Part Two. Female Prophets and their Followers of the 1700’s

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During the seventeen hundreds the religious world was scandalized by the wild fancies and pretensions of several female fanatics; being as equally mad or self-deceiving as with the most visionary impostors of the male sex. To continue our survey, we shall first look at…


Ann Lee, the founder of the religious sect commonly called Shakers. She was the daughter of a blacksmith, who lived in Toad Lane in Manchester; a very poor man, who gave her no education, and sent her while a mere child to work in a cotton-mill. She seems to have been a violent, hysterical girl, ambitious of notice, and fond of power, and to have always possessed, in virtue of her strong will and vehement temper, a great deal of influence over the people around her. Marrying, while very young, to a blacksmith named Stanley, she had four children, all of whom died in infancy, and to this, perhaps, may be ascribed the preference of the celibate to the married life, which she ultimately raised into a part of her religious system. She became one of the earliest believers in a prophetess, who appeared the town of Bolton-on-the- Moors, in Lancashire –a poor woman, named Jane Wardlaw, the wife of a tailor, who believed she had ‘received a call’ to go forth and testify for the truth. The burden of Jane Wardlaw’s message was, that the end of all things was at hand, that Christ was coming to reign upon the earth, and that his second appearance would be in the form of a woman, as prefigured in the Psalms. In subordination to this, she took up several of the tenets of the Society of Friends, to which she and her husband originally belonged; “thus the strange American sect, the Shakers, sprang indirectly from the society of Friends. She converted Ann Lee, a poor woman of Manchester, to her faith. Ann Lee gained disciples, and led them to America, where they multiplied, until there were six thousand of them in eighteen village settlements.

Jane Wardlaw especially raised her voice against war and against profane swearing.  Her followers believed that she was filled with the Holy Spirit; they received her utterances as the voice of God; and she acted as if all the powers of earth and heaven had been given into her hands.

Ann Lee, on her conversion (about 1758), began to preach the same message in Toad Lane and the adjacent streets of Manchester; but she soon went beyond her teacher, and gained the leadership of her co-believers for herself. It happened that she was brought before a magistrate, charged with an obstruction of the streets, caused by the crowd collected to hear her preach, and she was sent to the Old Bailey Prison in Manchester. When she came out of prison, she gave forth, that one night a light had shone upon her in her cell; that the Lord Jesus stood before her; and that He became one with her in form and spirit (1770). Her pretension was, that Christ was come to reign in her person. It was favorably entertained by the followers of Jane Wardlaw; and they acknowledged her as their Head, or Mother, in place of Jane, whose pretensions had never gone so far. She found, however, that among her neighbors and fellow workers, her claim to be the Bride of the Lamb seen in the Book of Revelation by St John, excited only jeering and ridicule; and she received a revelation that she should seek in America a home for herself and her few disciples –and that it was in America that the foundations of Christ’s kingdom were to be laid. So she went to New York in 1774, accompanied by seven disciples –five males and two females.

Her husband also went with her; but he seems to have had no faith in her, and he left her soon after their arrival, in consequence of one of the features then introduced into her system. This was the practice of celibacy, which she had not previously enforced upon her followers, though she had commended it. Her teaching was, that men called into grace must live as the angels do, among whom there is no marrying or giving in marriage; that no form of earthly love could be allowed in the Redeemer’s kingdom. Finding a populous city unfavorable to her designs, she removed, with her followers, first to Albany, then far into the wilderness to Niskenna, and there founded the settlement of Wafer Vliet.

It was in the spring of 1780 when she had been three years and a half at Niskenna, looking for new believers to come in, but making no attempt to win them, that the first American converts joined her Society. A revival had taken place at Albany, and had spread through the surrounding districts; and from Hancock and New Lebanon a deputation was sent to Niskenna, to see what light its inhabitants enjoyed as to the way of salvation. The deputation consisted of Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright –subsequently the heads of the Shaker Society. These persons became believers in Ann Lee; and through their agency, other converts were won, and a Shaker Society established at New Lebanon. Towards the close of 1780, the revolutionary war being then in progress, notoriety was given to Ann Lee’s pretensions, through an incident seemingly unfavorable. Owing to her British origin, her denunciations against war, and her refusal to take the colonial oaths, Ann was imprisoned for some time at Poughkeepsie, on suspicion of being a British spy.

