Yesterday was Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual celebration of transgender, nonbinary, and other gender-variant persons and their contributions to society. While many usually highlight living transgender people on that day, the public still knows very little about historical gender-variance. Therefore, this week we will give tribute to a transgender American religious leader born in 1752 whose story of gender-nonconformity and prophethood gives much context to the Revolutionary Period of American history. It is a story about rejection, resurrection, and revolution: the story of the Public Universal Friend.
(A note about pronouns: contemporaries usually referred to the Public Universal Friend with masculine pronouns or avoided pronouns, opting to use “the Friend” or “P.U.F.” While the use of the pronouns “they/them” have been used informally to refer to singular persons for centuries, including in the time of Wilkinson/the Friend, it is only in recent years that the convention has begun to be formalized. For this piece, we will use feminine pronouns to refer to Jemima Wilkinson and modern gender-neutral pronouns for the Public Universal Friend, since followers considered the two to be distinct entities -- the former a woman, and the latter a genderless being.)
Assigned female at birth, Jemima Wilkinson grew up in the Quaker religious community of Rhode Island during a time of passionate spiritual revival and experimentation. With the Quaker community in her area increasingly insular and concerned with membership purity, Wilkinson began to explore other spiritual traditions and trends. By her early 20s, Wilkinson was starting to attend services of the New Light Baptists, a new religious sect inspired by the Great Awakening spiritual movement. The New Light Baptists rebelled against traditional sources of authority, including old church hierarchies and civil authorities, instead emphasizing the primacy of the Bible and the cultivation of a personal relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. In principle, Quaker theology also highly regarded the individual relationship with God and the importance of every person’s “inner light,” but the vigorous energy and excitement around the New Light services stood in stark contrast to the somber and stilted atmosphere of Quaker services of the time. This spiritual exploration and other behaviors deemed unacceptable resulted in Wilkinson and some of her other family members from being expelled from the Quaker community in 1776.
It was a tumultuous and uncertain time for the Thirteen Colonies. Colonists mostly in New England had been waging one rebellion after another against British authority for years: protests against the Sugar Act in 1764, the Stamp Act in 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767-1768, and of course, the Tea Act of 1773, which prompted the famous Boston Tea Party. In 1774, Parliament passed the so-called Intolerable Acts in order to discipline the colonists after the immense property destruction caused by the Boston Tea Party. Frustrations were boiling over, rebellion was in the air, and many colonists were starting to interrogate basic assumptions about people, society, and authority. The next year, colonists were already fighting battles against British soldiers in Massachusetts, and in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was made and a Continental Army formed.
On October 5, 1776, Wilkinson fell severely ill with a sickness thought to have been brought to the area by the Continental Navy ship Columbus -- a fairly common occurrence in colonial Rhode Island. But while all others either eventually recovered or simply succumbed to disease, something peculiar seemed to happen to Jemima Wilkinson. After being bedridden and feverish for days, Wilkinson suddenly arose, apparently fully recovered, but proclaiming that the soul of Jemima Wilkinson had died and ascended to Heaven. In her place, God had allegedly instilled Wilkinson’s body with a divine spirit neither male nor female to be a holy servant: the Public Universal Friend. The Jemima Wilkinson name was abandoned, and the Public Universal Friend wasted no time in enacting their divine mission.
Regardless of how we conceive of gender today, it is clear that the Friend was convinced of their own transformation. At no point for the rest of their life did the Friend deviate from the new persona, consistently defending their identity as a divine genderless entity. The Friend kept few personal possessions and no real fortune. They spoke in an ambiguously deep, sonorous voice. They adopted androgynous dress: men’s hats and unique neck kerchiefs somewhat similar to masculine trends of the time, but also long hair and long flowing garments of their own design, halfway between clerical robes and gender-neutral morning gowns. In a society in which gender and style of dress was an essential conveyer of social standing, the Public Universal Friend’s ambiguous appearance confounded many.
