The Public Universal Friend

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Jemima Wilkinson

Also Known As: "The Friend", "Public Universal Friend"
Birthdate:
Birthplace: Cumberland, Providence County, Rhode Island, Colonial America
Death: July 01, 1819 (66)
Jerusalem, Yates County, New York, United States
Place of Burial: Penn Yan, Yates County, New York, United States of America
Immediate Family:

Child of Jeremiah Wilkinson, Sr. (hez) and Amy Elizabeth Wilkinson, (hez)
Sibling of William Wilkinson; Patience Wilkinson; Amy Darling, (hez); Jeremiah Wilkinson, II; Simon Wilkinson and 10 others

Occupation: Preacher, Enigma, Trend Setter
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About The Public Universal Friend

"The Public Universal Friend" was an American Minister born in Cumberland, Rhode Island, to Quaker parents. The Friend, suffered a severe illness in 1776, reported having died and been reanimated as a genderless evangelist. Given the name, "Public Universal Friend", shunning both birth names and gendered pronouns. Adorned in androgynous clothing, the Friend preached throughout the northeastern United States, attracting many followers who became the "Society of Universal Friends".

The Public Universal Friend's theology was broadly similar to that of orthodox Quakers, believing in free will, opposing slavery, and supporting sexual abstinence. The most committed members of the Society of Universal Friends were a group of unmarried women who took leading roles in their households and community. In the 1790s, the Society acquired land in western New York where they formed the township of Jerusalem, New York. The Society of Universal Friends ceased to exist by the 1860s. Many writers have portrayed the Friend as a woman, and either a pioneer or a fraud, while others have viewed the preacher as transgender or non-binary.

Early life

The "Public Universal Friend" was born, Jemina Wilkinson, on November 29, 1752, in Cumberland, Rhode Island, the eighth child of Amy (or Amey, née Whipple) and Jeremiah Wilkinson, becoming the fourth generation of the family to live in America. The Friend's great-grandfather Lawrence Wilkinson was an officer in the army of Charles I who had emigrated from England around 1650 and was active in colonial government. Her father Jeremiah was a cousin of Stephen Hopkins, the colony's longtime governor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Jeremiah attended traditional worship with the Society of Friends (the Quakers) at the Smithfield Meeting House. Early biographer David Hudson says that Amy was also a member of the Society for many years while later biographer Herbert Wisbey finds no evidence of that, but quotes Moses Brown as saying the child was "born such" because of Jeremiah's affiliation. Amy died when the Friend was 12 or 13 in 1764, shortly after giving birth to a twelfth child.

The Friend was strong and athletic and an adept horse rider from an early age, and remained so in adulthood. Liking spirited horses and ensuring that animals received good care. An avid reader, the Friend was able to quote long passages of the Bible and prominent Quaker texts from memory. The Friend had fine black hair and black eyes. Little else is reliably known about the Friend's youth; some early accounts portray the youth as fond of fine clothes and averse to labor, but there is no contemporaneous evidence of this and Wisbey considers it doubtful. Moyer says it may have been invented to fit a then-common narrative of people who experienced dramatic religious awakenings.

In the mid-1770s, the Friend began attending meetings in Cumberland with the New Light Baptists who had formed as part of the Great Awakening and emphasized individual enlightenment. The Friend stopped attending meetings of the Society of Friends, was disciplined in February 1776 and then disowned by the Smithfield Meeting House in August. The Friend's sister Patience was dismissed at the same time for having an illegitimate child; brothers Stephen and Jeptha had been dismissed by the pacifistic Society in May 1776 for training for military service. Amid these family disturbances and the broader ones of the American Revolutionary War, unsatisfied with the New Light Baptists and shunned by the Quakers, the Friend faced much stress in 1776

Becoming the Public Universal Friend

Numerous disease spread throughout Rhode Island in 1776 and in October the Friend contracted one, most likely typhus. The Friend was left bedridden and near death with a high fever. The family summoned a doctor from Attleboro, six miles away, and neighbors kept up a death-watch at night. The fever broke after several days. The former Quaker then reported having died and received revelations from God through two archangels, and saying their soul had ascended to heaven and their body had been reanimated with a new spirit charged by God. The Friend continued to announce with preaching God's word, through that of the "Public Universal Friend". Explaining the name in the words of Isaiah 62:2: "a new name which the mouth of the Lord hath named". In the 18th and 19th centuries, some writers said that the Friend did die, for a brief or even extended period. Others suggested the whole illness was feigned. Accounts by doctors and other witnesses say that the illness was real but no-one noticed the Friend die.

Friend, no longer answered to their birth name, from that point on. Instead quoting Luke 23:3 ("thou sayest it") when people would ask if Jemina was the name of the person they were addressing. Ignoring or chastising those who insisted on using Friend's given name. Identifying as neither male nor female, the Friend asked not to be referred to with gendered pronouns. Followers respected these wishes, avoiding gender-specific pronouns even in their private diaries, referring only to "the Public Universal Friend", "the Friend" or "P.U.F."

