Jemima Wilkinson (29 November 1758 - July 1, 1819) was a charismatic American Quaker and evangelist. Wilkonson was born in Cumberland, Rhode Island to Quaker parents. When suffering from a severe illness and in a fever, Wilkinson declared they had died and were sent from heaven, reincarnated as a prophet known as the Public Universal Friend, who was neither male nor female. They called themself the Universal Friend and preached the Ten Commandments and sexual abstinence to followers forming what they called the "Society of Universal Friends." These terms were probably borrowed from The Quakers who were also called the Society of Friends.
Wilkinson preached and traveled in New England, where she was generally rejected by traditional Quakers. The Universal Friends settled for a time in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the temporary national capital and a city with a sizable Quaker community. There they attracted followers. In 1790, The Society moved to western New York, to settle on land newly purchased from the dispossessed Seneca people. Most of the Seneca and other Iroquois peoples had been forced out of the state, having been allies of the British during the American Revolutionary War. Wilkinson and her followers founded Jerusalem, New York, since renamed as Penn Yan. It is located in Yates County at the north end of Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes region.
Early life and "resurrection"
Born in 1752 in Cumberland, Rhode Island as Jemima Wilkinson (born female), the Friend was the child of Amy (née Whipple) and Jeremiah Wilkinson. Their father was a cousin of the politician Stephen Hopkins. The family attended traditional worship with other Quakers at the Smithfield Meeting House. As a young person in the mid-1770s, Wilkinson also attended meetings with New Light Baptists, who were part of the Great Awakening, a religious revival ultimately reaching from New England into the South.
Upon recovering, Wilkinson claimed to have been sent by God to preach his message. They believed that Christ had entered their body during their illness and that they were now neither female nor male. (This is why this article refers to Wilkinson with the gender-neutral "they/them" pronouns.) Wilkinson believed that men and women were equals. Wilkinson claimed to be "a holy vessel of Jesus Christ and God and the Holy Spirit". They called themself the "Publick Universal Friend" and never again responded to the name Jemima.
The year "the Friend" began to speak publicly, Wilkinson was rejected by their Quaker brethren. Accompanied by several siblings, they began to travel and preach to other residents of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. During the 1780s, Wilkinson lived in Worcester, Massachusetts. They rode a white horse to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to preach, where there was a substantial Quaker community. The Friend attracted large audiences, including some who joined what Wilkinson called a congregation of "Universal Friends". The Universal Friends were accused of plagiarizing documents which had been written by members of the historic Society of Friends. Wilkinson's personal "seal" appears to have been adapted from that of the Quakers. Several Philadelphia newspapers condemned, exposed, and discredited Wilkinson's preaching. As a trans person in the 1770s, The Friend became a target for libel and slander. Wilkinson's brother's grandson, Jeptha Wilkinson, later invented the modern press wheel.
"Friend" Wilkinson preached a regimen of strict sexual abstinence, and friendship with everyone. They implored all to accept the Fatherhood of God. Wilkinson and their followers received many visitors, taking them in to show hospitality. Visitors were sometimes allowed to stay indefinitely, unless they took action against the Friends' teaching. Michael Bronski writes that by the "mid-1780s the popular press and pamphlet culture covered Wilkinson's sermons in detail and placed particular emphasis on their sexually ambiguous persona. Wilkinson had a huge following that verged on a cult and eventually started a religious settlement in central New York State."
Wilkinson and followers bought former Seneca lands from Robert Morris, a major financier in Philadelphia. He had purchased territory west of the Genesee River in New York State. In March 1790, they began a "group exodus" from Philadelphia, traveling upstream along the Susquehanna River through present-day Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania and Elmira, New York. On 13 April 1790, The Friend and their followers finally reached the north end of Keuka Lake. They named their new township Jerusalem. Later it was renamed as Penn Yan.
The Jemima Wilkinson House stands in Penn Yan, and it is included on the National Register of Historic Places, along with other Historic Places in Yates County. It is believed to be located on the same branch of Keuka Lake as the birthplace of the Seneca chief Red Jacket, but his birthplace is disputed.
- Hudson, David. History of Jemima Wilkinson: A Preacheress of the Eighteenth Century, p. ii APPENDIX, NO II
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- Rev. Israel Wilkinson, Memoirs of the Wilkinson Family in America, 1869; Brookhaven/Southhaven History
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- Moyer, Paul B. The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.
- Wisbey Jr, Herbert A. Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.
- The Friend's Society Index, US GenNet
- "Jemima Wilkinson: Celibacy and the Communal Life, The Re-Incarnation of the Divine in Female Form, 1758-1819", Crooked Lake Review.
- Jemima Wilkinson, "Last Will & Testament", Freepages, Rootsweb
- Social roots of the Mormon United Order, 2005
- "Incorporation Papers for Universal Friends", PBS History Detectives
- Claus Bernet (2002). "Jemima Wilkinson". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 20. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 1545–1553. ISBN 3-88309-091-3.