Unlike most self-proclaimed prophets, this divine messenger was neither a woman nor a man. The figure would be known simply as the “Public Universal Friend.”
In the decades that followed, the Friend would draw hundreds of disciples, traversing New England by horseback while wearing male minister’s clothing, according to letters from the time. For generations, historians have studied the Public Universal Friend as an odd yet effective spiritual leader during the American Revolution, a tumultuous time of religious experimentation.
But 200 years after the self-proclaimed prophet’s death, the Friend’s story has circulated widely on social media and taken on a new meaning: a rare example of a person in early American history who publicly identified as non-binary and gained acceptance while doing so, said Michael Bronski, a Harvard University professor and author of “A Queer History of the United States.”
A growing group of Americans today are identifying as genders other than male or female. State governments, airlines and school districts across the country have begun offering a gender option of “X.” Merriam-Webster officially adopted the use of the non-binary pronoun “they,” which it also declared the 2019 word of the year.
While non-binary identities have grown in visibility in recent years, some historians point to characters like the Public Universal Friend as evidence that gender-nonconforming people have always been a part of American society, long before the language existed to recognize them.
Historians have struggled to decide which pronouns to use for the Public Universal Friend. While the Friend’s followers often used “he” or “him” when referring to their religious leader, the evangelist avoided pronouns altogether, signing letters as simply “Public Universal Friend” or “Friend,” said Tricia L. Noel, executive director of the Yates County History Center in New York. The center has a permanent exhibit focused on the Friend, who formed the first pioneer settlement in what is now Yates County for many years.
“That’s indicative of the fact that the Friend wasn’t identifying as male or female,” Noel said.
Still, it would be historically inaccurate to use they/them pronouns when referring to the figure, said Paul B. Moyer, who wrote a book about the Friend. In his writing, Moyer uses female pronouns when describing Jemima Wilkinson, and male pronouns when describing the Friend. But the prophet’s gender identity was not a central focus of Moyer’s research when he wrote the book in 2015, and it wasn’t a topic often discussed by the Friend, he said.
Moyer argues that the Friend’s genderless nature was primarily due to a religious calling. But that does not make it any less sincere, he said.
According to historian Susan Juster, the Friend applied the Bible verse 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.” In sermons, the Friend would also compare the reincarnation of Jemima Wilkinson’s body to the prophecies of Jeremiah 31:22: “the Lord hath created a new thing in the earth, A woman shall compass a man,” Adam Morris wrote in his book “American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation.”
“She’s a woman in her mid-20s. At this time there would have been expectations of marriage,” Moyer said. “Becoming the Public Universal Friend kind of allows her to escape all that. . . . Is part of this transformation based on some sort of psychological desire for her to escape this role of being a wife and a mother that she’s on the verge of entering into?”
Perhaps, Moyer speculates. But in general, the Friend “did not spend a lot of time contemplating” gender, Moyer said. At one point, someone asked if the Friend identified as either male or female, according to a letter that appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper, Moyer said. The Friend simply replied: “I am that I am.”
In fact, the exhibit dedicated to the Friend at the Yates County History Center hardly confronted the religious leader’s gender identity until recently, Noel said. The center’s website refers to Wilkinson as “the first American born woman to form a religious society.”
But the history center has seen an uptick in visits and questions about the Friend’s gender in recent years, and Noel said she has begun trying to shift away from using female pronouns for the Friend.
“I think we’ve just become a little more aware of the magnitude of what the Friend was doing,” Noel said.
Before the Friend came to be, Jemima Wilkinson had been removed from the Quaker church for attending Baptist revivals, Noel said. So it made sense that the bulk of the Friend’s doctrine was a combination of Quaker and Baptist beliefs. Like many Quakers, the Friend opposed slavery, encouraged celibacy (but did not mandate it) and elevated women to leadership positions.
“What drew people to the Universal Friend was not the message but the messenger,” Moyer said.
The charismatic figure managed to convince wealthy, powerful families across New England to give up lucrative careers and follow the group, known as the Society of Universal Friends, Noel said.
Still, the figure drew significant criticism, particularly in Philadelphia, where rioters threw sticks and bricks at the home where the Friend was lodging. Some people saw the Friend as a scam, as this “ bizarre religious figure, this woman dressed as a man claiming to be a prophet of God,” Moyer said.
In part because of this push back, the Friend decided to move to the uncharted wilderness of what is now Yates County, N.Y. The settlement led the Society of Universal Friends to become insulated, and prevented it from gaining new members. But a core group of followers remained devoted until the Friend’s death, which was likely caused by an illness, in 1819, Noel said.
“There’s almost a mythic way about the Friend," Noel said. “No one knows where she’s buried for sure.”
The figure has become local lore in the county, where some descendants of the Friend’s followers still live. And in the exhibit dedicated to the self-proclaimed prophet, visitors can see a copy of the religious leader’s will.
“Jemima Wilkinson,” the will stated, “otherwise known as the Public Universal Friend.”
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