Jemima Wilkinson, Elusive Messiah by Robert Boucheron

Jemima Wilkinson (1752-1819) was born in Cumberland, Rhode Island of Quaker parents, the eighth of twelve children. When she was about twelve years old, her mother died after giving birth. These facts might go far to explain Wilkinson’s career as a revivalist preacher, advocate of celibacy, leader of a millennial sect, and founder of a utopian community. Or they might not. Called the first American-born woman to found a religious group, Wilkinson is a rare figure in the history of faith, and one of the most elusive.

Starting two years after her death, Wilkinson has been the subject of books, articles, chapters and more. In 1821, David Hudson published the History of Jemima Wilkinson, a Preacheress of the Eighteenth Century, Containing an Authentic Narrative of Her Life and Character, and of the Rise, Progress and Conclusion of her Ministry. While entertaining, in the skeptical manner of folk humor or of Gibbon’s treatment of Christianity, Hudson’s book is unreliable as to fact and meaning. Yet it gained lasting influence, partly from the refusal of Wilkinson’s followers to defend her.

Wilkinson herself published only a doctrinal pamphlet in 1794. Famously, she renamed herself the Universal Friend, and was referred to simply as the Friend. She appears as a footnote to the contemporary Shakers, even as an imitator of their founder Mother Ann Lee, in books by Mark Holloway (1951) and John H. Martin (2005). The television History Detectives searched for her in 2010. In his 2011 book, A Queer History of the United States, Michael Bronski claims Wilkinson as a “transgender evangelist.”

Who was Jemima Wilkinson? Since her personal appearance was a large part of her appeal, here is a description “as related in 1890 by Mrs. Huldah Barnes Davis,” from childhood memory:

“The Friend was in appearance tall and imposing with regular features, bright black eyes, and black hair which was combed back from her forehead, and worn in long ringlets about her shoulders. Her outside dress consisted on all occasions of a robe of some fine texture with wide sleeves. About her neck she wore a silk cloth, arranged in plaits on her breast in front. On her head a beaver hat was generally worn, after the manner of the Quakers.”

From portraits and other descriptions, we learn that the robe was black, the cravat was white, and the general effect was that of any preacher of the time, which is to say, male. She insisted on clean clothes, bathed often, ate in the privacy of her own room, and was a capable horsewoman, all of which were noteworthy in her lifetime. To return to Mrs. Davis, Wilkinson was “a woman of an active disposition, and would not hesitate…to work up a log into firewood. She would also assist in plucking live geese, pick berries, hoe and weed her garden, and perform other work about her premises.” Chopping wood was a man’s chore, and the implication is that Wilkinson behaved like a man.

A better researcher than Hudson and less biased, Herbert A Wisbey, Jr. wrote Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Friend, published in 1964 by Cornell University, and reissued in paperback in 2009. This book offers the best approach to Wilkinson, along with the primary sources and objects preserved in western New York where she settled. Her house still stands there, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She is a local hero, and descendants of her followers live in the area.

Little is known of Wilkinson’s early life in Rhode Island, except that she grew up on a farm and had little formal education. Even so, she was a great reader, and her retention was excellent. She later recited Bible passages from memory, and her preaching echoed works published at the time. She absorbed the Quaker doctrine of “inner light,” and in later years never strayed far from Quaker teaching. She was influenced by recurring waves of Christian revival, starting with the Great Awakening of 1740, the preaching of George Whitefield (1714-1770), and the arrival of Ann Lee from England in 1774.

In August of 1776, Wilkinson joined a New Light Baptist group, an action that got her expelled from the local Quaker meeting. On October 4, 1776, she fell seriously ill. The nature of the illness is unclear. It may have been a fever, she may have gone into a coma, and the crisis may have lasted a few hours or three days. When she awoke, Wilkinson stated that she had died, gone to heaven, conversed with the angels there, and was sent back to earth as a new spirit. She was now the “Publick Universal Friend,” the second messenger of God.

