An elegantly written life of the enigmatic and powerfully charismatic Shaker prophet.
The image most have of the people called Shakers is compounded of an aesthetic appreciation of their elegantly austere furniture, distinctive architecture, and the music of their dancing (as remade by Aaron Copland and others), along with a respect for the integrity of their experiment in communal living, and a puzzlement at the evident attraction of their celibate discipline. It’s a view drawn for the most part from the later-developed Shakerism of the 19th century, organized in small communities from Maine to Indiana. But the Shakerism that came to America in the days of the Revolution was quite a different thing, largely the creation of a blacksmith’s daughter named Ann Lee. Her remarkable achievement was to transform the enthusiastic Quakerism she had adopted in preindustrial Manchester into a strange and compelling vision of God’s new dispensation—a new Christianity—with herself joining Jesus at its center as a mediator of grace. Novelist Francis (Taking Apart the Poco Poco, 1995) provides a full (the first full biography ever written, in fact), faithful, and immensely enjoyable account of the vicissitudes of Mother Ann and her disciples as they take the Shaker gospel from upstate New York to New England, meeting resistance and escalating violence along the way. The religious landscape of backwoods New England—a roiling mix of orthodox Calvinists, Baptists, Seekers, Perfectionists, New Light revivalists, and others—is vividly rendered, as is the unique personality of Mother Ann herself. The wife of a blacksmith, Ann lost all four of her children in infancy. Putting her Shakers in the place of her lost children, and Jesus in her estranged husband’s stead, she created a remythologized Christianity that found a feminine dimension in the Godhead itself and replaced sexual ecstasy with dervish-like ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues. Francis is sensitive to the psychosocial dynamics of Shaker leaders and followers alike, as well as to the small tragedies of broken lives and broken families that created both converts and violent enemies of the Shaker faith.
A splendid account, highly recommended to all readers interested in early American history, women’s studies, or the history of religion.