Mother Ann’s Mission: Calling and Controversy

Rebekah Roberts, Program Specialist

Women in the 1700s were often considered the possessions and servants of men, but Ann Lee violated social norms, becoming one of only ten female preachers identified in the United States before 1800. As leader of the Shaker movement, she proclaimed a dual-natured Father and Mother God as a basis for gender equality.

Manchester, England c. 1750

Born February 29, 1736 in Manchester, England, Ann Lee began working twelve-hour shifts in a textile mill as a child. She never attended school, and remained illiterate her entire life. The second-oldest of eight children, Ann Lee played a vital role in raising her younger siblings and ultimately watched her mother die in childbirth.

An unflattering drawing of Ann Lee from “The Annuals of Phrenology and Physiognomy 1865-1873”

Ann Lee was active in a group called the “Shaking Quakers” when she was forced to marry. She protested this act by never assuming her husband’s surname. She detested the concept of intercourse from a young age, and the inability to avoid the dangers of childbirth. She barely survived the birth of her four children, three of whom died in infancy, and a daughter who passed at age six. Ann Lee believed that these traumatic experiences were God’s judgement and responded with a vow of celibacy, turning away from sex and all other worldly desires.

Ann Lee took her message to the streets, proselytizing in public spaces and interrupting church services, which resulted in her repeated incarceration. While imprisoned, she envisioned God directing an escape from religious persecution in the New World. She rallied eight followers and they settled in New York in 1774 amidst the burgeoning American Revolution.

The Vankleek House in Poughkeepsie, NY, where Ann Lee was lodged for a night prior to being sent to the Poughkeepsie Jail, in 1776. Image from “The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution” by Benson John Lossing, 1851.

In 1781, Ann Lee left with two disciples on a missionary journey throughout New England. In opposition to the traditional church, she rejected written creeds in favor of reflection and ongoing revelation. Ann Lee was described as direct but nurturing, like a mother, and developed personal relationships with followers, referred to as her children.

Mother Ann was arrested and accused of being an enemy of the patriots. She was thought to be a man in disguise, or a witch, and was dragged from her bed and beaten. Public meetings included converts who confessed their sins to Mother Ann, alongside mobs organized by churches and ruffians alike, who drove the Shakers out of towns. Everywhere she traveled, Mother Ann attracted an audience.

Ann Lee’s grave site, Watervliet, NY.

Mother Ann’s message was simple: Forsake all worldly pleasures and find salvation in the Father and the Mother. This message captivated women of the 18th century. Women had no body autonomy in marriage, nor assured choice in husband. Monetary earnings from a job went to the husband, and women had no legal shelter from abuse, nor right to her children if the husband left. Women could not purchase land.

The radical commune celebrating a dual-natured God embodied independence for 18th century women, who had the opportunity to live as equals in Shaker society.

In 1784, the local newspaper published the death of “Ms. Lee, known by the appellation of the Elect Lady, or Mother Zion, and the head of that people called Shakers.”


Brandon Wilson, Program Specialist

In 1808, Shaker missionaries hiked their way through Shawnee territory in the Indiana planes, on the banks of the Wabash, to encounter a man like no other. Anthony Tann, who was born in Colonial South Carolina, likely left a deep impression on his visitors, and within a few years became a founding member of the short-lived, and perhaps misplaced, Shaker Village at West Union.

The Wabash River, as drawn by Henry Hamilton, 1778.

Born in the 1730’s, his light brown skin seemed to predestine his fate. With African descended peoples’ freedom becoming increasingly constrained as the slave trade ballooned, Tann’s best hope was to carve a space for himself at the margins of society. The chaos of the American Revolution offered unexpected chances – small windows of opportunity for a rare and lucky few to escape the system that bound them. Tann enlisted in the Revolution, fighting in 1776 for both America’s liberty and his own.

After the war he fled the black-codes and racial violence of the coast and crossed the Appalachians. Many black Revolutionary War veterans like Tann settled along the Ohio River – in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Tann and his wife Margaret, a white woman from South Carolina, settled beside the Wabash in the first years of the nineteenth century. It was there that the couple, and their children, would help found the Shaker Village of West Union.

Meanwhile, a man living not far from the Wabash felt disturbed by the Shakers arrival. Before the Revolution, the British had promised his community their peace and sovereignty over the area; but with each wave of new homesite developments it was becoming clear that the United States was poised against them. This man’s name was Tecumseh, and he and his brother would organize a massive resistance to maintain their homes and their lives, attempting to force the Shakers and many others to release their hold on Shawnee and Miami lands.

Tecumseh, Shawnee political and military leader, circa 1808.

Despite the United States’ destruction of the Shawnee’s resistance, the Shaker Village that Anthony and Margaret Tann helped establish would be closed by 1827, and their children would ultimately join our very own Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill.

To learn more visit Shaker Village and attend one of our daily educational tours featuring our seasonal program African American Experiences at Pleasant Hill Fridays and Saturdays through February 29th.

Donor Impact: Improvements to the Visitor Experience

Melissa Donahoo, Development Coordinator

The Shakers practiced their faith at Pleasant Hill for more than a century, but their impact at the site has endured well past the 2oo-year mark. The Shakers were really remarkable for their beliefs that fostered a strong community, embraced both ingenuity and sustainability, and nurtured equality among men, women and all races.

The 34 historic structures here at Pleasant Hill exemplify how the Shakers organized their community with these ideals in mind and how they led their daily lives. For our visitors, we present daily programs and tours to make this fascinating Shaker story come alive.

Over the past two years, the Shaker Village staff has worked to develop a site-wide interpretative plan. Collectively this initiative will further enhance the visitor experience by providing you with access to more information about the Shakers through exhibits and multi-media experiences.