From this point on, Wilkinson told people not to use the feminine pronouns “she” and “her” but to address her as the Friend. On October 13, she began to preach. She donned the clerical costume that she wore for the rest of her life, and won as her first converts members of her family. She traveled and preached in Rhode Island, and then in Massachusetts and Connecticut. She rode a white horse, and her followers walked behind her two by two.

Much of Wilkinson’s story thus far recalls other conversion stories. Christians refer above all to St. Paul on the road to Damascus, where he had a vision, fell from his horse, was struck blind, and changed his name from Saul. The illness or physical suffering may be psychosomatic, caused by spiritual turmoil, or the change in spirit may be brought on by the near approach of death. Wilkinson interpreted her experience in a way that inevitably led to controversy.

Wisbey says that Wilkinson offered no new theology. Critics in her lifetime accused her of plagiarism, so closely did she stick to her models. The meetings she led were Quaker in style, without sacraments, but with spontaneous speaking by members of the congregation. The Friend gave a sermon lasting about one hour, without notes. Her message was the terror of hell, the dreadful nature of sin, the coming millennium, the redemptive power of faith, and the spiritual benefit of doing good works. Her style was like that of other revivalists, full of emotion and exhortation. Like the Quakers, she opposed slavery and emphasized the equality of all believers, including equality of race and sex.

In November of 1778, Wilkinson met a wealthy landowner named William Potter, then aged 57. Potter was well known in Rhode Island, an elected judge, and a supporter of the American revolutionary cause. He had a household of 27, including 11 slaves. According to Wisbey, Potter had a son who was mentally ill, and whose condition improved as a result of Wilkinson’s faith healing. In 1779, Potter became a convert. He freed some of his slaves, and he built a 14-room addition to his house for Wilkinson and her retinue. Detractors then and later speculated on the personal relationship of the single woman and the widower. But Wilkinson consistently preached celibacy as a higher state of grace, and there is no evidence that she ever had a sexual affair, male or female.

In 1780, Wilkinson predicted the arrival of the millennium on April 1. That date came and went, but a solar eclipse on May 18 added to her credibility. In 1782, she visited Philadelphia, where she preached at the Free Quaker Meeting House. (Free Quakers were those who believed that fighting on behalf of the American Revolution was permissible, while Quakers in general have denounced warfare.) At first, Wilkinson was welcomed, but claims by her followers that she was “Christ in Female Form” and the “Messiah Returned” provoked opposition. She was stoned at one meeting. She returned to Rhode Island, then moved to the country west of Philadelphia, where another wealthy farmer provided her with a home in Worcester, PA. Her group incorporated as “The Society of Universal Friends” in 1783, and they grew in numbers.

In 1787 or perhaps earlier, Wilkinson sent scouts including her younger brother Jephtha to look for land where they might establish a new settlement. The men headed north up the Susquehanna River, into the Indian territory of what would become western New York State. Like the Shakers, the new sect attracted hostility for their celibate lifestyle, communal property, and enthusiastic worship. And like other utopian groups, they hoped to escape worldly influence by removing to the wilderness. Wilkinson’s agents bought a tract of land west of Lake Seneca, and in 1788 they began to clear virgin forest, build log cabins, and plant fields.

The place chosen was the outlet of Lake Keuka, where the fall in water level allowed the erection of a grist mill. (This is now the town of Penn Yan, NY.) The mill proved profitable, as other white settlers arrived and needed a place to grind their grain. In March of 1790, enough progress had been made for Wilkinson to start north by riverboat from Wilkes-Barre, PA. At what is now Elmira, NY, she transferred to a carriage and traveled overland for 15 days. She arrived at a settlement that numbered about 60 families, or 250-300 people. She moved into the first frame house, added to one of the log cabins. This house has disappeared, but the carriage is in the Oliver House museum in Penn Yan, along with her hat, sidesaddle, Bible, and papers.

