Jemima Wilkinson (1752-1819)
Jemima Wilkinson was born into a Quaker family in Cumberland, Rhode Island. Wilkinson was the eighth of twelve children. Her mother died in 1764, worn out by childbirth. Interested in religious theory, Wilkinson read the Bible and many Quaker books and also was interested in Christianity beyond Quaker beliefs. She was dismissed from the Quakers in 1776 for attending a meeting of a New Light Baptist group. Later that year, Wilkinson became ill with a nearly fatal fever. During this illness, Wilkinson had a vision that convinced her that she died and was sent back to Earth by God to preach to “lost and dying world. ” After recovering from her illness, she then began calling herself “Publick Universal Friend” and would answer to nothing else.
As the Universal Friend, Wilkinson preached a philosophy that was based on loving kindness and peaceful relationships with Native Americans and African Americans. The Friend also preached and practiced faith healing, dream interpretation and celibacy, though she did not require celibacy of anyone. Her mother’s death may have influenced her religious beliefs about celibacy, but she mainly attributed this belief to St. Paul, who advised against marriage if one could manage celibacy.
During the American Revolution and in the years after, the Friend traveled as a missionary in Rhode Island, eastern Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Philadelphia. She attracted followers of both lower and higher classes, including some wealthy landowners such as Judge William Potter of Rhode Island, who freed his slaves and gave up politics to follow her. He and other disciples financed many aspects of the Friend’s ministry and gave her and her followers places to stay and worship. Membership in her following was contingent on acceptance of her authority. Although she never really labeled her philosophy as a new sect of Christianity, many of her followers considered her a messiah. She never declared herself a messiah, but she did little to discourage such discussion. The ambiguity about her divinity and the similarity of her preaching to Quaker beliefs allowed a wide acceptance of her philosophies.
In 1788, about 260 of her followers bought land in the Genesee country of western New York State and created a communal settlement there. This settlement was established based on preaching by the Friend of an ideal place where the faithful could be free of the temptations of the “wicked world. ” The Friend and another hundred or so followers moved there in 1790 and later established the township of Jerusalem. After her death in July of 1819, the settlement continued for a little over a decade. However, her followers lacked a new charismatic leader, and celibacy naturally causes a declining membership in such utopias. The group gradually disintegrated.
Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr. “Wilkinson, Jemima,” in volume 3 of Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, eds. Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 609.