Before she was let out of prison, in December 1780, all the colonies had heard of ‘the female Christ. In the following year, she started upon a missionary tour through New England and adjacent colonies; she found the people everywhere curious to see her, and she made not a few converts. She did not return to Water Vliet until September 1 783, and about a year after, she died. Her death was a surprise to many of her followers, who believed that she was to live among them forever; but her successors, the Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright already mentioned –to whom, on her death-bed, she had made over the headship of the Society, were ready with a theory accounting for it. ‘Mother Ann,’ they said, could not die, and was not dead, and had not ceased to live among her people. She had only withdrawn from the common sight; she was still visible to eyes exalted by the gift of grace; she had cast the dress of flesh, and was now clothed with a glory which concealed her from the world. So it would be with every one of the saints in turn; but the spirits of those who ‘passed out of sight’ would remain near and be in union with the visible body of believers. This explanation was generally accepted, and has become a vital part of the Shaker creed, which thus falls in, in so far, with a more recent doctrine of ‘Spiritism,’ as it is called.

By Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright, the successors of ‘Mother Ann,’ the Shakers were gathered into settlements, ten in number; and a covenant was drawn up embracing the chief points of their creed, and of the social system since associated with it. Their head was, of course, ‘Mother Ann’ ” the second incarnation of Christ -of whom Joseph and Lucy were temporarily the representatives: elders and deacons, male and female, were appointed; the institution of celibacy was confirmed; and a community of goods was introduced. On the death of Joseph Meacham in 1796, ‘Mother Lucy’ became the sole head of the Society, and she governed it with ample powers for twenty-five years. She named a female successor with the title of Elderess; and the name of ‘Mother’ has not, since that time, been applied to the female head of the community.

The Shakers were, at the census of 1860, more than six thousand in number, included in eighteen societies; of which three are in the state of New York, four in Massachusetts, two in New Hampshire, two in Maine, one in Connecticut, four in Ohio, and two in Kentucky. Their numbers have increased considerably since 1860; the influence of their opinions has greatly increased; and the eighteen separate settlements continue to form a united and peaceful Society.

Their doctrine has been to some extent developed as well as systematized since the death of ‘Mother Ann.’ They believe that the kingdom of heaven has come; that Christ has appeared on earth a second time, in the form of ‘Mother Ann,’ and that the personal rule of God has been restored. Then they hold that the old law has been abolished, and a new dispensation begun; that Adam’s sin has been atoned; that man has been made free of all errors except his own; that the curse has been taken away from labor; that the earth and all that is on it will be redeemed. Believers, ongoing ‘into union,’ die to the world, and enter upon a new life, which is not a mere change of life, but a new order of being. For them, there is neither death nor marriage; what seems death is only a change of form, a transfiguration which does not hide them from the purified eyes of the saints; and in union, as in heaven, there is no marrying or giving in marriage” the believer owes love to all the saints, but his love must be celibate in spirit and in fact. The believer, living in union, is in heaven. The Shakers believe that the earth, now freed from the curse of Adam, is heaven; they look for no resurrection besides that involved in living with them in ‘resurrection order.’ The believer, upon entering into union, leaves behind all his earthly relationships and interests, just as if he had been severed from them by death. Those who have ‘passed out of sight’ are still in union; and the Shakers live in daily communion with the spirits of the departed believers.

It being the work of the saints to redeem the earth from the effects of the curse, labor is a sacred and priestly function, especially when bestowed in making the earth yield her increase, and in developing her beauty. It should be done in a spirit of love; the earth, they say, yields most to those who love it; and love and labor will in time restore it to its primitive state. According to Mr. W. Hepworth Dixon, from whose New America (London, 1867) the materials of this sketch have been chiefly derived, they bestow upon their gardens and fields the affections which other men bestow upon family or worldly goods. Their country they regard only as it is a part of the earth, which they love, and as the favored land in which God’s kingdom is first to be established. In its politics and its fortunes, they take no interest; and, indeed, their whole system is a protest against the existing constitution of society, as well as against the ordinary lives of men. Consistently with their belief in the second appearance of Christ in the form of a woman, the Shakers seem to hold that there is a female as well as a male essence in the Godhead –to believe in the motherhood as well as the fatherhood of God.