The Friend dressed in a manner perceived to be neither androgynous or masculine. Adorned in long, loose clerical robes, which were most often black, a white or purple kerchief or cravat around the neck like men of the time. The preacher did not wear a hair-cap indoors, like women of the era, and outdoors wore the broad-brimmed, low-crowned beaver hats of the style worn by Quaker men. Accounts of the Friend's "feminine-masculine tone of voice" varied, some listeners described it as "clear and harmonious", "with ease and facility", or "clearly, though without elegance". Still others described it as "grum and shrill", or like a "kind of croak, unearthly and sepulchral". The Friend was said to move easily, freely, modestly, or "decent & graceful & grave".

Beliefs, preaching, and the Society of Universal Friends

The Friend began to travel and preach throughout Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania accompanied by brother Stephen and sisters Deborah, Elizabeth, Marcy, and Patience, all of whom were disowned by the Society of Friends. Early on, the Public Universal Friend preached that people needed to repent of their sins and be saved before an imminent Day of Judgment. According to Abner Brownell, the preacher predicted that the fulfillment of some prophecies of Revelation would begin around April 1780, 42 months after the Universal Friend began preaching, and interpreted New England's Dark Day in May 1780 as fulfillment of that prediction. According to a Philadelphia newspaper, later followers Sarah Richards and James Parker believed themselves to be the two witnesses mentioned in Revelation and accordingly wore sackcloth for a time The Friend did not bring a Bible to worship meetings, which were initially held outdoors or in borrowed meeting houses, but preached long sections of the scriptures from memory. The meetings attracted large audiences, including some who formed a congregation of "Universal Friends", making the Friend "the first native-born American to found a religious community". These followers included roughly equal numbers of women and men who were predominantly under Most were from Quaker backgrounds, though orthodox Quakers discouraged and disciplined members for attending meetings with the Friend, whom the Society of Friends had disowned, disapproving of what William Savery considered "pride and ambition to distinguish herself from the rest of mankind". Free Quakers, disowned by the main Society of Friends for participating in the American War of Independence, were particularly sympathetic and opened meetinghouses to the Universal Friends, appreciating that many of them had also sympathized with the Patriot cause, including members of the Friend's family.

Popular newspapers and pamphlets covered the Friend's sermons in detail by the mid-1780s, with several Philadelphia newspapers being particularly critical; they fomented enough opposition that noisy crowds gathered outside each place the preacher stayed or spoke in 1788 Most papers focused more on the preacher's ambiguous gender than on theology, ] which was broadly similar to the teachings of orthodox Quakers. One person who heard the Friend in 1788 said; I expected to hear something out of the way the doctrine, which is not the case, in fact I heard nothing but what is common among preachers" in Quaker churches. The Friend's theology was so similar to the Quakers' that one of two published works associated with the preacher was a plagiarism of Isaac Penington's Works because, according to Abner Brownell, the Friend felt that the sentiments would have more resonance if republished in the name of the Universal Friend The Universal Friends' language, too, was like the Society of Friends', using thee and thou instead of the singular you.

The Friend rejected the ideas of predestination and election, held that anyone regardless of gender could gain access to God's light and that God spoke directly to individuals who had free will to choose how to act and believe, and believed in the possibility of universal salvation. Calling for the abolition of slavery, the Friend persuaded followers who held people in slavery to free them. Several members of the congregation of Universal Friends were black, and they acted as witnesses for manumission papers. The Friend preached humility and hospitality towards everyone; kept religious meetings open to the public, and housed and fed visitors, including those who came only out of curiosity and Indians, with whom the preacher generally had a cordial relationship. The Friend had few personal possessions, mostly given by followers, and never held any real property except in trust.

The Friend preached sexual abstinence and disfavored marriage, but did not see celibacy as mandatory and accepted marriage, especially as preferable to breaking abstinence outside of wedlock. Most followers did marry, but the portion who did not was significantly above the national average of the time. The preacher also held that women should "obey God rather than men". The most committed followers included roughly four dozen unmarried women known as the Faithful Sisterhood who took on leading roles which were often reserved to men The portion of households headed by women in the Society's settlements (20%) was much higher than in surrounding areas.

Around 1785, the Friend met Sarah and Abraham Richards; after their unhappy marriage was ended when Abraham died in 1786 on a visit to the preacher, Sarah and her infant daughter took up residence with the Friend, adopted a similarly androgynous hairstyle, dress, and mannerisms (as did a few other close female friends), and came to be called Sarah Friend. The Friend entrusted Richards with holding the society's property in trust, and sent her to preach in one part of the country when the Friend was in another. Richards had a large part in planning and building the house in which she and the preacher lived in the township of Jerusalem; she died in 1793 and left her child to the Friend's care.

