Ann Lee and the Shakers

Richard Francis. Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers, the Woman Clothed with the Sun. Fourth Estate, 2000.

A fascinating account of the life and strange times of Manchester's very own messiah, 'Mother' Ann Lee or Lees, who was born in Toad Lane, off Shudehill, to the back of the Arndale Shopping Centre. Like many future would-be shamans and mediums she had an imaginative childhood, lying in bed at night entranced by hypnogogic images of beautiful colours and heavenly scenes. Ann was set for a wider role, however, than as a village wise woman. After joining a charismatic local sect known as 'The Shakers' (so named after the propensity to shudder and shake in religious ecstasy), she eventually took it over, leading the bulk of its members to an America in the throws of revolution.

The cult she founded reflected very much her own personality, including her hatred of sex, and love of control. Francis's vivid account, derived from the Shakers' own sources, perhaps more than any dry academic account gives a sense of what is was like being inside a cult. Lee used many of the techniques used by modern cult leaders, then separation of families, the bombarding of the vulnerable with affection, which could be turned off like a tap if they proved too awkward, the psychological pressure, the confessions. It is many ways the portrait of a mini totalitarian state, though founded on psychological and emotional rather than physical force.

With its often strange activities, Francis sees the movement as something altogether more 'other' and disturbing than the domesticated image of simple tunes, clothes and furniture which made the Shakers famous in their later days. In its dances and other ecstatic activities we can see something of the common origin of ritual and entertainment, as means of evoking non ordinary realities. Not surprisingly this brought about considerable conflict with the local community, a particularly dangerous situation in a largely lawless society, where power was often in the hands of rival self appointed militias and vigilantes, a bit like Kosovo without the UN, and it says something of Ann's resilience that she survived bout after bout of persecution, indeed outside attacks probably helped to cement a common identity against the world.

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