the public universal friend

a bit of queer history this week! the public universal friend is someone i’ve heard stories about here and there. i decided to do a deep dive and i found some super interesting stuff. enjoy, friends!


[00:00:00] Callie: Big shouts out to Stephanie and Imogen for becoming new patrons this week and to Big, Easy Blasphemy for a pledge increase this week. Thank you, friends. Love you lots. My name is Callie Wright and this is Queersplaining. I’m trying something a bit different this week. I don’t talk about history a ton, mostly because it involves a lot of research.

And I like telling stories about my life or hearing about other people’s life stories from those people. But I ran across a person in history, I just haven’t been able to stop thinking about. And so I’m doing a history episode. It’s a different thing for the show and I hope you like it. You do let me know.

Cause there are other people like this that I think should be more well known in the queer community than they are. A quick note. Before I get started, this story involves a person that today we would almost certainly call nonbinary. It was clear he used, he him pronouns for himself after his rebirth.

But he also freely referred to his past life with his birth name and she, her pronouns. So I’ve written the story in that way, since it seems to match the narrative this person had for himself. Okay. Here we go.

October. 1776 Cumberland Rhode Island. Jemima Wilkinson was a 23 year old with a taste for fine clothes. She was said to be beautiful, quote, her complexion, good, her eye, black and remarkably brilliant her hair, black and weaving in ringlets upon her neck and shoulders. Her features regular and the whole of her face thought by many to be perfectly beautiful.

She was an avid reader. She’d memorized long sections of the Bible and Quaker texts like Robert Barclay’s apology. Jemima took ill on a Saturday and by Sunday, she was unable to take the most basic care of herself. Jemima’s father sent for a doctor from Massachusetts. The doctor did all he could, but the fever got worse. By Thursday they were ready for Jemima to die. 

They called it the. Columbus fever. It was probably typhus. That’s a flea, born disease. And most likely came to Rhode Island from the sea. The port at Providence was just South of where Jemima and her family lived. A ship called the Columbus docked there and unloaded prisoners and made repairs.

They also brought the sickness with them. It didn’t take long for it to spread to the surrounding areas. So it seemed like Jemima would be the next to die. And suddenly the fever broke. The person formerly known as Jemima Wilkinson Rose from his bed. He declared he was Jemima no longer. Jemima had died and joined her Lord in heaven.

God had reanimated this body and given it a divine spirit, neither male nor female, the spirit was to serve as God’s Holy messenger. And this new being was called the Public Universal Friend. 

The Friend described the experience later in his own words. “Upon meeting the shock of death. There was a vision, two angels appeared with golden crowns upon their heads clothed in white robes, down to the feet.”

They told the Friend that the spirit of life from God has descended to the earth to warn a lost and guilty perishing, dying world to flee from the wrath, which is to come. The Public Universal Friend was to serve as God’s messenger to a lost world on the Eve of the impending apocalypse. And this was a time where traveling preachers were all over the place.

The Public Universal Friend became one of them, his ministry, crossed Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts. He held meetings and preached on the perils of sin. The need to repent. And of course God’s impending judgment. By the 1780s, the Friend had enough followers, they established a formal religious sect of their own.

It was called the Society of Universal Friends. As an atheist, of course, I have to speculate about what this was really all about. Right? And there are some clues in Jemima’s upbringing. Her mother died in 1764. This left her outside the norms of domestic life for the time that would have been traumatic and her family didn’t escape the stress and trauma of the revolutionary war, either. 

At the time each family was expected to declare their loyalty to the British crown or the revolutionaries either option was risky. The Wilkinson family were Quakers. So there were pacifists. Lots of Quakers refused to pick a side. In fact, their clergy forbade them from picking sites. This made them quite unpopular with the revolutionaries, but the Wilkinson’s decided to pick a side, the side of this new United States.

And their home Quaker meeting dismissed most of the Wilkinson’s family. Jemima’s brothers got the boot for joining the military. Her sister for having an illegitimate child, Jemima was rejected for a different sort of rebellion. We’re in the time, just following the great awakening. This was a series of religious revivals that swept through the colonies and the 1730s, forties and fifties.

The long and short of it is this revival stressed ones personal relationship with God, your spirituality, not your adherence to doctrine was the most important thing. This was a challenge to the religious authorities of the time, and they were not stoked. Jemima began to attend a congregation that espoused these kind of radical beliefs, beliefs, like the idea that direct divine revelation was the source of spiritual insight. Her association with this movement got her booted from her Quaker friends meeting just a month before her rebirth as the Public Universal Friend.

