement that served as a pattern and example to countless other communities over the course of American history.


Bednarowski, Mary Farrell. "Outside the Mainstream: Women's Religion and Women Religious Leaders in Nineteenth-Century America," in Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 48, 1980, pp. 207–231.

Marini, Stephen A. "A New View of Mother Ann Lee and the Rise of American Shakerism," in The Shaker Quarterly. Vol. 18. Nos. 2 and 3, 1990, pp. 47–62, 95–111.

Wells, Seth Y., ed. Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Mother Ann Lee, and the Elders with Her, through Whom the Word of Eternal Life was Opened in this Day of Christ's Second Appearing, Collected from Living Witnesses in Union with the Church and Ministry of Mother Ann Lee. Albany: Packard & Van Benthuysen, 1816.

suggested reading:

Andrews, Edward D. The People Called the Shakers: A Search for the Perfect Society. NY: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Humez, Jean M., ed. Mother's First Born Daughters: Early Shaker Writings on Women and Religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Procter-Smith, Marjorie. Shakerism and Feminism: Reflections on Women's Religion and the Early Shakers. Old Chatham, NY: Center for Research and Education, Shaker Museum and Library, 1991.


Shaker Manuscript Collection, rare Books and Manuscripts Division, New York Public Library; manuscripts and Special Collections Division of New York State Library, Albany; Shaker Museum and Library, Old Chatham, New York; Edward Denning Andrews Memorial Shaker Collection, Winterthur Library.

Amanda Carson Banks , Senior Information Officer, The Divinity School, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

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Lee, Ann (1736–1784)

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