We first told you about this plan last year as the staff entered the final stages of its development and had begun to undertake activities to raise funds to support the implementation. Over the course of 2020, you’ll start to see this plan implemented.

• This spring, we are installing 20 outdoor waystations across the property. These waystations will lead our guests through a self-guided tour of the property and provide a much more accessible experience for all visitors.

• A new Shaker Village app will launch by early summer, and will provide an augmented reality experience across the property. Expanded content, such Shaker journals, historic newspaper clippings and additional exhibit content will be available through the app. Visitors will be prompted to access this content from the waystations as well as from exhibit panels.

• Exhibit panels will be installed in the Centre Family Dwelling, the Meeting House and the East Family Brethren Shop. These panels will be the initial implementation of a site-wide exhibition staged with sub-themes such as communal living; faith and spirituality; industry and economies; gender and race; and, immigration and migration. You’ll see more artifacts and interactive displays added to round out the exhibits in the future as additional funding becomes available.

The East Family Brethren Shop will be one of the buildings with new exhibit panels.

These first steps in the interpretative plan are going to have a significant and positive impact on Shaker Village’s mission, and the visitor experience. We can’t wait to share them with you, and hope you’ll visit often throughout the year!

Please consider making a donation to support theses exhibits and interpretative activities at Shaker Village. For more information on our programs, services and other philanthropic opportunities, please call the Development Office at 859.734.1545.

Shaker Village is on a mission to inspire generations through discovery, by sharing the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers.

The Proud Custodian of Shakertown’s Past

Brandon Wilson, Program Specialist

Among Pleasant Hill’s most iconic residents was Philip West, a man whose habitation in the East Family Wash House helped to preserve its rich architecture for generations to come. He was known by many as “the proud custodian of Shakertown’s past,” a guardian of Pleasant Hill history decades before the site’s national notoriety began.

Philip West at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

Philip West and his mother, Nancy West, spent years enslaved by Dr. Gabriel Minter of Jessamine County, Kentucky until the year 1865, when Philip first arrived at Pleasant Hill. While with the Shakers, he worked with his father, a carpenter from Wilmore, Kentucky. Imagine the pride he must have felt in his work (and perhaps, for the first time, his leisure too), finally laboring for his own gain and his own volition, instead of someone else’s. Besides woodworking with his father, Philip assisted the Shaker community in packaging food preserves for sale. He was also a proficient chairmaker, using the skilled application of dried corn shucks to weave seats.

Beyond his talented craftsmanship, Philip West was a man committed to family. And, this fact is crucial, because slavery not only meant forced labor, it meant powerlessness over marriage, family ties, loved ones and community. For much of West’s life, he and anyone he loved could be plucked and sold miles from home, never to be seen again. To see the picture of Philip, close by his wife, Ann, is more than a quaint moment. In the context of Mr. West’s Odyssean life, it is a powerful testament to the importance of family in the face of so many threats to its destruction. Perhaps that is why Mr. West felt he had so much in common with his Shaker neighbors – family, however defined, was something sacred.

Philip and Ann West, together in front of the East Family Wash House.

Today, Philip West’s legacy lives on at Shaker Village. His commitment to the history and preservation of the site can be seen in current restoration projects in the East Family Dwelling and Wash House. His powerful commitment to family can also be seen, in his very own descendant, Sarah, who now works at Pleasant Hill just as he did a century ago.

To learn more, visit Shaker Village and attend one of our daily educational tours featuring the seasonal program African American Experiences at Pleasant Hill Fridays and Saturdays through February 29th.


Brandon Wilson, Program Specialist

Over the course of its history, the Shaker community at Pleasant Hill was the spiritual home to 28 people who identified as African American. But the story proves more complex, exciting and sometimes tragic than what that simple number, 28, can represent. Pleasant Hill’s location on a major thoroughfare, within the boundaries of a slave state, meant that hundreds more African American people were enmeshed into the Shakers’ rich history in Mercer County, Kentucky. Take a close look at some of Shaker Village’s archival images, and see just how complex the Village’s racial history really was.

An African American woman stands in the shadows. Circa 1910.

A great place to start is the photograph below, of a group of Pleasant Hill Shakers in the doorway of the Broom Shop circa 1886-1891. The African American man stands in the rear of the group, in the shadow of the doorway, with his head tilted downward. Then there is the image of the Children’s Order, with an African American Shaker woman standing off to the far-right side, markedly distanced from the others. 

An image of Shakers beside the Broom Shop in the late nineteenth century. An African American man stands in the rear.
This image, taken in the late nineteenth century, depicts Shakers beside the East Family Brethren’s Shop. Notice the African American woman standing at the far right.

In many of our nineteenth century images, African Americans can be found at the margins and outer edges. This trend changes over time, until the twentieth century when African Americans begin to occupy center stage in many archival documents. If visual evidence can offer any clues about life as a black Shaker, it is that the Shaker approach to race was full of both hope and hypocrisy; while the Village was a rare example of inclusivity, a certain level of prejudice percolated the community, leaving African Americans sometimes standing in the shadows and edges of social life.

A Sketch of Shaker’s worshiping from New Lebanon, NY, with African American Shakers depicted on the far right.

We may use this history as an opportunity to look closer at our own lives. Whether it is in our office spaces, shopping spaces, or at community gatherings, who do you see standing in the margins? Who might you notice is present, but not fully included? What does this say about our own communities, and what can we do to change for the better?

To learn more visit Shaker Village and attend one of our daily educational tours featuring our seasonal program African American Experiences at Pleasant Hill Fridays and Saturdays through February 29th.