Shakers are a lot more interesting than Transcendentalists. They do not worry about cold showers or manure. More importantly, there’s the local connection. Whilst obviously I knew that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, even I wouldn’t have claimed that “American’s most important and successful utopian community” had been deeply influenced by a fight over potato prices on Shudehill. I’m not sure that I’d have claimed that Ann Lee, the first leader of the Shakers, was the most influential working-class woman since Joan of Arc, either – although I can see the point. This isn’t a particularly good book, and it says nothing about the influence that Shakers had on architecture, furniture and education, not to mention bonnets, but it makes some very valid points about how the authorities couldn’t handle the idea of a religious community being led by a woman. And it goes into quite a lot of detail about the geography of 18th century Manchester – which will probably mean nothing to New Englanders, who are presumably the intended audience, but is very interesting if you’re me.
To be fair, it’s meant to be a biography of Ann Lee, not a book about Shakerism; and she died before the Shakers had established their reputation for being skilled farmers, craftspeople and educators. It’s a shame that something wasn’t said about that, though, especially as the author was quite negative about Shakerism. OK, it’s hardly most people’s thing, but each to their own! There aren’t many sources about Ann, other than those written by people who lived and worked with her, so most of what the book says about her time in America is just an account of conversions of different people, and it reads like a novel, with a lot of dialogue and detailed accounts of who took whose arm and who got upset and so on.
The part about her early life in Manchester is much more interesting – probably because there were virtually no sources about it, so it’s mainly about Manchester! There’s an account of the Forty-Five, and also an account of food price riots in 1757, notably the one on Shudehill – along with comments about how this was all linked to working-class assertiveness. If you go back to the Civil War era, and look at the Levellers and the Diggers, there’s certainly a link between working-class assertiveness and radical Protestantism: I’d never really thought about it in connection with the Shakers, but it’s a fair point.
Ann was born in Toad Lane, which is now Todd Street – by the side of where Cathedral Gardens, Chetham’s and the National Football Museum are – and, of course, that was the heart of town in those days. The Infirmary, where Ann worked as a cook, and the “house of correction”, where she was imprisoned for a while, were all in that area. So was the grammar school, which the author annoyingly doesn’t mention! The descriptions of town in the mid-18th century are the best part of the book! Ann’s early life is interesting, too, especially how she suffered from what would now be recognised as depression and eating disorders, and spent some time in an asylum: it was after that that she really got into the religious stuff.
There are also references to Shakers in the Cheshire area – mainly in the Marton area just north of Congleton. There’s a really nice café there: I sometimes stop at it on my way home from Little Moreton Hall and Biddulph Grange! And a reference to groups of “prophets” meeting in Great Budworth. There’s a nice ice cream place there. Sorry, food on the brain!
The parts about her life and work in America are, as I’ve said, mostly about converting different people: there are a lot of names, which I doubt will mean anything even to someone who’s very au fait with Shakerism. However, the accounts of how the Shakers were persecuted by the authorities are fascinating, and disturbing. They were accused of being British spies, this being the period of the American Revolution, and, as they refused to swear an oath of allegiance because they said it was against their faith, many of them were imprisoned. Suspicion about a woman leading a religious group meant that Ann was horrifically persecuted. OK, there’d have been hostility towards anyone seen as claiming to be some sort of Second Coming, but Ann was seriously sexually assaulted. It wasn’t just the authorities: the Shakers were attacked by mobs as well. Think about the treatment of the Yazidis by ISIS. Was the treatment of the Shakers by other Christians so different?
It’s not the greatest of books, but I very much enjoyed reading what it said about 18th century Manchester, and it made some very good points about hostility towards the idea of women as religious leaders. It also said a lot about attitudes towards religious minorities in both Britain and America – not just Catholics and Jews, but minority Protestant groups as well. I think we tend to forget that it’s only very recently that that’s changed, and there are still some issues now. Anyway, I think that’s enough reading about New England Utopian groups – on to something else now!