Heaven on Earth: American Utopian Experiments – Early Shaker History

ann leeThe United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, a.k.a. “Shakers” was founded in 18th century England.  The group, begun in 1747, was known for its communitarian lifestyle and its separation from mainstream Protestantism.  It was also known for its emphasis on equality of the sexes, evidenced by the leadership of two women, Jane Wardley and Ann Lee.

The group was originally founded by James and Jane Wardley, Quakers, who had been influenced by a French religious group known as the Camisards (also called “French Prophets”) who had roamed through England giving lectures.  The Wardley meetings were held in Quaker style; however, their silent meditations were often interrupted by Mother Jane (as she was called) and her passionate revelations.  She would walk up and down trembling, and because of shaking and speaking in a strange tongue the group became known as “Shaking Quakers”.

In 1758 twenty-two year old Ann Standerin, a blacksmith’s daughter, joined the group.  In the next ten years her status changed and she became the Mistress-Messiah and Prophetess of the Sect.  She had married John Lee and then experienced the loss of four children.  These events caused guilt, shame and a loss of interest in relations with her husbsand.  To her, the loss of her children was God’s judgment on her.  She walked the floor at night, avoiding rest, and eventually weakening herself by not partaking of food or drink, so much so that she had to be cared for by others.  At some point she pronounced herself cleansed and experienced a spiritual rebirth.  The members referred to her thereafter as “Bride of the Lamb”, “Mother Ann” or “Ann the Word”.

The group’s meetings were filled with strange manifestations: shakings, speaking in tongues and dark prophecies — not surprisingly for that period of history, they were accused of fanaticism, heresy and witchcraft.  Ann’s strong views on lust and marriage (celibacy was considered to be preparation for the kingdom) brought scorn from the authorities and she was arrested several times.  Eventually the “shakers” were allowed to continue, however, as long as they didn’t disturb anyone on the Sabbath.

shakers2In 1772 Ann received a vision from God in which she was told a place had been prepared for the group in America.  Ann, along with eight other members sailed to America in 1774 and founded The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing in New York.  Without Ann’s leadership, the Shakers in England eventually lost faith – now Shakerism would be a purely American religious phenomenon.

Next Week: Shakerism in America

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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  1. Religious History Sunday – American Utopian Experiments: Shakerism in America | Diggin' History - […] Note:  If you missed last week’s article on the beginnings of Shakerism in England, click here. […]
  2. Ghost Town Wednesday: Utopia, Ohio | Diggin' History - […] two articles on the Shaker movement.  You can read them in succession if you wish:  Part I, Part II,…

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