3.1. Ann Lee, Shakerism and the apocalypse of sex


In the 18th century European society was unquestionably masculine, dominated in all aspects by men. Religiously speaking, suggesting at the time that women were spiritually equal to men was a sort of blasphemy, the main argument being Eve’s weakness. According to the English journalist Samuel Johnson, the activity of women preachers was more a circus than a sermon in the real sense of the word: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”997 Yet, one of the boldest and most original dissident groups of the period was led by a woman.

Ann Lee was a victim of the environment in which she lived. The second in a family of eight brothers, she was born in 1736 in a poor district of Manchester, England. Her father was a blacksmith whose modest income hardly fed the family. At the age of eight she was employed in a textile mill, and a couple of years later she served as a cook at the public infirmary and at the madhouse. Manchester was an overpopulated and unhealthy city, with streets full of filth and poverty. The poor workers – including her father – were suppressing their frustrations and despair in alcohol, while rape, prostitution, child abuse, wife beating and infant death were common. This degrading environment triggered in the young Lee a strong aversion to sexual intercourse: “so great was the sense of its impurity, that she often admonished her mother against it, which, coming to her father’s ears, he threatened and actually attempted to whip her.”998

The intolerable urban atmosphere of the 18th century drove many to seek refuge in religion. In 1758 Ann Lee found spiritual shelter in the bosom of the Quakers led by Jane and James Wardley. Unlike the genuine Quakers of George Fox, the society of the Wardleys worshiped God through ecstatic dance or shaking (trembling). This thing brought them the name of “Shaker Quakers.” Their meetings started with a period of meditation during which they were expecting the coming of the spirit. The silence was quickly interrupted by dramatic manifestations: the believers – particularly the women – were openly confessing their sins and after a few minutes they experienced violent shakings, singings, screams, whistles, dances and prophecies. All these demonstrations were believed to be proofs that the Holy Spirit was cleansing the believer from sin.

The Wardleys were also influenced by Élie Marion’s L’Enfants de Dieu and Jane Leade’s Philadelphians. Both groups had millenarist doctrines and were led by women. From these the Wardleys took the image of the androgynous God and the belief in the imminence of Parousia. Because at the First Coming God the Son incarnated as the man Jesus, at the Second Coming he will incarnate as a woman.999 The androgynous God involved gender equality – an extremely controversial issue until the French Revolution. But Jane and James Wardley went even further. Theoretically, they led their group from equal positions, but practically, because God was about to come in female form, women had a privileged position within the group.

Ann Lee avoided marrying several times because her repulsion to sex made her think that it was better if she remained single. But in 1792 she was forced by her father to marry Abraham Standerin, his apprentice blacksmith. Ann Lee, due to her independent spirit, ignored the tradition and kept her family name. A simple man, Standerin was little compatible with his complex and stubborn partner; yet, in the next years Ann Lee became pregnant eight times. She lost four pregnancies, and the four children born were not able to survive more than six years. This line of terrible experiences gradually demolished her psyche and strengthened her radical views. She saw the death of her children as a divine punishment for committing the sin of sexual intercourse. According to her testimony, the feeling of guilt was overwhelming:

I was sometimes under such sufferings and tribulation that I could not rest in my bed anights; but had to get up and walk the floor. I feared to go to sleep, lest I should awaken to find myself suffering the just consequences of violation of God’s laws. When I felt my eyes closing with sleep I used to pull them open with my fingers, and say within myself, I had better open my eyes here than in hell. ... I felt such a sense of my sins that I was willing to confess them before the whole world.1000

Ann Lee shared her fears to Jane Wardley, who advised her to practice celibacy and abstinence in order to purify her soul. From that point on, Ann Lee distinguished herself from the Quakers, who supported gender equality, but they had nothing against marriage and sexual relations. Besides celibacy, she also practiced food deprivation, sleep deprivation, hard work, long prayers and fasts – all imitating Christ’s sufferings.

Standerin was not thrilled at all by his wife’s decision; after a series of violent disputes he complained to the clergy and asked for help. The priests confronted Ann Lee with the Bible, citing from Paul the Apostle: “Wives, [be in subjection] unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). But no priest or man could make this rising prophetess change her mind. Standerin finally came to realize that his wife decided to become Christ’s bride and she would not fall back. In the end he chose to remain faithful to her, but he sought refuge in drinking.1001

The dark night of Lee’s soul lasted until 1770. The Wardleys were non-violent fanatics, but they used to disturb the local ceremonies by tempestuously entering churches and accusing married couples of adultery. Due to their strange behavior, many of them were thrown into prison. During one of these incarcerations Ann Lee developed an outstanding theory (apparently through a divine revelation) regarding the true mistake of the first people in the Garden of Eden and the true path of salvation.1002 According to Ann Lee, the original sin of Adam and Eve – through which all mankind was lost and separated from God – was not an actual bite from an apple, but the sexual intercourse. Eden is a metaphor for the spiritual and physical state of the first people. The minds and the bodies of Adam and Eve before the fall were perfect, and the riches of Eden symbolize the power the first people had. Furthermore, God warned Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit after the creation of Eve. Genesis says that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was placed in the middle of Eden (Genesis 2:9), as the sexual organs are positioned in the middle of the human body. God allowed the first people to use all their powers (to eat from all trees), with the exception of the power of procreation (not to eat from the tree of the knowledge). After Adam and Eve bit the infamous apple (they had sexual relations), they hid their nakedness because their organs were bearing the signs of devirginization. Later, Jesus Christ was born by a virgin, Mary, through the action of the Holy Spirit, and not through sexual relations. Likewise, Jesus was neither married nor had sexual relations during his life. So, the pleasure of the flesh (of sex) is the root of all evil.

When she got out of prison Ann Lee was a totally different person. She ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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