Jemima Wilkinson

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Image of Jemima from David Hudson's History of Jemima Wilkinson (1821)

Jemima Wilkinson (29 November 1752 - July 1, 1819)[1] was a charismatic American Quaker and evangelist. Based in Rhode Island, following a severe illness, she claimed a role as a religious prophet. She preached the Ten Commandments and total sexual abstinence to followers forming what she called the "Society of Universal Friends." Wilkinson had grown up in a Quaker family; their religion was historically called the Society of Friends.

Wilkinson preached and traveled in New England, where she was generally rejected by traditional Quakers. She settled for a time in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the temporary national capital and a city with a sizable Quaker community. There she attracted followers. In 1790 she and followers 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 at the north end of Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes region.

Early life and "resurrection"[edit]

Born in 1752 in Cumberland, Rhode Island, Jemima Wilkinson was the daughter of Amy (née Whipple) and Jeremiah Wilkinson. Her 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.

In 1776, a minor epidemic of typhoid spread throughout Rhode Island, and Wilkinson contracted the disease. She suffered a highly fevered state, leaving her bedridden and near death.

Upon recovering, Wilkinson claimed to have been sent by God to preach his message. She believed that Christ had entered her body during her illness and that she was now neither female nor male.[2] She claimed to be "a holy vessel of Jesus Christ and God and the Holy Spirit". Wilkinson said that she was the "Publick Universal Friend" and never again responded to her original birth name.[citation needed]

Preaching 1777-1790[edit]

Wilkinson's "Seal of the Universal Friend"

The year "the Friend" began to speak publicly, Wilkinson was rejected by her Quaker brethren. Accompanied by several siblings, she began to travel and preach to other residents of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. During the 1780s, she lived in Worcester, Massachusetts. She rode a white horse to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to preach, where there was a substantial Quaker community. She attracted large audiences, including some who joined what she 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.[3] As a woman taking on a public role in the late 1700s, the Friend became a target for libel and slander. Her brother's grandson, Jeptha Wilkinson, later invented the modern press wheel.[4]

"Friend" Wilkinson preached a regimen of strict sexual abstinence, and friendship with everyone. She implored all to accept the Fatherhood of God. She and her 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 her sexually ambiguous persona. Wilkinson had a huge following that verged on a cult and eventually started a religious settlement in central New York State.[5]"

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, she and her followers finally reached the north end of Keuka Lake.[6] They named their new township Jerusalem. Later it was renamed as Penn Yan.

The Friend and her followers were the first white people to settle on this land. Wilkinson claimed to have been called "Chief" by members of the Seneca tribe.[citation needed]


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,[7] but his birthplace is disputed.

Wilkinson's followers were European-American pioneers of the area between Seneca and Keuka lakes. They erected a grain mill at what developed as present-day Dresden, New York.


  1. ^ Hudson, David. History of Jemima Wilkinson: A Preacheress of the Eighteenth Century, p. ii APPENDIX, NO II
  2. ^ Bronski, Michael (2011). A Queer History of the United States. Xxx: Beacon Press. p. 50. ISBN 0807044652. 
  3. ^ Wisbey, Herbert A. Jr. Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend, Cornell University Press.
  4. ^ Rev. Israel Wilkinson, Memoirs of the Wilkinson Family in America, 1869; Brookhaven/Southhaven History
  5. ^ Bronski, Michael (2011). A Queer History of the United States. Xxx: Beacon Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0807044650. 
  6. ^ Pritchard, Ruth."THE VOICE THAT SPAKE AS NEVER MAN SPAKE" (WILKINSON, JEMIMA.), Swann Galleries
  7. ^ Davis, Miles Avery. HISTORY OF JERUSALEM, Vol. 2, p. 5

Further reading[edit]

  • Hinds, William Alfred Hinds. American Communities and Cooperative Colonies. [1902] Second Revision. Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1908.
  • Hudson, David. 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 (1821). online
  • 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.

External links[edit]