Settlement of the Gore and Jerusalem, and legal issues

In the mid-1780s, the Universal Friends began to plan a town for themselves in western New York. By late 1788, vanguard members of the Society had established a settlement in the Genesee River area; by March 1790, it was ready enough that the rest of the Universal Friends set out to join it. However, problems arose. James Parker spent three weeks in 1791 petitioning the governor and land office of New York on behalf of the Society to get a title to the land that the Friends had settled, but while most of the buildings and other improvements that the Universal Friends made were to the east of the initial Preemption Line and thus in New York, when the line was resurveyed in 1792 at least 25 homes and farms were now west of it, outside the area granted by New York, and residents were forced to repurchase their lands from the Pulteney Association. The town, which had been known as the Friend's Settlement, came to be known as The Gore.

Furthermore, the lands were in the tract on which Phelps and Gorham defaulted which was resold to financier Robert Morris and then to the Pulteney Association, absentee British speculators. Each change of hands drove prices higher, as did an influx of new settlers attracted by the Society's improvements to the area. The community lacked a solid title to enough land for all its members, and some left. Others wanted to profit by taking ownership of the land for themselves, including Parker and William Potter. To address the first of these issues, members of the Society of Universal Friends had secured some alternative sites. Abraham Dayton acquired a large area of land in Canada from Governor John Graves Simcoe, though Sarah Richards persuaded the Friend not to move so far. In addition, Thomas Hathaway and Benedict Robinson had purchased a site in 1789 along a creek which they named Brook Kedron that emptied into the Crooked Lake (Keuka Lake). The new township which the Universal Friends began there came to be called Jerusalem.

The second issue, however, came to a head in the fall of 1799 Judge William Potter, Ontario County, New York magistrate James Parker, and several disillusioned former followers led several attempts to arrest the Friend for blasphemy, which some writers have argued was motivated by disagreements over land ownership and power. An officer tried to seize the Friend while riding with Rachel Malin in the Gore, but the Friend, a skilled rider, escaped. The officer and an assistant later tried to arrest the preacher at home in Jerusalem, but the women of the house drove the men off and tore their clothes. A third attempt was carefully planned by a posse of 30 men who surrounded the home after midnight, broke down the door with an ax, and intended to carry the preacher off in an oxcart. A doctor who had come with the posse stated that the Friend was in too poor a state of health to be moved, and they made a deal that the Friend would appear before an Ontario county court in June 1800, but not before justice Parker. When the Friend appeared before the court, it ruled that no indictable offense had been committed, and invited the preacher to give a sermon to those in attendance.

Death, legacy, and legends

A variety of myths circulated about the Friend. Some writers spun stories of the preacher despotically bossing followers around or banishing them for years, making married followers divorce, or taking their personal or real property, even attempting and failing to raise the dead or walk on water; there is no contemporaneous evidence for these stories, and people who knew the Friend said that they were false, including some who were never followers. Another story began at a 1787 meeting of Universal Friends and guests in Pennsylvania, at which Abigail Dayton and Sarah Wilson had a disagreement; afterward, Wilson said that Dayton tried to strangle her in her sleep but choked her bedmate Anna Steyers by mistake Steyers denied that anything had happened, and others present attributed Wilson's fears to a nightmare, but Philadelphia papers printed an embellished version of the accusation and several follow-ups, with critics alleging that the attack must have had the Friend's approval, and the story eventually morphing into one in which the Friend (who was in Rhode Island at the time) was said to have strangled Wilson.

Interpretations

Though the Public Universal Friend identified as genderless, neither a man nor a woman, writers have often portrayed the preacher as a woman, and either a fraudulent schemer who deceived and manipulated followers, or a pioneering leader who founded several towns in which women were empowered to take on roles often reserved to men. These writers include historians Michael Bronski, Susan Juster, and Catherine Brekus. Bronski says that the Friend would not have been called transgender or transvestite "by the standards and the vocabulary" of the time, but he calls the Friend a "transgender evangelist". Juster calls the Friend a "spiritual transvestite", and says that followers considered the Friend's clothing congruent with the genderless spirit which they believed animated the preacher.

Juster and others state that the Friend may have embodied Paul's statement in Galatians 3:28 that "there is neither male nor female" in Christ Catherine Wessinger, Brekus, and others state that the Friend defied the idea of gender as binary and as natural and essential or innate though Brekus and Juster argue that the Friend nonetheless reinforced views of male superiority by "dressing like a man" and repeatedly insisting on not being a woman. Scott Larson, disagreeing with narratives that place the Public Universal Friend into the gender binary as a woman, writes that the Friend can be understood as a chapter in trans history "before 'transgender'".

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The Public Universal Friend's Timeline

1752
November 29, 1752
Cumberland, Providence County, Rhode Island, Colonial America
1752
Cumberland, Providence, Rhode Island, United States
1819
July 1, 1819
Age 66
Jerusalem, Yates County, New York, United States
July 1, 1819
Age 66
Penn Yan, Yates County, New York, United States of America