The Publick Universal Friend

Jemima_WilkinsonJemima Wilkinson — also known simply as “the Friend” (short for “the Publick Universal Friend” — was a preacher who declared independence from gender in the same year that America declared independence from Britain, and advocated for equality for all in the early years of the United States’ existence. (And since Jemima is not around to ask what pronouns to use, I’m going to be using “they/them” for the rest of this.)

Jemima Wilkinson was born on November 29, 1758 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. Their parents were Quakers. Their early life appears to have been fairly uneventful until they became ill with a fever in 1776. Although they came close to death, they did recover — and declared that Jemima had died, and they had been reborn as the genderless Publick Universal Friend. The Friend not only did not identify with any gender, but was also quite openly asexual and promoted abstinence.

On October 13, less than a week after recovering from the fever, the Friend gave their first public sermon. Although the Friend’s teachings included a lot of Quaker values like pacificism, abolitionism, et cetera — they were still labeled a heretic by the Quakers. The Friend’s teachings also included sexual abstinence, being friendly to everyone, and gender equality (that’s the heretical part, if you weren’t sure). During the American Revolution, the Friend provided medical attention to soldiers on both sides of the war. Despite preaching about dressing plainly, the Friend’s outfits were a big part of what brought people out to listen to their sermons — the Friend wore the traditional black robes of the clergy, over petticoats, as well as a broad-brimmed black man’s hat and brightly colored women’s scarves.

The Friend preached throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before heading to Pennsylvania. By this time, there were a number of followers calling themselves “Universal Friends” and in 1783 the Friend organized the Society of the Universal Friends. Although the Friend only claimed to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit, the Universal Friends made claims that they were “the Messiah Reborn” and “Christ in female form”.

These claims — as well as the Friend’s flagrant challenge to the patriarchy — made the Friend a target. They were publicly slandered time and time again, especially in Philadelphia — an area rife with Quakers. In 1788, the Society of Universal Friends pooled their resources and purchased land near the northern end of Keuka Lake in New York. In March of 1790, they actually began journeying to the land they had purchased and on April 13, 1790 they officially declared the settlement of Jerusalem at that location. (Although Jerusalem is still a town, this particular part of it where they settled is now the village of “Penn Yan”. Which stands for “Pennsylvania Yankee”. Apparently.)

In 1800, was taken to court for blasphemy but — in what would be a landmark decision — it was ruled that American courts could not try people for blasphemy due to the separation of church and state. This would go on to influence the laws around the First Amendment as the United States developed.

The trouble with having a community where one of the central tenets is sexual abstinence is that the population tends to dwindle. Because like, you if you can’t have babies, you don’t replace the adults when they kick the bucket. Or, should I say, when they “leave time” — that’s how the Friend’s death was described by the Universal Friends when it happened on July 1, 1819. They were 61 years old — and in those years, they had challenged virtually every institution in this country, at it’s very beginning. I also want to note that, despite not identifying as a woman, the Friend is considered the first American-born woman to begin a religious movement (and is definitely, and more accurately, the first American-born non-binary person to begin a religious movement.)

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