By Rowan Wilson
In 1776, a 23-year-old Rhode Island Quaker named Jemima Wilkinson fell gravely ill. Several days later, they recovered—miracle enough in a year where New England saw a number of epidemics course through its communities like forest fires. But at some point in those feverish few days, they claimed, something more remarkable had happened. They had ‘met the Shock of Death’, ascended to heaven, and their earthly body had been reanimated by the spirit of a genderless evangelist called the Public Universal Friend.
My response when I first came across a description of the Friend that ran along these lines—confusion, fascination, even exhilaration at the ecstatic strangeness of it all – was one shared by many of their contemporaries. In the next few decades, the Friend, who never again answered to the name Jemima, would amass a following as devoted as their detractors were fierce. And always at the center of their ministry was their own slippery otherworldliness, the intractable, inexpressible, inescapably queer body that, in their own words, ‘God had prepared, for the spirit to dwell in’.
The problem of language, so often at issue when the present looks back at historical queerness, becomes apparent as soon as we start to think about the Friend. How do you write about a person who was by their own report an agender resurrected prophet, with a whole constellation of names, whose response to questions about their identity, according to a contemporary observer, was to say simply ‘“I am that I am?’” Their 1964 biographer Herbert Wiseby referred to them insistently, familiarly, as Jemima, and used she/her pronouns. A more recent biographer, Paul Moyer, uses she/her pronouns when speaking about outsider perceptions of ‘Wilkinson’, and he/him pronouns to refer to the ‘Universal Friend’, the identity constructed by the prophet and the community around them. I use they/them pronouns, both because this feels true to the Friend’s self-identification as ‘neither man nor woman’ and because it gestures towards the plurality of modes that they used, as part of what Scott Larson calls their ‘theological performances of gender.’ But don’t think any of these options entirely compass what the Friend was, or what they affected to be. Even their followers struggled to negotiate the gap between their faith in the Friend and contemporary language conventions: after they died, the Friend’s will was contested in court up to the 1830s, because, as a document without a worldly name and signed instead with ‘the new name which the mouth of the Lord hath named’, it was taken as fraud under New York law.
The difficulty of finding language to frame the Friend shouldn’t alienate us from conversations about their history. It’s better seen as instructive, an extension of the disorienting, destabilizing effects of their gender performance. Contemporaries and historians have both noted that the actual creed of the Friend was nothing special, or certainly nothing innovative: little more, in the end, than a sparse collation of Quaker conventions with a dash of New Light theology and Millenarian doom thrown in for good measure. A God-seeking New Englander at the turn of the 19th century might find this kind of thought anywhere. What the cult of the Universal Friend uniquely offered was the living creed of its central figure’s body, with its strange surfeit of gender signifiers. The Friend mixed male and female, secular and clerical clothing, had features that shifted from masculine ‘handsomeness’ to a delicate feminine beauty depending on who was looking, and preached in a curious high/low double-voice, at once ‘very grum and shrill for a Woman’. Their body became—or was constructed as—‘Public’, endlessly dissected as proof either of madness, fraud, or, for believers, divine otherworldliness. In the minds of the faithful, the Friend’s queer gender performance took them beyond the realm of the familiar—they became, almost, one of the company of marvelous figures found in the community’s dream records, a genderless prophet standing among ten-foot-tall angels dressed head-to-toe in scarlet, grey-skinned grooms, and indescribable cosmic messengers.
The Friend worked to reinscribe the world around them, cutting through the language of convention, finding scope to articulate their own otherness and that of the outcasts (the Friend’s community contained disproportionately large numbers of unmarried women and ex-slaves) who were closest to them. Nothing exemplifies this more for me than the image, or maybe the demand, that comes up over and over in the writings of the community. In their first vision of the opening of the heavens, the Friend heard angels crying ‘Room, Room, Room, in the many Mansions of eternal glory for Thee and for everyone’. Their brother, watching by their bed in that fever-dank room, would years later recall hearing the Friend repeat ‘“There is room enough’” as they wove in and out of consciousness. Sarah Richards, one of the Friend’s chief disciples, records among her many dream narratives one in which an angel descends to free her from a mob and opens a door in her house ‘so high they [the mob] could not reach it’ before bearing her off to the sky. Another dream sees the Friend themselves at the head of a procession of the faithful, kicking down doors: at the wave of their hand the walls of the city of an evil ‘Emperor’, like Jericho, ‘tumble’d down and the towers falling headlong Crushed vast numbers’, before the Friends marched through the blasted columns into the Emperor’s ‘Pallice’.
