Sunday, July 01, 2012

Jemima Wilkinson: Queer preacher reborn in 1776 as “Publick Universal Friend”


Jemima Wilkinson (1752-1819) was a queer American preacher who woke from a near-death experience in 1776 believing she was neither male nor female. She changed her name to “the Publick Universal Friend,” fought for gender equality and founded an important religious community.

It’s appropriate to consider the Publick Universal Friend around July 4 for Independence Day. In 1776, the same year that America issued the Declaration of Independence, Wilkinson declared her own independence from gender. This fascinating person died almost 200 years ago today on July 1, 1819.

Wilkinson is recognized as the first American-born woman to found a religious group, but is also called a “transgender evangelist.” The breakaway Quaker preacher spoke against slavery and gave medical care to both sides in the Revolutionary War.

Wilkinson was 24 when she had a severe fever leading to a near-death experience. Upon waking she confidently announced to her surprised family that Jemima Wilkinson had died and her body was now inhabited by a genderless “Spirit of Life from God” sent to preach to the world. She insisted on being called the Publick Universal Friend or simply “the Friend.” From then on, the Friend refused to respond to her birth name or use gendered pronouns.

Seal of the Universal Friend
(Wikimedia Commons)
The preacher and prophet known as “the Friend” defies categorization. The Friend has been labeled a “spiritual transvestite” and is on lists of “famous asexuals” and “a gender-variance Who’s Who.” As a gender nonconformist whose life was devoted to God, the Friend fits the definition of a queer saint. The androgynous Friend was many things to many people.

Jemima Wilkinson was born to a Quaker family in Rhode Island on Nov. 29, 1752. She showed a strong interest in religion while growing up. On Oct. 13, 1776, the Sunday after being reborn, the Friend gave a public sermon for the first time. Quaker officials rejected the Friend as a heretic, but s/he went on to preach throughout Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

The Friend blended traditional Christian warnings about sin and redemption with Quaker pacifism, abolitionism, plain dress and peaceful relations with Native American Indians. Women had no legal rights in the United States, but the Friend advocated equality of the sexes. The Friend was a firm believer in sexual abstinence.

People were drawn not only to this progressive message, but also to the Friend’s forceful personality and genderbending appearance. S/he rejected standard women’s attire and hairdos for a unique blend of male and female. The Friend commonly wore a flowing black male clergy gown with female petticoats peeking out at the hem. The Friend’s long hair hung loose to the shoulder. The rest of the Friend’s outfit often included a man’s broad-brimmed hat and women’s colorful scarves.

The first recruits were family members, but the Friend soon attracted a diverse group of followers, including intellectual and economic elites as well as the poor and oppressed. Known as the Universal Friends, they upset some people by proclaiming that the Friend was “the Messiah Returned” or “Christ in Female Form.” The Friend did not make such claims directly.

The Friend founded the Society of Universal Friends in 1783. Members pooled their money and started a utopian communal settlement in the wilderness near Seneca Lake in upstate New York in 1788. As the first settlers in the region, they cleared the land and became the first white people to meet and trade with the Native Americans there. By 1790 the community had grown to a population of 260.

Hostile observers put the Friend on trial for blasphemy in 1800, but the court ruled that American courts could not try blasphemy cases due to the separation of church and state in the U.S. constitution. Thus the Friend was a pioneer in establishing freedom of speech and freedom of religion in American law.

Like other isolated utopian communities based on celibacy, the Society of Universal Friends dwindled. The Friend “left time,” as the Universal Friends put it, on July 1, 1819 at age 61. The organization disintegrated within a few years of the founder’s death.

The Publick Universal Friend continues to fascinate people today. One of the most authoritative biographies of this mysterious person is Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend by Herbert A. Wisbey Jr. In recent years the life and work of the Friend has been examined by feminists and LGBTQ scholars, including gay historian Michael Bronski in his Lambda Literary Award-winning book, A Queer History of the United States.
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Related links:
Chapter on Jemima Wilkinson from “Saints, Sinners and Reformers” by John H. Martin (Crooked Lake Review)

The Assumption of Jemima Wilkinson by Sharon V. Betcher (Journal of Millennial Studies)

Scherer Carriage House (permanent museum exhibit on Jemima Wilkinson)

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Books on LGBTQ American history:

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Related links:
Books on LGBTQ American history:

A Queer History of the United States” by Michael Bronski

Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation” by Jim Downs

Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.” by Jonathan Katz


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Top image credit: Jemima Wilkinson / Publick Universal Friend (Wikimedia Commons)

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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

15 comments:

VorJack said...

Thank you for this. When I was studying the history of the Burned Over District, I saw Wilkinson mentioned as the founder of the first native born American religion. But I hadn't realized her connection to gay history. Very interesting indeed.

William D. Lindsey said...

Kittredge, thank you for bringing Jemima Wilkinson to the attention of readers. I had never heard of her. Her life and witness are fascinating, and now I intend to read more about her. I'm very grateful to you.

Trudie said...

It occurs to me that ecclesiastical drag makes being gender non-specific very easy...Smile. Thanks. This was a very interesting post indeed.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I’m glad that you all appreciate my profile of Jemima Wilkinson. I also find her fascinating. I was surprised at how little material is available about her from a LGBTQ perspective, since she obviously doesn’t fit the usual male/female binary.

