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Her dress… had the appearance of immodesty in a woman & if it were general would go far to confound the distinction of sexes, which would be very improper & of pernicious consequences to Society…
In last week’s Histories we followed four Quaker observers on their way from Philadelphia to help keep things civil between representatives of George Washington’s government and the Six Nations of the Iroquois, assembling to sign the Treaty of Canandaigua. They were William Savery, James Emlen, David Bacon and John Parrish – and the first three all kept journals of their trip. These men were all notably sympathetic to the Native American cause, as well as the poverty of white people they met, but of course like all of us they were influenced by their beliefs and backgrounds. As it happens, on their journey they took a detour to a settlement called Jerusalem to meet one of the most remarkable people in America at the time.
That person was born Jemima Wilkinson on November 29th, 1752, in Cumberland, Rhode Island, the eighth child of what was probably a Quaker family; Jemima’s mother sadly died around 1764–5. An early influence was the evangelical preacher George Whitefield (1714–70), a key figure in Methodism and, through his travels across America, in the religious revival known as the Great Awakening. But soon there was a major awakening in Jemima’s own life – and if you haven’t come across this story, you’ll soon see why I am twisting my sentences around to avoid pronouns.
In October 1776 Jemima was taken seriously ill with typhus and came near to death. On recovering, this unusual character abruptly declared their name was now the Publick Universal Friend (later referred to also as the Universal Friend, the PUF or just the Friend). Among papers found after the Friend’s death in 1819 was this autobiographical note:
A memorandum of the introduction of that fatal fever, call’d in the year 1776, the Columbus1 fever: since call’d the typhus, or malignant fever… this awful, and alarming disease, of which many of the inhabitance in Providence died: and on the fourth of the 10th month, it reached the house of Jemima Wilkinson, ten miles from Providence, in which this truly interesting and great event took place!… She appear’d to meet the shock of Death…
She saw two Archangels descending from the east, with golden crowns upon their heads, clothed in long white robes, down to the feet . . . putting their trumpets to their mouth, proclaimed saying, Room, room, room, in the many mansions of eternal glory for thee… And according to the declaration of the Angels, the Spirit took full possession of the body it now animates.
The Friend decline to answer to their previous name, dressed in androgynous or masculine clothes, and began to travel across New England and Pennsylvania, attracting followers who became known as the Society of Universal Friends. Many were unmarried women, although men joined the cause too, and by the late 1780s as many as 80 families apparently had settled in their own community.
There are many accounts of the Friend, and they often focus on appearance, at a time when any deviation from norms was both brave and rare. The French politician and diplomat met the Friend in Philadelphia around 1782, writing:
I prefer to tell you of the impression which the prophetess makes, and how she attracts our worldly attention. This soul from heaven has chosen rather a beautiful body for its dwelling place, and many living ladies would not object to animate these dead remains. Jemima Wilkinson, or rather the woman whom we call by that name, is about twenty-two years old ; she has beautiful features, a fine mouth, and animated eyes; her hair is parted in the middle and falls loosely on her shoulders. She washes it every day with cold water and never powders it; travel has browned her a little; she has an air of pensive melancholy; she has acquired no grace, but has all those which Nature gives.
By all accounts the PUF had great charisma, and the American Indians (whose cause the Friend supported) called her the Great Woman Preacher.
In 1792, the Friend moved to a new settlement called Jerusalem on land bought on their behalf – the Friend refused to use the name ‘Jemima Wilkinson’ even on official paperwork, signing with an X, and indeed declined to own property directly, relying on trustees such as her right-hand woman Sarah Richards and, after Sarah’s death in 1793, Rachel Malin. Over time, Jerusalem grew to thousands of acres. Here is the Friend’s first house there (a later, larger one still stands to this day):
Rachel wrote enthusiastically of Jerusalem to a friend: It is some years since I have bid adieu to the world and retired into this wilderness… the woods offer their shades, and the fields their harvests and the hills flatter with an extensive view, and the valley invites with shelter, fragrance, and flowers. Solitude is pleasant to me; this new world is richly adorned with hills and valleys…
And so we return to our four travelling Quakers on the road to Canandaigua. They encountered Jemima several times, and their impressions were not nearly as charitable as their view of the Native Americans. Even James Emlen, who seemed (in our last meeting) an open-minded character, wrote of ‘the wild infatuations of this deluded woman’.
Here are some extracts from their journals again:
James Emlen: After breakfasting with the Judge & family we proceeded to Jemima’s habitation about 2 1/2 miles distant. The house & things around it appear’d in decent order. On entering it we were courteously received by Rachel Malin, a young woman who had her birth amongst [Friends]2 & who like her two brothers has attached herself to Jemima & her principles… [Her followers had] forsaken their wives & families & left all to follow her. Jemima assumes the character & denomination of the Universal Friend & both she & her followers are highly offended at her being called by any other name. Hence we were likely to be led into a difficulty as on the one hand we were desirous of not giving them immediate umbrage by calling her by the name derived from her parents, so on the other we were not easy to distinguish her by a title she had so arrogantly assumed: but after continuing there about 1/2 an hour, our uneasiness respecting seeing her was removed by Judge Potter’s son, … he enquiring whether The Friend was at home. Rachel quickly answered in the affirmative, and after retiring into an adjoining chamber, returned after a while with Jemima; it is probable that she had absented herself purposely on our approaching her house, as we understood she generally avoids Friends’ company on account of the concern which they are under to warn her of her dangerous situation: her deportment, dress, features &c are so very masculine that I think no one would suppose her to be a woman who had not some previous knowledge of her.
