Today we tell the story of the first OUT queer person to form a religion in America. And they also happened to be one of the first openly non-binary people in our budding nation. So let’s head back to America in the mid 1700’s. The colonies were quickly heading towards a clash with their rulers. After settlers had wrought a bloody massacre on the east coastal Indigenous people, they suddenly turned on their British masters. Of course we cannot ignore the audacity of white settlers to slaughter and enslave the natives of the land and then cry for freedom from their own chains. But this story isn’t about the abhorrence of colonialism. Instead we chose a lighter subject and decided to go with the completely uncontroversial topic of religion.
Truly though, the American colonies were bursting at the seams as immigrants poured onto the newly controlled territory. By the 1750’s over 1 million colonizers had settled on U.S. soil, which was 1/6th the size of Britain’s population. An incredible statistic for such a young and newly populated colony. The promise of wealth and adventure was definitely a draw for early white explorers. But soon the focus shifted to a different motivation as immigrants realized the possibility of religious freedom in the colonies. The mid 1700s to late 1800’s was an especially fertile time for new religion in America. Around 1730 the first Great Awakening took place. This was a series of religious revivals that swept the nation for the next 40 years. Changing much of American lifestyle at the time and setting the stage for the Evangelical leanings of today.
So it should be no surprise that an individual born into this era would grow up having such strong religious ties. On November 29, 1752 in Cumberland, Rhode Island the Wilkinson family had a baby. The assigned the baby female and gave them the name Jemima. The infant was the eighth child born to the family and would eventually become one of twelve. The large family was part of the Society of Friends; known most commonly today as Quakers. Jemima’s father Jeremiah had long been a member of the Smithfield sect. Traditions and beliefs of the Society have varied and changed throughout the years and from group to group. In the first American settlements, women held high positions in Quaker culture. Which was almost unheard of in any other white towns and settlements The Quaker women preached and held authority on public councils. It wasn’t until the 1670’s when some men became so upset about feminine leadership that the Society suffered a major split. Half of the Quakers followed a strictly male dominated leadership and half continued to value and respect women.
But it was through this Quaker influence that Jemima felt emboldened to explore their identity and power. When they were around 13 their mother Amy died after giving birth to the families 12th child. Jemima stepped up and helped with family chores, being especially impartial to animals. Their love for horses would remain throughout their life. Jemima was an exceptional horse rider and enjoyed the challenges of taming and caring for the animals.There are conflicting reports from different biographers of Wilkinson. Concerning their gender expression during Jemima’s younger years. One author claimed that Jemima preferred feminine clothing and finer things. But another gruffly disputes this account and asserts that Jemima was always fluid in their attire and expression.
As Jemima grew older the weight of a nation in chaos bore down on the Wilkinson family. The colonies drew closer to war and British soldiers filled the ports. Forcing themselves into the colonizers homes, marching through the streets with loaded guns, and intimidating the rebels into submission. In 1776 Jemima’s sister Patience was banished from the Society of Friends for having an illegitimate child. A few months later two of their brothers were banished for joining the American Militia. Struggling to find answers and reeling from the mounting pressures, Jemima attended a few local Baptist meetings. This betrayal of the Quaker faith was enough to get them banished from the Society as well.
In October of ‘76 Jemima became deathly ill with what historians believe was typus. An ugly disease that gives the ill person a high fever, headache, and a full body rash. It was one of the most feared diseases of the colonies during this time and often resulted in a coma and eventually death. For several days the young 24 year old struggled to stay alive. Finally the fever broke and with it a new spiritual revelation. The newly healed individual claimed to have died and been born again into a genderless body. They stated that the soul of Jemima Wilkinson had ascended into heaven and in its place the angels had sent the Public Universal Friend.
Immediately there was excitement and outrage over this audacious claim. The Friend no longer responded to the name Jemima Wilkinson or the pronouns ‘she’. Instead they either avoided pronouns or used and responded to they/them during their personal life. However, in their religious profession they would allow male pronouns to be used. And this was more due to the pressure from followers for the Friend to identify as a man rather than as a genderless individual. In fact, this was a strong point of criticism by those who claim the Public Universal Friend was a transgender man or simply a woman conning everyone. Critics point to the fact that followers insisted on calling the Friend ‘he’ as a reference the Friends place in the Trinity. Yet followers do not address a feminine side of the Trinity and this is why critics say the Friends was not two genders, or all genders, but rather a single gender.