Their mode of worship is thus described: ‘The two sexes are frequently arranged in ranks opposite to and facing each other, the front ranks about six feet apart. There is usually an address by one of the elders upon some doctrinal subject, or some practical virtue, after which they sing a hymn; then they form in circles around a band of male and female singers, to the music of whom they “go forth in the dances of them that make merry,” in which they manifest their religious zeal; and at times the excitement and fervency of spirit become very great, and their bodily evolutions, while maintaining the order and regularity of the dance and the music, are almost inconceivably rapid.’ It was in ridicule of the bodily movements accompanying their worship that the name of Shakers was given to them; the name by which they designate themselves is, The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. In their church-service, music bears a prominent part; the hymns and chants which are used being all of Shaker origin, communicated to believers in dreams and reveries by the spirits with whom they have communion. The spirits, it is said, show no great regard for rhyme or grammar.

They do not consider a life of celibacy as a duty for all, otherwise the race would soon come to an end. There are two orders in the world –The Order of Resurrection, and the Order of Generation.

Those who have entered the Society are of the Resurrection order, for whom there is no marriage ; they claim, says Mr. Dixon, to be a sort of priesthood of saints, appointed to serve God, and to redeem the world from sin. The outside world is of the Generation order, and for them marriage is still, for a time, allowed.

A Shaker settlement is, for convenience, divided into families, consisting of the brothers and sisters, who live in the same houses, each governed by an elder and an elderess. There are two orders of members –Probationers and Covenanters –that is, novices and full members. It is on becoming a covenanter that the Shaker puts his property into the common stock. On entering upon residence, he becomes subject to all the rules of the society; but he is free –whether a covenanter or a probationer –to leave the body whenever he pleases. Both men and women wear a dress of prescribed cut.

Some latitude is allowed as to the materials of the dress. Men and women, it is said, have the look of persons at peace with earth and Heaven. All labor with their hands, both men and women; but the latter do only indoor work. Every man, whatever his rank in the church, follows some manual occupation, and most of them have more than one. Working not for gain, but with loving care, and with the sense that they are exercising a priestly function, the Shakers are unrivalled among their neighbors in the arts to which they apply themselves, especially the culture of their land, and the production of fruits and flowers. They pay great attention to ventilation and to all sanitary conditions; they live almost entirely upon the produce of the soil, and drink only water; they employ no doctors, and take no drugs, and are, nevertheless, among the healthiest of communities. Their Society is recruited mostly by young men and girls; but occasionally, married persons with their children come ‘into union.’ Husbands and wives, when they have come ‘into union,’ become as brothers and sisters. The education of the children attached to the Society is the work of the sisters, and they do it exceedingly well. The brothers and sisters take their meals in a common room, eating at six in the morning, at noon, and at six in the afternoon. Their meals are taken in silence, any direction that has to be given being given by a gesture or in a whisper.

Such is this singular body, which is described as having exerted a powerful influence on the course of American thought and sentiment. And yet, strange to say, all this originated in the morbid visions of an illiterate, hysterical factory girl.

Jemima Wilkinson

Jemima Wilkinson was another American fanatic who flourished at the same time as Mrs. Lee. She was the daughter of a member of the Society of Friends of Cumberland, Rhode Island. Mentally deranged, her first visions occurred in 1775, when she pretended that she had been ill, and had actually died. Her soul having gone to heaven, as she alleged, she there heard the inquiry: ‘Who will go and preach to a dying world?’ Whereupon she answered: ‘Here am I, send me.’ Her body, as she said, was then reanimated by the spirit of Christ, upon which she set up as a public teacher, to give the last call of mercy to the human race. She declared that she had arrived at a state of perfection, and knew all things by immediate revelation, that she could foretell future events, heal all diseases, and discern the secrets of the heart. If any person was not healed by her, she conveniently attributed it to the want of faith.

Mrs. Wilkinson made many other extravagant pretensions. She assumed the title of universal friend; declared that she had left the realms of glory for the good of mankind, and that all who would not believe in her should perish. She pretended that she should live a thousand years, and then be translated without death. She preached in defense of a community of goods, and took for herself whatever ‘the Lord had need of.’ Multitudes of the poor, and many of the rich, in New England believed in the truth of these frantic assumptions, and made large contributions to her. Some gave hundreds, and one even a thousand dollars for her use. In a few instances wealthy families were ruined by her. No detection of her fallacies undeceived her willing dupes. She pretended that she could walk on water, in which she signally failed. She pretended that she could raise the dead to life, but a corpse placed in a coffin remained dead in spite of all her efforts. Her own death occurred in 1819, and thus her claims to immortality were completely falsified. Yet her followers would not at first believe that she was dead. They refused to bury her body, but at last were compelled to dispose of it in some secret way.

