Under her leadership, beginning in 1772, the rejection of marriage, and their work ethic for which they have ever since been known, began to typify the Shaker society. She joined the Wardleys in 1758.
Ann Lee was born on February 29, 1736, the daughter of a blacksmith, in Manchester, England, and died on September 8, 1784 in Watervliet, New York, U.S.. Although a believer in celibacy, she had at her parents' urging married Abraham Stanley (Standley, or Standerin), and bore him four children, all of whom died in infancy. She was miserable in marriage, and by 1770 had begun to insist that the institution was not compatible with the kingdom of God. Like others in the Quaker tradition, she believed in and taught her followers that it is possible to attain perfect holiness. Like her predecessors the Wardleys, she taught that the demonstrations of shaking and trembling were caused by sin being purged from the body by the power of the Holy Spirit, purifying the worshipper. Distinctively, the followers of Mother Ann came to believe that she embodied all the perfections of God in female form.
She rose to prominence in the movement through her dramatic urging of the Believers to preach more publicly concerning the imminent second coming, and to attack sin more boldly and unconventionally. She spoke of visions and messages from God, claiming that she had received from God the message that celibacy and confession of sin are the only true road to salvation, the only way in which the Kingdom of God could be established on the earth. She was frequently imprisoned for breaking the Sabbath by dancing and shouting, and for blasphemy. She had many "miraculous" escapes from death. Once, according to her story, being examined by four clergymen of the Established Church, she spoke to them for four hours in seventy-two tongues.
While in prison in Manchester for fourteen days, she said she had a revelation that "a complete cross against the lusts of generation, added to a full and explicit confession, before witnesses, of all the sins committed under its influence, was the only possible remedy and means of salvation." After this, probably in 1770, she was chosen by the society as "Mother in spiritual things" and called herself "Ann, the Word" and also "Mother Ann." After released from prison a second time, witnesses say Mother Ann performed a number of miracles, including healing the sick by merely touching them.
In 1774 a revelation bade her take a select band to America. She was accompanied by her husband, who soon afterwards deserted her. Also following her to America, was her brother, William Lee (1740-1784); Nancy Lee, her niece; James Whittaker (1751-1787), who had been brought up by Mother Ann and was probably related to her; John Hocknell (1723-1799), who provided the funds for the trip; his son, Richard; and James Shepherd and Mary Partington. Mother Ann arrived on August 6, 1774 in New York City. Here they stayed for nearly two years. In 1776 Hocknell bought land at Niskayuna, in the township of Watervliet, near Albany, and, the Shakers settled there, where a unique community life began to develop and thrive.