The Public Universal Friend almost immediately began preaching, giving speaking tours around Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania to growing numbers of followers, many of whom had also been cast out by the Society of Friends (the official name for the Quakers). Much of the content of the Friend’s spiritual message was not too dissimilar from many other group’s beliefs. Unsurprisingly, the Friend borrowed much from Quaker theology, while also incorporating their charismatic leadership and millenarian apocalyptic prophecies drawn from the Great Awakening: a belief in free will over predestination, the equal value of all humans’ inner lights in the eyes of God, and an imminent apocalypse for which all must prepare. The result was a mix of doctrines familiar enough to both ex-Quakers and New Light adherents to attract a decent following of men and women, including some prominent members of society. But the Public Universal Friend also emphasized some of the more radical implications of these doctrines: the abolition of slavery and inclusion of Black followers at services, the rejection of traditional patriarchal authority, and universal hospitality regardless of faith or background. By 1790, the Friend and their followers, the Society of Universal Friends (not to be confused with the Society of Friends, a.k.a. Quakers) had bought land from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), founded a settlement in western New York, and put the land in trust. In their new home, woman-leaders took charge and became particularly prominent in the community. During the tense post-war negotiations between the new United States government and the Haudenosaunee (who had largely sided with the British), the Friend was the only American non-man who attended and spoke during the talks. The Friend gave a sermon, translated by an interpreter, to both the American men and the Haudenosaunee men and women in attendance. Speaking about the importance of love and peace between peoples, the Friend impressed the Haudenosaunee, and may have been a major contributing factor for them to agree to the landmark Treaty of Canandaigua.
Detractors had disrespectfully questioned and rejected the Public Universal Friend’s gender, unique dress, and spiritual sincerity from the moment the Friend announced themself. Others spread false rumors of violence and charlantry. Some of the confusion and suspicion has continued over the centuries, with one book as recently published as in 1964 rejecting the Friend’s nonbinary gender identity in the very title: Pioneer Prophetess. Modern gender conceptions are still in flux, and were far less developed in 1964, but then and now, gender is largely known and expressed through performance: how one dresses, speaks, and behaves. The Friend deliberately blended traditional masculine and feminine features in attire and mannerisms to forge a wholly unique gender identity that was inseparable from their identity as a divine prophet.
Today, we can remember the Public Universal Friend as an early American example of a nonbinary transgender leader, well before those terms were invented. The Friend arose in the wake of a society-shaking religious movement, in the middle of an uncertain political revolution, and at the start of a massive war. Some even to this day have accused the Public Universal Friend of simply being a character Jemima Wilkinson invented to break from patriarchal notions of gendered work, which at the time excluded women from the pulpit. Wilkinson, these accusers claim, simply took advantage of the revolutionary spirit of the time that forced so many to question basic assumptions of their lives. But regardless of the Friend’s sincerity with regards to prophethood, the sincerity of their nonbinary gender seems genuine. The Public Universal Friend died on July 1, 1819, and was ultimately buried in an unmarked grave according to their wishes. Having been centered around a charismatic leader, the Society of Universal Friends dwindled and eventually fell into obscurity, although some descendants still live in the area today and still keep old stories, if not artifacts, from the time when the Friend was with them.
May the tumultuous and historic times we are currently experiencing force us to question some of our society’s basic assumptions. May we see in our own time prophets of peace, love, and spiritual rebellion blend tradition with modern thinking to explore new ways of being and to reveal what is possible in the world. May we all be inspired by this truly unique figure who carved out a seemingly impossible existence through religious conviction and community-building. And let us recognize, through our own still-developing conceptions of gender that transgender, nonbinary, and gender-variant persons have always been here.
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Larson, Scott. “‘Indescribable Being’: Theological Performances of Genderlessness in the Society of the Publick Universal Friend, 1776-1819.” Early American Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, 2014, pp. 576–600. Beyond the Binaries: Critical Approaches to Sex and Gender in Early America (Fall 2014).
Moyer, Paul B. The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America. Cornell University Press, 2015.
Wisbey, Jr., Herbert A. Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend. Cornell University Press, 1964.
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