Mother Ann Lee – Mother of the Shakers

Please help me welcome Eleanor Kuhns as today’s Wednesday’s Guest. She is the author of a mystery series featuring Will Rees, a travelling weaver in the late 1700s who gets caught up in murders and becomes a first-rate investigator. I reviewed the latest book in the series, The Shaker Murders last Sunday, and you can read the full review HERE

In the 1700s, the Shakers drank cider, as verified by Eleanor Kuhns in this post on her blog. I don’t know if they drank it hot or cold, but since the Shaker community was in Maine when this story took place, I’d guess they had hot cider in tin cups when it was cold. It’s cold here in my corner of East Texas, so I’ll take mine hot, too, but in a ceramic mug. 

Photo courtesy of Rana Faure

First, I want to thank Maryann for hosting me on her blog today. It is always nice to visit other blogs and meet new readers.

While researching my murder mysteries, many of which are set among the Shakers, I discovered Mother Ann Lee. She was the spiritual heart of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers.

She was born in Manchester, England in 1736, the illiterate daughter of a blacksmith. She became a visionary leader of a new faith, one in which her followers believed her to be the second incarnation of Christ. She married and bore four children, all of whom died young. The emotional devastation sent her to the lunatic asylum. When she was released, she had decided that sex was the root of evil and celibacy was the path into heaven. Celibacy became a cornerstone of the Shakers. For many would-be members, celibacy became a sticking point. Ann Lee’s husband left the group with another woman.

The Shakers were in effect the evangelical arm of the Quakers, called the ‘Shaking Quakers’ because of their physically active services and impassioned singing and dancing. Into the late 1700s, when the communities prohibited the practice, people would come to watch the services as a form of entertainment.

In 1774, at the age of forty-eight, she brought her small band of followers to New York, settling them in a small community called Niskayuna, just outside of Albany. After the War for Independence (during which the Shakers were considered suspect by both sides in the conflict) Ann Lee embarked on a missionary tour through New York and Connecticut and concluding in Boston. Mob violence and charges of blasphemy and witchcraft dogged her throughout the journey.

But, by the time of the Civil War, the Shakers numbered close to 20,000.

Perhaps because a woman inspired this faith, the Shakers were particularly progressive in their treatment of women. They had an equal voice in the running of the communities – or Families as they were called. There were two Elders and two Eldresses, two Deacons and two Deaconesses and so on. Also, in a time when illiteracy was common, and especially among females, the Shakers educated the girls as well as the boys. The elevation of women was, of course, another reason why the Shakers were viewed with suspicion for many years.

The Shakers were always attractive to women and more of them joined than men. I think that was partly due to the limited opportunities for women. One of the characters in my early books is Hannah Moore, ‘Mouse’ a young woman with a harelip. Marriage and a family are closed to her so she ‘makes’ a Shaker. Widows who might be on bad terms with their eldest sons, (and were banished from the farm), might join because they had no other options. Other women did not want to marry. Joining the Shakers offered these women a home, a family, a job and a purpose. And since the Shakers took in orphans, at least until 1966 when Federal Law ended the practice, women who wanted to raise children enjoyed that possibility as well.

Mother Ann Lee’s influence extended long after her death. Her prayers, sayings and admonishments for children were collected into books. And, upon the death of a member of the community, he or she was said to be ‘going home to Mother.’

Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York. You can find out more about her on her WEBSITE and BLOG and FACEBOOK and follow her on TWITTER and LINKEDIN

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