11 January, 2010

Ann the Word

by Richard Francis

Quite an unusual story. I did not previously know much about Ann Lee, beyond the basics that she had established (not founded) the Shakers, and considered herself somehow equivalent to Jesus Christ. This book carries all the knowledge of her i could need ~ except, perhaps, the cause of her beliefs and knowledge. Ann herself would answer, quite plainly, that God had given them to her; such an answer does not, quite, suffice for Francis.

Born in Manchester, illiterate, fluid of name (her maiden name was actually Lees), a cutter of velvet then an institutional cook, Ann became the most remarkable religious leader in North America between the Great Awakening and Transcendentalism, not excluding Joseph Smith, Junior, who was charismatic, but not original. The account Francis gives here of the remarkable decade she spent in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut is almost unbelievable in that one person could effect so much in so many lives. Equally amazing are both the resistance she and the Shakers encountered, and the acceptance they found. Francis records several occasions in different locations in New England on which Ann was beaten or physically abused, and innumerable occasions on which the Shakers were subjected to mob attacks or threats. Remarkably, these did not slow down the growth of the group; indeed, they, like the blood of the martyrs, seem to have helped it grow by ensuring that everyone knew about the Shakers.

The Epilogue is interesting, if a little sad, as it shows Ann’s group floundering somewhat after her death, and then turning from her patterns of behaviour as they work out a permanent plan of survival. Never, though, did they turn from their understanding of Ann as the female counterpart to Jesus, and a woman who possessed in an abundant measure the power and presence of God. Francis has made that woman alive again for his readers, thus doing a great favour to us. 

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