The scale of the visions may differ, but the underlying thought is the same. The Friends are imaginatively carving out space for themselves, obliterating old territorial boundaries and the authorities that sanction them, finding doors where there were none before. They are making concrete the Friend’s insistence that heaven was open—or would be made open—to all with faith. These look to us as modern readers like radical restructurings from the margins, testaments of a theology that didn’t just accommodate but actively constructed ‘Room’ around difference.
The first time I read that cry of ‘Room, Room, Room’, I felt it like a kind of rapture. The world works to make LGBT people feel like trespassers: they constantly risk abuse in public spaces, are regularly forced to leave their homes, and are deported back to countries where they face persecution with unconscionable frequency. Set against this, a queer prophet’s vision of boundless holy space ‘for Thee and for everyone’ is sharply moving. It’s easy to forget, in the keenness of that redemptive feeling, that holy ‘Room’ wasn’t just an abstraction for the Friend.
After a series of testing visits to Philadelphia in the 1780s, the community’s later history is dominated by their move to New York. The Friend’s vision was of a New Jerusalem in the wilderness, rising out of the hacked-down remains of an ‘unkempt landscape’, as Moyer calls it. And though they eventually established a populous community there, the reality was one of struggle: years of haggling over soil rights, legal squabbles both inside and outside the group, all the exhaustions and frustrations and indignities of settler life in Revolutionary America. Throughout this time the Friends in New York were interrogating the concept of ‘Room’, of who deserves to take up space, and which space they can claim. Their property disputes pose questions that we as historians must also critically consider.
The area of New York to which the Friends moved had long been part of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) homeland. Less than a decade before the Friends purchased their first tract of land, American forces under Washington had laid waste to Haudenosaunee territory, paving the way for an influx of colonizers from all across the nation. The Friends saw themselves as creating something out of nothing: in reality, they were creating something out of violent displacement. By 1790 they had become the largest non-Native community in western New York, home to almost a fifth of the region’s white inhabitants. They played an active part in reshaping the region’s demographics and restructuring its land use customs to reflect white interests.
In 1794 the prominence of the community in the region was such that the Friend was called on to preach at the negotiations for the Treaty of Canandaigua. Exactly what they preached isn’t documented, but we do have a record of the response of three unnamed Seneca women, delivered by their chief Red Jacket: ‘that the white people had been the cause of all the Indians’ distresses; that they had pressed and squeezed them together… That one of the white women had yesterday told the Indians to repent; and they now called the white people to repent for they had as much need as the Indians, and that they should wrong the Indians no more.’
This account of Natives ‘pressed and squeezed’, and of the ideological complicity of the ‘white woman’ in their oppression, puts a grim gloss on the Friend’s notion of ‘Room’ as lived out on earth. We’re not speaking here of the ‘many Mansions of eternal glory’, doors in the sky, trumpet blasts. The Friends made their home in finite, earthly space, on ground that had been razed to make way for their arrival. Striving to exist beyond the constraints of worldly convention didn’t extricate the Friend from oppressive systems: as Scott Larson writes, ‘the Friend’s history warns that “beyondness” can ground colonizing ventures by imagining the beyond as an empty space available for new formations.’ The story of the Friend isn’t, or isn’t solely, a story of transgressive bodies redeemed, reclaimed and renamed as holy. It’s also cause to reflect on the nature of theology in practice, on the demands of living a faith and living as faith, and on the challenges and obligations that come with any genuine claim to ‘Universal’ friendship.
Scott Larson, ‘“Indescribable Being”: Theological Performances of Genderlessness in the Society of the Publick Universal Friend, 1776-1819’ (2014)
Paul B. Moyer, The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America (2015)
Elizabeth Reis, Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex (2009)
Herbert A. Wiseby, Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend (1964)