After joining a radical group known as the “Shaking Quakers” due to their practice of engaging in ecstatic dance during their worship services, Ann Lee (1736–1784) began to experience visions. In these, she saw that just as the majority of living things had both male and female elements, God also had both a masculine and a feminine nature. Lee began to believe that Jesus had come to earth as the embodiment of God’s masculine nature only and to teach that she was herself the embodiment of God’s feminine nature and the second coming of the second person of the Trinity, or Christ. To her followers, who eventually called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, Lee also revealed that the millennium (or end of the world) was near, and would be hastened if men and women would commit themselves to live communal, celibate lives devoted to prayer and good works.
After an extended period of persecution in England, Lee moved with her most devoted followers to New York in 1774. Lee’s emphasis on personal holiness and on ecstatic spiritual experiences found a ready audience in the region and thousands of converts joined the group. The Shakers (as they became known) eventually spread throughout the Northeast and the Northwest Territory, forming communities dedicated to simplicity and brotherly love. As Shaker communities attempted to live out Lee’s motto, “Hands to work and hearts to God,” they provided an essential social service through their practice of adopting orphan children, educating them and providing training in trade skills that would allow them to succeed should they ever leave the religious community. Although the majority of American Christians considered their religious doctrines heterodox, they are emblematic of that strain of American Protestantism that emphasizes clean living and practical craftsmanship as pathways to human flourishing and spiritual fulfillment.
Source: Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Mother Ann Lee, 2nd Edition (Albany, 1888).
God, in His all wise providence, had laid the foundation of man’s redemption in Judea, among the Jews, who were called his chosen people. It was there the First Born in the New Creation, who was to be the Savior of the world, was first revealed. There he fulfilled his ministry in his earthly tabernacle, and drank the full cup of his sufferings on earth; and from thence he ascended to His Father, that the way might be prepared for his second coming, in the female part of his manhood, for the travel of souls in the regeneration. And when the time was fully come, according to the appointment of God, Christ was again revealed, not in Judea, to the Jews, nor in the person of a male: but in England, to a Gentile nation, and in the person of a female.
This extraordinary female, whom, her followers believe God had chosen, and in whom Christ did visibly make his second appearance, was Ann Lee. . . .
. . . At length, about the year 1770, after a scene of deep tribulation, and the most excessive sufferings and cries to God, she received a full revelation of the root and foundation of human depravity, and of the very transgression of the first man and woman in the garden of Eden. Then, she clearly saw whence and wherein all mankind were lost and separated from God, and the only possible way of recovery.
By the immediate revelation of God, she henceforth bore an open testimony against the lustful gratifications of the flesh, as the source and foundation of human corruption. Her testimony was delivered with such power of God and accompanied with the word of prophecy in such a marvelous and searching manner, that it entered into the very secrets of the heart; by which means the most hidden abominations were brought to light! She testified in the most plain and pointed manner, that no soul could follow Christ in the regeneration, while living in the works of natural generation, and wallowing in their lusts.
The light and power of God revealed in Ann, and through her revealed to those who received her testimony, had such sensible effect in giving them power over all sin, and filling them with visions, revelations, and gifts of God, that she was received and acknowledged as the first spiritual Mother in Christ, and the second heir of the Covenant of Life in the New Creation. Hence she received the title of Mother; and hence those who received and obeyed her testimony found a great increase in the power and gifts of God; while those who rejected it lost all their former light and power, and fell back into a state of darkness, and into the common course of the world. . . .[The text gives a brief account of Lee’s persecution in England and subsequent move to America in 1774. It took several years for she and her followers to settle themselves in their new land.]
. . . [I]n the spring of the year 1780, God, in His providence, opened the way for that great and mighty work which they had long been waiting to see, and which, shortly after, filled the whole neighboring country with anxiety and alarm. . . .
The gifts and operations of the Holy Ghost were evident among them. Shaking, trembling, speaking in unknown tongues, prophesying and singing melodious songs, were gifts with which they seemed continually to be filled; with many other signs and operations which showed the mighty power of God, and pointed out the particular sins and abominations which those who came to see them had committed. Even the very thoughts of the heart were plainly and particularly pointed out, insomuch that many feared and trembled in their presence, while others ran to get out of the way, lest their sins should be told them.
Many inquiries were made concerning their religion and doctrines. . . .