Elspeth Buchan

Mrs. Buchan, a resident in Glasgow, excited by a religious mania, announced herself in 1783 as a mother and leader of the elect. She likewise was resolute in proclaiming that she was the woman spoken of in the Revelations; that the end of the world was near; and that all should follow her ministrations. For some time she wandered from place to place, attended by hundreds of half-crazy dupes. This woman appears to have been one of the least selfish or arrogant of the class to which she belonged. She seems simply to have been a lunatic, whom it was cruel to allow to go at large. She announced that she was immortal, and that all who believed in her should never taste death; but in time, like all other mortals, she died; and this event staggered the faith of her followers. The Buchanites, as they were termed, are now, we believe, extinct. Perhaps some of them were absorbed by the next impostor-fanatic who appeared in England.

Joanna Southcott

Joanna Southcott was born in Devonshire about the year 1750, of humble parents. In early life, and till near her fortieth year, she was employed chiefly at Exeter as a domestic servant. Having joined one of the Methodist bodies, her religious feelings were powerfully awakened, and becoming acquainted with a man named Sanderson, who laid claim to the spirit of prophecy, the notion of a like pretension was gradually impressed on her mind.

Possessing a very inferior education, and naturally of a coarse mind, her efforts at prophecy, whether in prose or verse, were uncouth and unworthy of the notice of people enjoying a sane mind. There being, however, always persons of an unsettled turn ready to give credence to pretensions confidently supported, her influence extended; she announced herself, like her predecessors in England and America, as the woman spoken of in the Book of Revelations; and obtained considerable sums by the sale of seals which were to secure the salvation of those who purchased them.

Exeter being too narrow a field for the exercise of her prophetic powers, Mrs. Southcott removed to London, on the invitation and at the expense of William Sharp, an eminent engraver, who had become one of her principal adherents. Both before and after her removal to the metropolis, she published a number of pamphlets containing her crude reveries and prophecies concerning her mission.

Towards the year 1813 she had surrounded herself with many -credulous believers, and among certain classes had become an object of no small importance. Among other rhapsodies, she uttered dreadful denunciations upon her opposers and the unbelieving nations, and predicted the speedy approach of the millennium. In the last year of her life she secluded herself from the world, and especially from the society of the other sex, and gave out that she was with child of the Holy Ghost; and that she should give birth to the Shiloh promised to Jacob, which should be the second coming of Christ. Her prophecy was, that she was to be delivered on the 19th of October 1814, at midnight; being then upwards of sixty years of age.

This announcement seemed not unlikely to be verified, for there was an external appearance of pregnancy; and her followers, who are said to have amounted at that time to 100,000, were in the highest state of excitement. A splendid and expensive cradle was made, and considerable sums were contributed, in order to have other things prepared in a style worthy of the expected Shiloh. On the night of the 19th of October a large number of persons assembled in the street in which she lived, waiting to hear the announcement of the looked-for event; but the hour of midnight passed over, and the crowd were only induced to disperse by being informed that Mrs. Southcott had fallen into a trance. On the 27th of December following she died, having a short time previously declared that ‘if she was deceived, she was at all events misled by some spirit, either good or evil.’ Under the belief that she was not dead, or that she would again come to life, her disciples refused to inter the body, until it began to be offensive from decomposition. They then consented, with much reluctance, to a post-mortem examination, which fully refuted Joanna’s pretensions and their belief. The appearance which had deceived her followers was found to have arisen from dropsy (which was the old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water).

The pretended mission of Joanna Southcott might be expected to have been now thoroughly abandoned; but whether influenced by fanaticism or shame, her disciples clung to the cause of the deceased. They most reluctantly buried the body, without relinquishing their hopes. Flattering themselves that the object of their veneration would still, in some way, reappear, they formed themselves into a religious society, under the name of the Southcottian Church. The members affected a peculiar costume, of which a brown coat of a plain cut, a creamy-brown hat, with a long unshaven beard, were the chief features. Joanna Southcott was unquestionably in the last twenty years of her life, in a state of religious insanity, which took the direction of diseased self-esteem. A lunatic asylum would have been her most fitting place of residence.


Taken and adapted from, “Chambers’s Miscellany” (sp) Vol. IV.
Written by William Chambers

Also adapted from, “The Quakers”
Written by, Frederick Storrs Turner