Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

If a Woman Should Be Messiah

If a Woman Should Be Messiah
If a woman should be Messiah
It might not be an impressive drama,
It would be but a slight event and unsignaled
It could not but be beautiful.

And that is about as much as I dare quote from one of the remarkable early poems of Laura Riding (1901-1991) without inviting vituperation, litigation or something worse from the Laura (Riding) Jackson Board of Literary Management, tasked by its namesake with protecting the thought and writings of said Laura (Riding) Jackson from assessments deemed unworthy of their subject. But when read in its entirety at a case could be made for that poem as a programmatic foretelling of the poet’s own messianic mission (still in the future at the time of its writing) as well as its unintended relevance to two other women who also possessed a similarly compelling combination of intellectual chops and sexual charisma.

The particular kind of soul-scrubbing soap that each of these women was selling is besides the point, and far too involved for discussion here. What interests is the dynamic by which they asserted themselves as purveyors of truths so absolute that men and women were persuaded to walk away from their homes, livelihoods and families to join them in effecting a radical makeover in human living arrangements.

Take any two of the three and you’ll find at least one detail in common, such as being Jewish, or childless, or born outside the United States. Two commanded their followers to renounce sex, and two took their chief disciple as lover. One churned out turgid bestsellers, another penned some of the most challenging poetry and criticism of the past century, and the third wrote nothing at all, zero, for she was completely illiterate.

That was Ann Lee, so it is hard to understand on what grounds John Fowles, in the afterword to A Maggot, lauds her “poetry, her genius for images” unless he is thinking of the old story that has her spirit returning to earth to dictate words and music of that enduring hymn, “Simple Gifts.” But it begs the question of how people let themselves be convinced that someone incapable of accessing the written word of God could be channeling the Divine Will.

Enough of them did, however, to form the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, known to outsiders then and now as “Shakers.” They did not doubt that she was precisely what she claimed to be: the human embodiment of God’s attributes and female counterpart to Jesus Christ, sent to prepare a sin-sodden world for the day of judgment.

Ann Lee’s story is told in Richard Francis’ Ann the Word, a marvel of research and readability. Born in 1736, she was the daughter of a blacksmith and wife of another, whose four children all died in infancy. She had already been confined in the Lunatick Ward of the Manchester (England) Infirmary before falling in with the Shakers, a sect that had broken with the Quakers over how God wants to be worshipped. By the force of her personal ascendancy, Ann transformed worshippers into believers by giving them herself to believe in.

Besides providing the female element absent from the Christian scheme of salvation, her ministry was also a balancing of eschatological accounts. Since it was a woman that had waylaid man into sin, only a woman could wipe away Eve’s transgression.

In addition to acknowledging Mother Ann as “the Woman Clothed in the Sun” sent to close out the books on the fall of man, Shaker doctrine insisted on communal living, pacifism, speaking in tongues, and personal engagement with the divine through activities including but not limited to the wild gesticulating movements that gave the sect its name. Then there was the total sexual abstinence her followers were required to observe.

Ann’s aversion to fleshly friction coincided with childhood visions of the risen Christ. “In early youth, Ann Lee had a great abhorrence of the fleshly cohabitation of the sexes and so great was her sense of impurity that she often admonished her mother against it, which, coming to her father’s ears, he threatened and actually attempted to whip her, upon which she thrust herself into her mother’s arms and clung round her neck to escape his strokes.”

That concupiscence was the “the root of human depravity” and the sin that brought the fall of man was not a new notion, but until Ann Lee came along, the sinfulness of the act was understood to be trumped by God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Ann was having none of that. Even for the purpose of pleasure-free procreation, it was still whoredom. “You must forsake the marriage of the flesh, and travel out of it, in order to be married to the Lamb; which is, to be married to Christ, or, joined to the Lord in one spirit.”

That abhorrence was of the kind that admits no exemptions. “Mother Ann came into the room where there was a number of married men, and their wives, and said, ‘I see, in vision, a large black cloud rising as black as a thunder cloud, and it is occasioned by the men sleeping with their wives.’” (Lest eyeballs roll out of their sockets, you may want to consider that recruitment instead of reproduction appears to have worked pretty well as a group survival strategy. As of May 2013, the last three elderly Shakers were still alive in rural Maine, tending their orchards and their web page.)

Where did the converts come from? They were not the wretched souls one might expect to find in search of a savior. In an urban setting like Manchester, Ann targeted the semi-skilled artisan class to which her own family belonged. A well-to-do merchant paid ship’s passage for Ann and eight disciples who accompanied her to America in 1774, where she recruited among the smallhold farms of the New York and New England colonies. By the turn of the century, Shakers numbered around 6,000 in 26 communities, with their prosperous, furniture-making days still ahead of them.

Renouncing sex, family ties, and private property — that was the easy part. But to close the deal for personal salvation, a nothing-held-back public confession was required in which no distinction was made between sinful acts that were performed or merely imagined. First-person accounts of the egregious violation of personal boundaries suggest that Ann had an uncanny gift for sensing people’s unease, guessing their shameful secrets, and hammering away at their self-doubts and frailties with the virtuosity of a North Korean interrogator, until their sins “spewed out” of them.

“Many were so powerfully wrought upon, that they could not refrain from crying out and confessing their sins on the spot, before large assemblies of people. Others, who were more bound in their feelings, could find no rest, day nor night, from the tormenting weight of their sins, till they had honestly confessed them to some of these witnesses of God,” we are told.

Apostates would be pursued and strong-armed into submission but many who broke with the sect later returned of their own volition. To win over Mary Tiffany, Ann threatened “I can see the travel (sic) of your soul written upon you in great capital letters and I can read them as fast as I can speak.” New convert Rachel Spenser avowed “I really loved her and feared her more than any person I ever saw. That which was carnal and ungodly in me would often tremble in her presence.”

So no, it wasn’t done with charm. In appearance, Mother Ann was not prepossessing: she is described as short, rather stout, but with a “penetrating glance” that did not lose its edge until she died in 1784, aged 47. Her inability to read and write means that Anne Bradstreet need not fear losing pole position in the Norton anthology; but if Ann Lee really did remark that “every force evolves a form” she should get credit for anticipating that other artisan visionary and near contemporary, William Blake.


By now, anyone who might possibly care about such things, knows that coming up on the midpoint of their fifty-year marriage, Ayn Rand plunked her decorative but sexually inert husband on the mantelpiece of her affections and threw herself with all the passion of the middle-aged into the bed of an intellectually gifted disciple who had been drawn into her orbit by radical philosophical disquisitions in the form of novels that were slam-dunk bestsellers in the 1950s and 60s, and are still being avidly read today.

Nathaniel Branden was 25 years younger and had a wife that also admired the Russian-born Rand, whose codified system of philosophy and personal ethics, Objectivism, is more complex and on firmer ground (especially in its critique of epistemology) that one might imagine from the reductive “selfish is okay” meme marketed by liberals.

Barbara Branden’s consent was anguished but forthcoming. The one who completely shattered was Ayn’s husband, Frank O’Connor, a former movie bit player and intellectual lightweight. “He was her wife,” says Rand biographer Anne C Heller. “She married a wife. And she married a good wife, who was loyal to her, who followed her wherever she went…because he believed she was a genius and had to be supported.”

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