The Friend gave his first public sermon just two days after his rebirth. He went to Sunday worship at a nearby Baptist church and preached under a shade tree in the courtyard. Afterwards, the friend was a sight to behold. He wore a broad brimmed white Beaver hat, the low crown, a long black satin robe sweeping to the ground with a neck tie like the Episcopal clergy would wear.

There. Isn’t really a record of exactly what he said that day, but it said that his message wasn’t remarkable. He spoke about the dangers of sin, the merits of virtue and the need for repentance and salvation. What stood out to the people watching was that to their perception. This was a young woman dressed as a clergyman speaking with the divine and masculine confidence. As word spread about this new young prophet, he started getting invitations to speak from all over. Not everyone was excited though. The friend stood up to speak at a Quaker meeting house and the congregation demanded his stop. The friend responded. “As it is the Lord who speaks by me, I could not be silent unless you apply your hands to my mouth.”

The Public Universal Friend stayed in nomad for two years or so. And 1778. He held a few meetings in a town called Little Rest. And Rhode Island, William Potter, a judge on the Rhode Island, Supreme court heard him speak soon after the judge has wife and most of their 13 children became followers of the friend, Judge Potter even moved the friend into his 14 room mansion.

He made additions to the house to make space for the Friend’s meetings. In 1783, they made it official. The friend’s disciples drew up a statement of faith. 

The public universal friend of friends hath for several years passed labored among us with unwary pains in preaching the everlasting gospel and public congregations of people and in private families and visiting the sick and prisoners by night and by day whose seasonable instructions, admonitions and invitations. And the demonstrations of the spirit and with power whereby numbers of people among us have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear son, we own and acknowledge that it was by obeying the divine council, spoken to us by and through the dear universal friend of friends that we are redeemed from wrath to come and brought into union with God and his Holy one and have, and are. Incorporated into a religious body or society of people who call ourselves and are known by the name of universal friends.

The friends followers were almost unremarkably similar to the rest of society. They were diverse in gender socioeconomic class. They were farmers and craftspeople. I, one thing that was remarkable was they weren’t all white. In fact, the friend was an abolitionist. He convinced several of his followers to release enslaved people.

His followers came to fellowship with the friend, mostly as family groups, not as disaffected individuals, they were religious seekers. They were weary of war and sickness and death. They were eager for the promise of salvation. Some assumed the friends, followers simply gullible people easily led a straight, but that wasn’t true.

These were by all accounts, aggressively normal people from all places in society. And lots of people puzzled about this. How does such normal well balanced people follow such an abjectly bizarre prophet? One of the friends early followers, Abner Brownell explained it this way. Another influence she seems to have upon people is that of her being very eloquent.

She exhorts in a pathetic manner with great confidence and boldness. She has an immediate revelation for all. She delivers that she is the greatest minister that God has sent to the people, this 1700 and odd year, which too many serious sincere seeking people. It seems to have great effect for no person would rationally think that any person in their right senses would dare to hold forth and affirm such great and exalted things concerning themselves and to have such a great and marvelous mission and to hold forth nothing, but what they had immediately by divine revelation, unless it were so in reality, In other words, he was so novel, so sincere, so charismatic that the friend simply had to be what he claimed to be.

There was no other explanation. And they had to be true believers that were often consequences for his followers. William Potter, the judge who offered his home to the friend, he lost his political career because of his devotion to the friend, just as one example. So in a lot of ways, the public universal friend wasn’t different than other prophets and preachers, he preached a message. Most people had heard before he acted. As many profits did. Guiding his disciples and spiritual and life matters. Women would confer with the friend about how to cook and how they should make cloth and clothing, men sought the friend’s advice about farming and business.

The friend brought his followers a sense of belonging and attachment to a prophet chosen by God, an opportunity to take an active part in God’s cosmic drama to have his followers even fancy themselves. As the two witnesses mentioned in revelation 11 three, and I will give power unto my two witnesses and they shall prophesy 1,200 and threescore days clothed in sackcloth friend, preached of simplicity, plainness and civility were supposed to worship and live that way. At worship meetings, the prophet would preach and other disciples could speak often. They would sit for silent meetings and only speak if they felt the spirit moved them.

He encouraged a similar modesty of dress urging his followers to let their adorning be inward, not outward. He gave the usual admonishments against worldly pleasures. Though he didn’t require strict abstinence. He wasn’t a fan of smoking and encouraged his followers not to be drunk with wine or any other spiritous has liquors.