The settlement was troubled by internal dissention, lawsuits brought by people who left, and especially by a defect in land title. The area was disputed between Massachusetts and New York, and as often happened on the frontier where land speculation was rife, the seller was fraudulent. To ensure their legal future, in 1794 the group bought 23,000 acres northwest of Lake Keuka, twelve miles west of their original settlement. There they established the township of Jerusalem, with 1,400 acres given to the Universal Friend.

By this time, Judge Potter had become disenchanted. He and others sued to reclaim their investment, but the courts ruled for the Society of Universal Friends. In another attack, Wilkinson was accused of blasphemy in 1800, but the judge declared that he could not try a religious charge, thus upholding the principle of separation of church and state. It may also be that by this time, Wilkinson and her loyal followers had acquired enough local respect and social status to withstand legal challenges.

In 1808, the Jerusalem group began construction of a mansion for their leader, a 2½-story wood frame house that was completed in 1815. Privately owned, this is the house that is listed as a historic site. Wilkinson lived here for the rest of her life with several unmarried women, as a kind of matron, advisor, and healer. She preached from the stair landing to people in the first floor rooms. She treated the Genesee Indians with respect, and they trusted her. In a note to Chapter VII of his book, Wisbey writes:

“Jemima Wilkinson always ate in her own room, sometimes alone and sometimes with Rachel Malin or a special guest. She had her own pewter dishes and table service marked with the initials U. F. No one else used her dishes or utensils. She never ate pork.”

Toward the end of her life, Wilkinson suffered from dropsy, unable to walk. She died July 1, 1819, or in the phrasing of the sect, she “left time.” Her body was kept in a specially constructed basement vault for some years, in the expectation that she would rise again. It was then buried in a secret location. Without her charismatic leadership, the community did not survive. By 1839, it was legally dissolved and its property distributed.

If Wilkinson had written more, or if one of her followers had been a gifted observer and writer, we might have a better grasp of what she believed and what she taught. As it is, we are left to wonder. Did her mother’s early death prompt her to shun sex, marriage and child-bearing? Was her striking personal appearance a way of asserting her role as preacher, at the cost of her role as a woman? Did she avoid pork because the Messiah was bound by Jewish dietary law?

Unlike some religious leaders, Wilkinson did not train or appoint a successor. Did she believe that her purpose was fulfilled? What place did Rachel Malin hold in her life, spiritual or secular? As with the Shakers, do we see here a homegrown American version of celibate society, or a feminist ahead of her time, or simply a unique individual, with her own preferences and talents? To quote Mrs. Davis once more:

“The two Malin sisters came from Philadelphia. Margaret Malin was more robust in appearance than Rachel, who seemed to be of a delicate constitution. In manner they were very sociable, and were also very generous in disposition. They inherited The Friend’s place according to a will made by The Friend about a year before her decease.”

It should be noted that Wilkinson and her sect were not alone. Western New York came to be known as the “burned-over district” from the number of religious revival movements that swept through in the early 1800s. Joseph Smith (1805-1844) led one of these, a group now known as the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps the Friend’s lasting legacy, in addition to the example she set, is that she contributed to the ferment and free-thinking of the new republic, a folk movement that produced distinctly American forms of religious belief, and that continues today.

Robert Boucheron
Robert Boucheron is an architect and freelance writer. His academic degrees are Harvard, B.A. 1974 and Yale, M.Arch. 1978. At Harvard, he studied poetry composition with Elizabeth Bishop, and won the Sargent Prize for translation from Latin. Since 1987, he has lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he writes on housing, gardens, communities, and the people who build them. His articles, fiction and poems have appeared in the Advocate, Albemarle, Baffler, Classical Outlook, C-Ville Weekly, Echo, Hellas, Inform, New England Review, New York Native, Northern Virginia, Piedmont Virginian, Prime Number, and Real Estate Weekly.

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