This is where we pause to address the great insult and disservice done to the friend by historians and biographers over the past 2 ½ centuries. Once the rebirth happened the Friend was very clear that they did NOT want to be addressed by their former name or female pronouns. When speaking of their former life they may use the name Jemima (which is why we used it in the first half of our script). However, after their spiritual awakening they no longer associated with that name nor a strictly femine expression. In fact, the Friend wore a very androdgynous look. Very neatly combining femine and masculilne attire and attributes into a fantastically non-binary expression. We have only one self portrait today, but through the painting and descriptions we see the effort put into avoiding conforming to any one gender. In every aspect from private diary entries, to public identity, to clothing expression the Friend insisted on non-binary terms.
Which is why it is frustrating that of the 3 biographies written about the Friend in the last 13 years, 2 of the books refer to the Friend as female. Using feminine pronouns, feminine terminology, and distorting the facts to justify this breach of an individual’s history. Some even going so far as to say that they were the ‘First Woman Preacher in America.’ But we do not honor history when we confine it to our limited perceptions. As a history podcast, we are happy for whoever was actually the first woman preacher. But the Friend was not that person, as they definitively defied the title. And it is wrong to ignore their wishes and erase queer history in order to add to anothers narrative.
But continuing our story of this non-binary or gender queer individual. Within days of their supposed resurrection the Friend (or P.U.F. as they were lovingly called by followers) held their first religious service. On October 13, 1776 they spoke on an open forum and split the local Quakers in two. Half of the group was enraged by the Friend’s so-called heresy. The other half were inspired by their courage and zealotry. Before long P.U.F. was traveling up and down New England and into Pennsylvania spreading their message to all who would hear. Gaining as much backlash as they did support. People were put off by the individual wearing a clergyman’s gown with a woman’s petticoat peeking out from underneath. P.U.F.’s hair fell in feminine ringlets to their shoulders and was covered on the top by a masculine broad brimmed hat.
Yet even though many could not explain the attire and identity of this engaging individual, crowds still thronged to hear the Friend speak. Their first real converts were their own family members. The Wilkinson children, most of which had been shunned by the Quaker community for one sin or another, all followed their siblings spiritual vision. By 1780 the Friend had acquired quite an assembly of believers. Almost all of whom were white, under 40, and on the outs with the Quaker community or similar faiths. And in 1783 the group officially called themselves ‘The Universal Friends”. But as the religion grew so did their notoriety as did the public outcry.
In 1788, several newspapers in Pennsylvania began to publish critical accounts of the Friend and their following. As a whole, the beliefs of the Universal Friends did not vary much from standard Quaker teachings. The Friend and their followers preached love and acceptance which was contrasted with similar sermons about judgment and repentance. They also advocated hard against slavery and were responsible for several people freeing their slaves. No doubt this earned the Universal Friends a good bit more hostility. As the new country was currently debating whether black people deserved that “All men are created equal” clause. Turns out the country would decide a year later that, in fact, Jefferson had misspoke when he said ALL MEN. He only meant white men.
But even with the advocacy against slavery aside, it is certain that the main cause for attack against the Universal Friends was over their genderless leader. Which is why large crowds began to gather outside of the meetings and harass the congregation. So in 1790 the small group relocated to a parcel of land they had purchased in the New York wilderness. A large house for the Friend and a few of their closest confidants was built and still stands to this day. A long winding staircase bears a large landing that almost juts out like a platform. The first floor entryway and the wide hallway of the second floor would be filled with parishioners. P.U.F. would stand on the landing and preach to the congregation every Sunday. The rest of the New York land was divided evenly among the followers, around 260 people. They called the settlement New Jerusalem. It was P.U.F.’s wish that everyone in New Jerusalem have equal access and equal privilege.
The preaching and practice of this equality is what drew so many women and queer/non-binary individuals to the Universal Friends. There were certainly many male identifying individuals who took part in the faith. And because of New York law, only men could be on the board of trustees. A necessary implementation for the purchase of the land. However, the true core leaders were the Friend and the Faithful Sisterhood. The Sisterhood was a combination of women and non-binary people who took the same vow of celibacy as the Friend and formed the inner most circle of the Universal Friends. While followers were not denied the rights of marriage and sex, the Friend taught that abstinence was the holiest of vows. So it was the Sisterhood’s advice and guidance which P.U.F. sought first when dealing with legal and social matters.