As soon as she had taken her seat she immediately began discoursing on religious matters, attended with a tone which tended to gender death, & altho[ugh] my mind was impressed with a great concern that that power might be witnessed to arise which commands an awe & brings opposite spirits into subjection, yet I soon found that this silent labour was entirely frustrated by her keeping the waters in a state of continual purturbation – it seem’d as tho’ silence would be death to her… She stamps her mission in very high characters…
In the course of her conversation she expressed her belief that our society in the present day was not like our ancestors, that they were persecuted people, & that not being now the case with us, she thought an evident token of our conforming to the world, for her part she thought it her duty not to be a man pleaser, therefore was she persecuted.
Judge Potter who is an aged discreet man was formerly one of her followers; but he apprehends himself now convinced that she is entirely an imposter, & that her settling in this country was a mere trick of interest in order to secure a maintenance, she being in indigent circumstances & endeavouring to persuade her associates that it is unlawful to her to labour with her hands.3
David Bacon: Stayed for breakfast then rode to Jemima’s. Stayed about 2 hours, had some conversation with her & Rachel Malin to but little satisfaction. Returned to our kind Friend Potter’s, got dinner then returned to our lodgings. Potter hath separated from Jemima – thinks her scheme was that of Interest. She appears to lose credit with the people.
[Later that month, Jemima joined in the discussions between the Indians and the government representatives.]
Emlen: Jemima Wilkinson who was present with three of her followers [who] all fell on their knees when she utter’d a long prayer, the substance of which was afterwards explain’d to the Indians by one of the interpreters. She then preached to them… but night coming on was obliged to cut short. Jemima was dress’d in a complete clergyman’s surplice of black silk.
Bacon: Jemima Wilkinson made a pretty long prayer… the performance was very disagreeable to me. I left the place but she had something to say by way of advice to the Indians which did not prove agreeable to [Colonel Pickering]4 nor the Indians I believe. [William Savery’s journal mentions that Bacon put on his glasses “to view her attentively”.]
Emlen: Jemima Wilkinson & her company called at our lodgings on her way homewards, a concern still resting on Friends’ minds to be helpful to her, endeavors were made to communicate something for her solid consideration, but she like a subtle general is so skilled in the stratagems of war that it is vain to attempt a general engagement: she so constantly anticipated Friends in what they were about to express, that the opp[ortunit]y in that respect afforded but little satisfaction, yet upon the whole some degree of relief was obtained in testifying against some of her conduct.
Bacon: We had a visit by Jemima Wilkinson… William Savery addressed Jemima by her name which appeared to strike her & her followers with concern, however we entered into some close conversation with them respecting her wild notions & conduct which she endeavored to ward off by her artful way of evasions… I was glad of the opportunity to clear myself of them letting them know I believed they were under delusions & we parted friendly to appearance.
Savery: Jemima Wilkinson, Rachel Malin, her two brothers Enoch & Elijah, David [Wagener] & son & another man of the same tribe called to see us at our lodgings. We soon got into conversation, by the introduction of a sentiment I had heard her drop in Phila[delphia] which was, that if G. Fox, R. Barclay & Wm. Penn,5 were present they would approve of her tho’ the present race of Friends could not… Much was said, especially by her whose practice it is to endeavor to leave little room for others to speak where she is present.
Several parts of her conduct were alluded to which appeared somewhat to raise her spirit and all of them evidently appear’d to receive unkindly our calling her by name. We told them plainly we believed they were under a strong delusion & pitied them, which they returned upon us. I did not apprehend they had ears to hear or inclination to make any profitable use of our remarks, & perceiving poor Rachel turning away from us in tears, I talked with her aside. She said she was very much hurt at the manner Friends was treating the Friend, was sure it was in the wrong spirit & that she thought they would at some future time feel condemnation for it… Rachel is certainly a tender spirited girl whom I cannot but feel much regard for even in her present mistaken attachment. She said the Friend when she first heard her, had the most powerful effect upon her by far that she had ever experienced before & it was no wonder it attached her to her. I desired her to use her influence to persuade Jemima not to appear in the manner she did in her dress, which had the appearance of immodesty in a woman & if it were general would go far to confound the distinction of sexes, which would be very improper & of pernicious consequences to Society. She replied the Friend had traveled much & found that dress the most convenient…
Savery: Sheriff Norton inform’d us he had lately attempted to serve a writ on Jemima Wilkinson at the suit of Judge Potter’s son Thomas… She told him she should take no notice of it for that was not her name & refused to give any bail for her appearance to ans[wer] the suit but fearing lest she should be sent for by the court she sent one Smith who is her deluded follower. Smith was as obstinate as herself & refused to give bail for her under any other name than the Universal Friend…
So who was the remarkable Friend? A cultist charlatan debasing the norms of society? A channel for the Holy Spirit? A pioneering non-binary campaigner? A feminist commune leader? As ever, history is viewed through the prism of the beholder!
Named for the ship full of prisoners which was blamed for bringing the disease.
Confusing stuff, but here a Friend/Friends refers to the Quakers, and the Friend to the PUF!
This same former supporter, Judge William Potter, even attempted to try the Friend for blasphemy in 1800, without success – and his own motives seem to have ben connected to land ownership…
Timothy Pickering was George Washington’s representative at the Treaty of Canandaigua.
Referring of course to the Quakers’ founder George Fox and prominent early members Robert Barclay and William Penn.