Sears, Clara Endicott, compiled by. Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals. Houghton-Mifflin. $1.25

AT first glance, the title of this volume is likely to seem discouraging and we confess that we opened the book with a yawn, anticipating boredom. “Old Shaker Journals” indeed! Could anything seem less concerned with the precious, throbbing stuff of life as normal men and women know it? But we had not read far when the book began to revenge itself in a most enthralling manner. For what is more stirring than a story of an earnest search for God, however erratic the seekers may seem? And such a story is told here.

The author begins her history of an astonishing psychic phenomenon with a biography of Ann Lee, the founder of the sect of Shakers. Ann, she tells us, was born in Manchester, England, about the middle of the 18th century. From the first she gave evidence of an abnormal nervous organization. Nowadays, such a child would be treated for hysteria, but at that time she was variously regarded as inspired, insane or depraved, according to the temperamental bias of those who judged her. The thought of marriage, we are told, was repugnant to her. Nevertheless her father, who appears to have been unimaginative, not to say brutal, married her to one Abraham Stanley. Her four children all died in infancy — a fact which a modern specialist would consider of very great importance to any examination of her subsequent career. Ann, however, looked upon the death of her children as a punishment for succumbing to the dictates of the world, and she became a monomaniac on sin.

At this point in her life she fell under the influence of two other religious fanatics, James and Jane Wardley. These pious people had formed a little religious society founded upon the doctrine that the Christ Spirit was destined to have two incarnations. The first having been in the body of a man, the second should be in the body of a woman — God being in his essence bisexual.

This little society was living in daily expectation of the Second Coming, and Ann Lee seemed to meet all the requirements. She was hailed as the “Annointed Daughter into whom the Christ Spirit has entered”; and it was not long until the hysterical woman was proclaiming herself: “I am Ann the Word.” Naturally, their neighbors looked upon them as blasphemous, and persecutions followed — as a result of which Ann and a small following set sail for America. The story of their early trials and sufferings in New England during the period of the revolutionary war, however ridiculous its details may seem to our generation, is none the less rich in the stuff of pity. There can be no doubt that this little band was sincere, nor can one possibly doubt the conviction of its “Messiah,” Ann Lee.