Channing (Prentiss) returned from Lebanon and informed us that it was the gift to keep Mother’s birthday, I mean Mother Ann. They said we must keep it as strict as we do Christmas. This truly feels agreeable to us. – Polly Vedder in the Church Family Journal, 26 February 1841
Today we keep in commemoration of our ever blessed Mother Ann as her birthday. We attended meeting at 9 and it lasted about 2 hours, union meeting at 1 pm, supper at 4, and then attend to our duties as usual. – Polly Vedder in the Church Family Journal, 1 March 1841
In 1841, the Albany Shakers celebrated Mother Ann Lee’s birthday for the first time. She had been dead for 56 years. The woman so many people came to love and revere as “Mother” was born as Ann Lees in Manchester, England on a street called Toad Lane. Her real birth date was February 29th, making her a Leap Year Baby. She was the daughter of a blacksmith. Not much is known about her mother, but it is safe to say that she worked in the Manchester mills as well. Ann did not have the luxury of much formal education or playtime; she began work in a textile shop at a young age, like most of her peers. In 1761, in what was most likely an arranged marriage, Ann married another blacksmith named Abraham Standerin. Ann had a number of pregnancies, but no surviving children.
To say her marriage was unhappy would be an understatement. Ann sought comfort in religion and became involved with a group led by a couple named James and Jane Wardley. They rejected the Church of England and began worshiping in a way that made more sense to them. This sect was known as the “Shaking Quakers” because of some shared characteristics with the Society of Friends and the ways they moved, danced, and shook during their meetings. They were the forerunners of the Shakers, who were officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Their unfamiliar ideas and form of worship made people wary of them. The Wardleys and their followers, including Ann, were jailed for blasphemy and disrupting the peace, chased by mobs, and generally viewed with mistrust. Yet Ann rose to prominence within this group when she shared with them the visions she often received. The Wardleys believed she was divinely inspired. They thought her to be the daughter of God and the female Christ and began calling her Mother.
In 1774, Ann and a small group of followers set sail for America, seeking religious freedom. They first settled in New York City. Ann’s husband Abraham accompanied them. According to Shaker tradition, Abraham fell ill and Ann nursed him back to health. He kindly thanked her by intimidating her and then leaving, never to return. One of Ann’s followers, John Hocknell, leased some land in the Rensselaer Manor and in 1776, Ann and the rest settled in what was then called Niskayuna.
Life in upstate New York was difficult, and the group experienced violence fueled by intolerance and mistrust. Ann was jailed for several months in 1780, accused of being a British spy and harboring loyalty to the Crown. Her followers were also deemed “enemies of Liberty” and jailed for claiming they would encourage anyone they met to lay down arms and not fight for either side, as they were pacifists. Yet Ann would not let the walls of prison stop her. She continued to preach out her window to the people on the streets in Albany, resulting in her move to another jail in Poughkeepsie. It took an act of Governor George Clinton to secure her release. This dynamic woman then set out on a four year missionary journey through the northeast.
Violence and hatred greeted her almost everywhere. In Petersham, Massachusetts, Ann was thrown into a sleigh by a mob of locals. They ripped her dress and pulled out her hair as they tried to determine that she was, in fact, a woman – female religious leaders were uncommon and unwelcome in the 18th century. She did sometimes find pockets of sympathetic parties, and this is where Shaker communities would eventually grow. Needless to say, Ann was in rough condition upon her return to Watervliet. Years of persecution, hard travel, constant preaching, and malnutrition had taken their toll. She died on September 8, 1784, at the age of 48.
Later Shakers commemorated Mother Ann’s birthday with a solemn day of prayer and reflection. It was a day they kept “as strict as Christmas” – a holy day to be treated with reverence. Even though Ann Lee died before she was able to see her dream of a perfect religious society come to fruition, her successors worked hard to finish the work that their beloved leader set out to do.
This year, the Shaker Heritage Society is celebrating our 35th Anniversary and Mother Ann’s 276th (or 67th, depending on how you count) birthday on February 29th from 5:30-7:30. This fundraiser will feature entertainment by premier chorale group Albany Pro Musica, demonstrations of Shaker song and dance by Cathie Gifford, hors d’ourves from Classe Catering, and, of course, birthday cake. Tickets can be purchased on our website at shakerheritage.org or by calling (518) 456-7890. We hope to see you there!