Mother Ann and the Shaking Quakers
The seeds of one most ingenious, aesthetic, and original lines of American Craftsmanship, Shaker furnishings and accessories, are kin to that which was part of sprouting America herself-religious persecution.
Ann Lee was born in 1736 in Manchester England, to a poor blacksmith and a pious mother. Like her two sisters and five brothers, she was sent to work instead of school. Ann did not learn to read or write. Laboring under exigent conditions, the bright child survived by acquiring industrious, prudent, and orderly habits while she was employed at cotton factory, then and as a cutter of hatter's fur, and finally, as a cook in an infirmary. In the hopeless working-class environment of a mid-eighteenth English industrial city, Ann was strongly impressed with a sense of deep depravity concerning human nature. Her own broken-hearted experiences convinced her that man's undisciplined yielding to greed, pride, and sex caused most of his misery.
In 1758, Ann was drawn to Jane and James Wardley's sect of the England's Quaker revival that announced the "Second Coming of Christ" was near at hand. Ann soon assumed leadership over the small fraternity calling themselves "The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing." The practical ideals of the community were: common possession of property, austerity, care and management of temporal things, diligent labor, celibacy, confession of sin, power over disease, and separateness from the world's "great and wicked cities."
The "Believer's" expressed their faith feverishly: singing, dancing, shouting, speaking in tongues, and shaking in order to "shake out the sin." Within a few years, their neighbors derisively dubbed Ann's flock as the "Shaking Quakers" or "Shakers." Soon the name-calling flared into barbarity. Like Quakers, the Believers abhorred violence and their faith prevented them from returning blows. They were battered and imprisoned unmercifully. In 1773, Ann was dragged out of a religious rite by a mob, beaten, and cast into a prison. "Her cell was so small she could not straighten herself out, and, with the design of starving her to death, kept her there fourteen days without food or drink."
Her life was saved by a clever young disciple, James Whittaker, who hid milk and meal in his pipe and inserted the stem through the key hole once a day for Ann to draw on it. Released from prison, Ann's enemies were astonished to see her walk off, looking as well as when she entered.
During the ordeal Ann Lee claimed receiving a "Vision" that she was anointed as successor of Jesus and that she was commanded by the almighty to take her followers to across the sea and build the Church of Christ in the new land. Henceforth, she was "Ann the Word" and would be know as "Mother Ann."
In 1874, there were 58 Shaker communities in America with 2,415 souls owning 100,000 acres of land. By 1905 the membership was reduced to about 1,000. By the mid 20th century there were fewer than 100 members in 5 surviving communities. Celibacy does not produce a copious flock.
The communal group called Shakers fashioned furniture that has become world famous for its simplicity and craftsmanship. They also made kitchen equipment, shop tools, containers, peg racks, stoves, almanacs, wood hangers, whisks and brooms, spinning wheels, religious drawings, and hooded cloaks-all that are eagerly collected today. They are credited with many inventions, including the circular saw, clothes' pins, and the electrostatic machine. Shaker design eschews ornament, allowing pure form of the highest order. A persecuted Blacksmith's daughter who fled England to establish her church in America with would agree that utmost beauty lies in harmony, regularity, and order.