To the married people Mother said, “You must forsake the marriage of the flesh, or you cannot be married to the Lamb, nor have any share in the resurrection of Christ; for those who are counted worthy to have part in the resurrection of Christ, neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like unto the angels.” . . .
Inquirers asked the Elders, “Are you perfect? Do you live without sin?” The Elders answered,” The power of God, revealed in this day, does enable souls to cease from sin; and we have received that power; we have actually left off committing sin, and we live in daily obedience to the will of God.”. . .
Joseph Meacham and Calvin Harlow were among the first who visited this little Church, for the purpose of searching out the truth of their religion. After much conversation, and many critical inquiries, in all of which they received plain and satisfactory answers, Joseph Meacham sent Calvin Harlow to Mother Ann with the following observation and query, namely: Saint Paul says, “Let your women keep silent in the Churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything let them ask their husbands, at home; for it is a shame to a woman to speak in the church. But you not only speak, but seem to be an Elder in your church. How do you reconcile this with the Apostle’s doctrine”?
Mother Ann answered, “The order of man in the natural creation is a figure of the order of God, for man in the spiritual creation. As the order of nature requires a man and a woman to produce offspring, so, where they both stand in their proper order, the man is the first, and the woman the second, in the government of the family. He is the father, and she the mother, and all the children, both male and female, must be subject to their parents; and the woman, being second, must be subject to her husband, who is the first; but when the man is gone, the right of government belongs to the woman; so is the family of Christ.”
This answer opened a vast field of contemplation to Joseph, and filled his mind with great light and understanding concerning the spiritual work of God. He clearly saw that the New Creation could not be perfect in its order, without a father, and a mother. That, as the natural creation was the offspring of a natural father and mother, so the spiritual creation must be the offspring of a spiritual father and mother.
He saw Jesus Christ to be the Father of the Spiritual Creation, who was now absent; and he saw Ann Lee to be the Mother of all who were now begotten in the regeneration; and she, being present in the body, the power and authority of Christ on earth, was committed to her; and to her appertained the right of leading and governing all her spiritual children. . . .
Great pains were taken by Mother Ann and the Elders to instruct the Believers in the care and management of temporal things. They were often taught to be industrious, to put their hands to work, and their hearts to God, to be neat and cleanly, and observe good economy; to use the things of this world as not abusing them; to be prudent and saving, and let nothing be lost, or wasted through carelessness, or neglect; to avoid equally, covetousness, and prodigality; to be kind and charitable to the poor, and to keep clear of debt.
These things were strictly enjoined upon the Believers from time to time, as matters of importance, in order to secure a spiritual blessing. For it was always held up as a doctrine of truth, and which was abundantly proved by experience, that those who were unfaithful in temporal things, could not find the blessing and protection of God in their spiritual travel; hence, a faithful and wise improvement of their time and talents in the things of time was essentially necessary in order to inherit the true riches.
On a particular occasion, Mother Ann spoke to Zeruah Clark as follows, “Be faithful to keep the gospel; be neat and industrious; keep your family’s clothes clean and decent; see that your house is kept clean, and your victuals is prepared in good order, that when the Brethren come in from their hard work they can bless you, and eat their food with thankfulness, without murmuring, and be able to worship God in the beauty of holiness. Watch, and be careful, don’t speak harsh, nor cast reflections upon them; but let your words be few, and seasoned with grace.”. . .
Mother’s industry, prudence and economy, were equal to her zeal and charity; so that, in all things, she was a pattern of godliness, and showed herself to be a mother indeed, in every good word and work. As the Lord Jesus did set an example of righteousness to all men, and instructed all Believers to follow his footsteps, in order to find acceptance with God, so Mother Ann set an example of righteousness to all women, and instructed all her followers to take up the same cross, in order to find their relation to Christ.
- In what ways does Lee both exemplify and confound the gender expectations of her time? How might we analyze Lee’s teaching on the dual-nature of Christ as both masculine and feminine as it relates to her own role as a religious leader and her plans for the community of Shakers?
- Although no other woman in this collection claimed to be the embodiment of the Christ-figure, several others did help to found new religious groups. What similarities, if any, do you see between Lee and other female founders like Mary Baker Eddy (“The People’s God: It’s Effect on Health and Christianity”) or Ellen G. White (“Stimulants and Narcotics”)?