'Mother' Ann Lee was one of the more astonishing women in the 18th century American colonies. Born into terrible poverty in Manchester, England, she grew up in over-crowded rooms from which she developed an aversion to sexual relations. She also developed a deep love for God and piety and was actively engaged in her Quaker community. Her family pushed her hard to marry which she finally did, only to lose each of her children in infancy.
Around this time, she began to have visions of the Second Coming and a group of Quakers began to see her as their spiritual leader. She led across the Atlantic on a dangerous crossing that saw the ship almost sink in a storm. The crew--who had previously looked down at the band of religious zealots as crazy--developed a great admiration for their courage and assistance during this ordeal.
The group came to be known as the "shaking Quakers" or "Shakers" because they engaged in ecstatic dancing during their long religious meetings. Shaker communities were founded during the Revolutionary period, a time of gathering conflict between the British and the colonists. New England was also a region of deep piety which saw the hand of God--and the Devil--at work in their villages and farms.
Into this pious and turbulent area, the Shakers stood out. They were led by a woman--an English woman no less--and they lived separately from others in community, engaging in unusual religious meetings full of shouting and dancing and holding to unorthodox religious ideas such as the imminence of the return of Jesus. Shakers even came to see Mother Ann Lee as the Divine Spirit herself. As a result, they were often met with violent opposition.
Shaker communities lived by a very strict moral code, even rejecting sexual activity as sinful. Over the generations, the communities began to disappear but not before they left an extraordinary legacy of superb craftsmanship. Quaker furniture is know worldwide for its clean--even elegant--lines, its deceptively simple design, and its concern for functionality above all.
For more about the Shakers, here is a documentary by Ken Burns:
Read more about the extraordinary life of Mother Ann Lee in the first chapter of "The Calling"