“Mother” Ann Lee (1736-1784) was born to a family of poor English Quakers in Manchester. Baptised at age six in what is now the Anglican Manchester Cathedral, she went through several jobs growing up, and was forced by her father to marry; she had four children, all of whom died in infancy. She claimed then to receive a revelation from God that sex of any kind was evil. Sin could be purged by its renunciation and a kind of worship that required shaking, trembling and dancing – this led to her followers being called “Shakers”.
In addition, Mother Ann believed in communicating with the dead during worship, and in complete equality of the sexes – her followers came to believe that she was herself the Second Coming of Christ.
In 1774, they all left Manchester for New York City. When the Revolution broke out, Mother Ann proclaimed herself and her followers to be neutral pacifists. After five years in Gotham, the Shakers started travelling in New England, absorbing members of Shadrack Ireland’s even more bizarre New Light Cult. Worn out by hard living and occasional abuse by outsider mobs, Mother Ann died in Upstate New York and was buried in the town of Colonie.
Despite their ban on sex, the Shaker movement throve in antebellum America – from converts and adopted children. Communities sprang up throughout New England, New York State, Ohio and Kentucky; their members both farmed and created the unique Shaker furniture so prized by collectors to-day. But after the Civil War, they could not compete, and their numbers dropped sharply.
The one remaining community, Sabbathday Lake in Maine, has two members. But apart from their furniture and the 15 Shaker settlement museums throughout their former range, the Shakers have left a certain doctrinal heritage. Spiritualism’s panoply of Indian spirit guides, séances and the like were borrowed from Mother Ann’s disciples.