I did a lot of research and posted it here for all to see -- and people are noticing. This post has already gotten more than 600 hits, making it most popular post of the year at the Jesus in Love Blog.

Rev. Dr. Joan M. Saniuk said...

Amazing! Thank you for bringing this bodacious saint to our attention.

Mitch Gould said...

LeavesOfGrass.Org introduced the whole Internet to the subject of Jemima Wilkinson as a queer (ex-)Quaker about seven or eight years ago. I believe we need to revise Quaker history to recognize her movement as one of the many Quaker schisms of the 19th century. You should study her alongside the Shaker movement, which is similar, and had a similar early history with a Quaker affiliation. JW's close relationships with her female acolytes could have been lesbian relationships. Note also that Nathaniel Hawthorne and the famous author Frederick Marryat were both scandalized by the Shaker practice of two men sleeping in the same bed.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Mitch, thanks for introducing me to LeavesOfGrass.org. I’m impressed by the LGBT Quaker history project that you are doing there in conjunction with the LGBT Religious Archives. I see many exciting names to research for the “LGBT Saints” series here. Some, such as Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, are already on my to-do list, and I did write a profile of Bayard Rustin at this link:
http://jesusinlove.blogspot.com/2011/08/ml-king-memorial-and-gay-hero-of-march.html

Because my blog focuses LGBT spirituality and ART, I am especially intrigued by your tantalizing reference to Edward Hicks's queer painting, “David and Jonathan at the Stone Ezel.” Do you have more background info on this to share?

I did wonder about the lesbian implications of Jemima Wilkinson’s relationships with the women who were her close companions and named in her will. I’m glad that you brought it up.

I did look into Ann Lee and the Shaker movement while researching this piece… because I used to think of her as first American woman to found a religious group, but she was born in England and founded the Shakers there.

On a personal note, I have always felt drawn to Quaker spirituality and attended Quaker meetings as a teen and young adult.

You’ve given me a lot to think about. Amen!

Mitch Gould said...

I was alerted to the existence of David and Jonathan at the Stone Ezel by one of the Edward Hicks biographies, but neither of the two I read could provide any more info. I believe it was sold by Southeby's several years ago, and the current owner has not been made public. ...Yes, Ann Lee got her start in England some time after meeting with local Quakers, but then moved to New York state. It seems highly likely to me that her example would have inspired Jemima Wilkinson; I'm quite surprised I didn't come across this suggestion while I was learning about JW. Keep up the good work!

CJ Barker said...

Not surprised that you would get so many hits on this, Kitt. Transsexual, and particularly asexual people are still in the beginning stages of trying to find and document their history, and I would think this story would be immensely encouraging to anyone who's undertaken that process. And what an utterly fascinating person!Any number of people live out their christianity identifying with various aspects of the life of christ, or with pursuing the character of the father. But how often do you find someone who identifies with the holy ghost? That's what this sounds like- blessing everyone on every side, indiscriminately, and from a genderless place. Fascinating- truly! Thanks so much for sharing it!

Kittredge Cherry said...

CJ, you helped me see that the popularity of this post stems partly from the fact that transgenders are still in the process of identifying their place in history… and lesbians and gays are further along that road. I’m glad to be part of the process. I myself seem to be finding more potential trans saints these days. They will be appear on this blog in the future.

Mitch, you and I been corresponding by email after you left this comment, so here I will just say thanks again for all the info about Edward Hicks and other queer Quakers. You've provided wonderful food for thought... and for future blogs.

City Hill descendant said...

I am directly descended from a firm adherent to the Universal Friend and her doctrines. While I agree that it is likely the Friend was lesbian it is purely speculation. Whether she was gay or not, she was surely an interesting character!

John Potter said...

The Scherer Carriage House and the L. Caroline Underwood Museums of the Yates County History Center, in Penn Yan, New York, are the main repositories for the objects and documents once belonging to Jemima Wilkinson and her “Society of Universal Friends.” The Scherer Carriage House is home to the permanent Universal Friend’s exhibition which includes Jemima’s coachee, her portrait, bible, felted hat, horse saddle, medicine chest and other memorabilia from the settlement. The Spencer Research Center in the Underwood Museum is home to a large and varied array of archived research materials on this historic figure. We welcome you to visit the Yates County History Center to learn more about this incredible woman and the community of faith that she established. Readers can learn more at www.yatespast.org

Kittredge Cherry said...

I hope to visit the Jemima Wilkinson exhibit in person someday, but for now I am adding the link to the body of my article about her. Thank you for this helpful info, John Potter.

City Hill descendant, it's great to hear from a direct descendant of one of Universal Publick Friend's followers!

Judy Quesada said...

◄ Galatians 3:28 ►

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

maida said...

Judy Quesada, I like your quote. So much is often made of the outward and material. I prefer to focus on the spiritual within us all, whatever our bodies, appearance and clothes are like! To me, it is not very important whether one identify as a male or female, what is important is the spiritual life one lives. There is much to be celebrated in gender - more particularly the ability to reproduce, to make human beings and nurture them! But gender is not the be-all and end-all of life - the spirit, values, imagination, empathy, love and kindness that comes from within is not gendered. - Maida