Yet even though the group was settled far away from most American civilization, trouble still followed. In 1799, several pious men enraged by the Friend and their teachings decided to take action. Three times that year they attempted to kidnap P.U.F. Which they called arrest but the attempts were illegal and therefore kidnapping. The first attempt came while P.U.F. was out riding. But since the Friend was so skilled at horse-back riding they escaped. The second attempt came shortly thereafter when two men showed up at P.U.F.’s house and tried to simply carry them out. The kidnappers were met with the fury of the Faithful Sisterhood and chased away.
The third arrest was actually legal and organized by a posse of 30 men. They raided the house at midnight, breaking down the door with an axe, and charging up the stairs in search of the Friend. But when they found the preacher P.U.F. was too ill to be taken away. Instead the Friend had to promise to show up in court in June of 1800. They were being tried for blasphemy. And if that term is not familiar to you it means: The act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things. But since the Friend taught most of what other religions taught – almost identically to Quaker religions in fact. The real so-called blasphemy was simply P.U.F.’s existence. So they agreed to show up in court to face the charges.
In June the Friend faced their rivals in court. One enemy in particular was Judge William Potter. Potter was family by marriage and had been a former convert of P.U.F’s. He had changed his ways upon hearing the Friend’s teachings and had been persuaded to free his 19 slaves. Yet the rough, pioneer life of New Jerusalem had left Potter angry and disillusioned. Particularly because he was the one footing most of the bills the Friend was accruing. After disputes among the residents and trustees over land ownership, Potter had left the commune. And now just a few years later he was pushing for the arrest and demise of his former spiritual mentor.
But favor was on the side of the Friend. In one of the first court rulings regarding religious liberty in the young country, P.U.F. won the case. The judge ruled that based on the newly adopted Constitution, religion could not be ruled on by the courts. The separation of church and state made this argument and religious matter and not legal one. The judge then invited the pastor to stand up and preach to the courtroom. We do not know what the Friend said, but we know the ruling was historic for religion and the Universal Friends. From that point on the congregation was mostly left alone by the outside world.
Over the next 19 years the Friend continued their work as leader of New Jerusalem. Here is where conflicting accounts arise. And they are made no easier to sort due to local news muddying the waters by deliberately spreading slander. There are stories of abuse of power by the Friend and New Jerusalem is often referred to as a cult. Many of these stories have been shot down by friends and followers of the Friend. Others have been supported by those who left the commune. It is a difficult topic to dissect because on the one hand one must wonder why people would leave all family and wealth behind to live in the wilderness. And on the other hand, one must understand that queer and marginalized people often find solace in the wilderness.
Sometime around 1816 the Friend was diagnosed with an edema (a painful retention of fluids around the arms or legs). They continued to give their weekly sermons but over the next two years their health steadily declined. In November of 1818 P.U.F. delivered their final message during the funeral of their sister Patience. The following year on July 1, 1819 the Friend passed away at age 61. Or as the death records stated “25 minutes past 2 on the Clock, The Friend went from here”. Following the death of their leader the Universal Friends began to dissolve as on dispute and charge after another was brought against the commune. Regardless, the Friend had charged that their wealth be liquidated and paid out to the fellow congregants. They had acquired enough wealth to pay out to survivors for the next 43 years.
In 1874 the final survivor of New Jerusalem passed away. But the legacy of the Universal Friends still lives on. Today the mansion where P.U.F. lived the last half of their life still exists and is listed as a National Historical Site. It is located in New York’s Jerusalem Township in the town of Friends. There is also a display of the Friends artifacts and items belonging to the Universal Friends in a museum in Yates County, New York. And most importantly, the Friend left behind a legacy that empowered women into leadership and which inspired followers into faith. But also, that blazed a trail of hope for the non-binary and gender queer community.
Your recommended resource is The Public Universal Friend; Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America by Paul Moyer. We do want to warn that this book is not completely non-binary friendly. Though it is the most recent and accurate account of P.U.F.s life. There are several other books printed about the Friend; however, most refer to them strictly in female pronouns and descriptions. Hopefully as time goes on we will find more accurate portrayals of queer people. After all, that is the entire purpose of this podcast.
- The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America” by Paul Moyer
- NB Wiki – https://nonbinary.wiki/wiki/Public_Universal_Friend
- Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Universal_Friend
- Q Spirit – https://qspirit.net/jemima-wilkinson-queer-preacher/
- PBS Doc – https://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/video/1579336059/
- Religion in early america – http://www.thearda.com/timeline/tlRank1to2.asp
- Crooked Lake – https://www.crookedlakereview.com/books/saints_sinners/martin5.html
- ‘A Queer History of the United States’ by Michael Bronski