I received a most unusual book for Christmas. Titled The Public Universal Friend—Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America by Paul B. Moyer (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), it was given to me by a family member who knows of my interest in American women who lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Jemima Wilkinson, the subject of the book, was born in Rhode Island in 1752. She was the first American-born female religious leader. (Mother Anne Lee who founded the Shakers emigrated from England.) Raised as a Quaker, she was attracted to a splinter group called the New Light Baptists whose emphasis was on a more emotional religious experience. As a result she was disowned by her Quaker meeting.
Wilkinson fell ill in 1776 and was near death. She revived and claimed that she had in fact died and been returned to life by God as a genderless prophet to preach about the imminent Final Judgment and the need for repentance. Wilkinson no longer answered to her name but called herself The Public Universal Friend. She wore men’s clothing, her hair hanging long and loose, and she rode a horse. Traveling throughout southern New England and as far south as Philadelphia, the Friend attracted a following. Ruth Pritchard, a convert, had this to say in a reminiscence about the Friend’s early ministry.
The Friend of Sinners began to serve In the year 1777 When this Nation was still in arms and America had embroiled her hands in human blood. There appeared the Messenger of Peace going from City to City and from Village to village proclaiming the News of Salvation to all that would Repent and believe the Gospel. The Friend was not staid by guards of armed men. She went through to visit the poor condemned prisoners in their Chains. Naked swords shook over the Friend’s head, she was not in terror because of the mighty Power of the Lord. No storms or severity of weather could hinder the Friend’s journey to speak unto Souls like the unwearied Sun, Determin’d its faithful race to run, spreading heavenly benediction far abroad that wandering sinners might return to God.
There was a mystical element to the Friend’s teachings—she put great stock in the interpretation of dreams—and she advocated though did not require sexual abstinence. In 1788 her followers purchased land in western New York and established a settlement called Jerusalem (now Penn Yan), where they could be sheltered from the temptations of the “wicked world.” There the Friend exercised considerable control over her followers, including men, requiring obedience and deference as befitted an exalted leader. She lived a comfortable life amid many material possessions in a house constructed for her. The image shows the symbols which adorned her carriage. When the Friend died in 1819, the religious movement without its charismatic leader declined in numbers and eventually disappeared.
Jemima Wilkinson is a strange and fascinating character who went beyond the bounds of social norms in the period in which she lived. She greatly expanded on the Quaker tradition of female leadership, indeed was a gender nonconformist who advocated equality of the sexes. As Moyer puts it: “While not a self-conscious effort to upend the social order, the Universal Friend’s ministry provided a space for the renegotiation of what it meant to be a man and a woman. In particular it created new opportunities for the latter to exercise authority, achieve personal independence, and transcend the traditional roles of wife and mother.”
Quoted passage from Moyer’s book, p 23. The portrait is by J.L.D Mathies, 1816, Wilkinson Collection, Yates County History Center, Penn Yan, NY, also from Moyer’s book p 191.