Wherein is excess. He also encouraged personal hygiene. He kept a strict. Daily regimen of bathing. He wore freshly laundered clothes. Neither of these things were normal at the time. Some of his contemporaries even accused him of requiring celibacy of his followers, but this wasn’t true. He did see celibacy as a spiritually superior state, but he didn’t require it.

And of course, the friend had critics all along they railed against the friend as a bizarre usurper of spiritual authority, despite his identity as genderless, he was seen by most as a bizarre overly confident woman. The real trouble started after his first trip to Philadelphia. This was the age where newspapers and periodicals were the forum for public debate and discourse.

And Philly had a lot to say about the public universal friend. And given that the friend was perceived by most people, as a woman their commentaries, shouldn’t be all that surprising. And those days you were supposed to be able to tell a lot about a person, by the way they look the way they acted, the way they spoke and the friend dressed, acted and spoke in ways that defied the gender norms of the era.

And lots of people were pissed about that. Someone writing under the pen name, Lang zine, remembered what she said or of the subject matter. Nothing is remembered. Her person dress and manner is palpable to the mind’s eye. Lang zine, further observed that the friend wore a strange habit that lacked female ornament of any kind. Women were supposed to wear caps inside and outside.

And several observers noted that the friend wore no cap. He did his best to put forth a masculine image that didn’t stop people from their bizarre fascination, with a friend as a young, attractive unconventional. Female prophet, the friend in their followers, ignoring gender norms is what made them suspect.

In fact, there was very little debate or commentary on the friend’s theology. Like I said, his message wasn’t that [00:15:00] far off from mainstream Quaker beliefs. But even if it were, I dare say the most scandalous thing about the public universal friend was that he appeared to be a woman not acting womanly enough.

One letter asked what better can be expected, where a number of people make it a point implicitly to observe the direction of a woman, not in her census. The friend didn’t claim to be Christ incarnate. He was accused of making that claim and people weren’t stoked about that. A woman taking on the identity of a man and having apostles who were men.

This is offensive twice. Not only was a woman assuming authority over men there were men letting her do it. The friends, encouragement of celibacy was also seen as a threat, a celibate woman existed outside the institution of marriage, therefore outside the direct control of a man. And this would definitely lead to chaos.

Right. And of course there was the question of motives. Why does this weird little religious sect exist in the first place. Among their critics there were two popular theories. One was that it was a collective delusion. They all actually believed in the friend and the friend earnestly believed himself a divine messenger.

The other possibility is that the friend in his inner circle were con artists taking advantage of gullible people. Most people believe the latter. And this isn’t surprising either given that during this time, deception and seduction were seen as mostly womanly failings. Thanks Eve. The friend and his followers had trouble finding lodging the first night in Philadelphia because of how they were dressed.

They eventually did find a place to stay and word got around about where the entourage was staying. A riot broke out the second night they were there, the crowd threw stones and bricks at the house, but the friend was undeterred. He pressed on and he became a pretty big deal. A French aristocrat, tried to go see the friend to see what the fuss was all about, but he found the crowd was too big and too turbulent for him to even get near the church.

In 1787, some folks decided they’d had about enough of the public universal friend and they launched a massive attack on him. In the papers. There were letters accusing them of blasphemy, mental illness, fraud. There was even an accusation that he and his followers plotted and attempted murder and that they plan to blame the death on the devil.

Mobs started to show up at his sermons. He started to avoid the city and hold meetings in rural areas because of it. The attacks were working and the friend eventually had enough. The first time he came to Philadelphia, he was a rock star. Hundreds of people came to see him speak. The last time he went, he went in secret.

He didn’t preach any sermons. He went solely to wrap up his affairs in the city and to encourage his converts, to leave with him. His next project was going to be a community built only for him and his followers. There was unsettled land in New York and the friend wanted in on that.

Shit was wild in New York. At this time, people were rushing into subtle. Land claims were unclear and changed from day to day. Surveying equipment. Wasn’t always accurate. And of course there were battles with the native people. The land was stolen from. The friends, pulled together a fund to buy some of this land in New York to settle on.

And I could spend hours telling you about how all of this goes down because it’s really complicated, but here’s the basic chain of events. The friends bought 14,000 acres. Then they found out they didn’t have the right to buy most of that land. They ended up with about a thousand acres. Lots of people were pissed.

The people who put in the most money to buy the land were expecting the most land. And of course this caused lots of problems. There was a lot of complicated negotiating, uh, but they did end up with their 14,000 acres, but some tenants had to pay for their land three separate times to get it. People were exhausted. 

And then as it tends to do good old fashioned, capitalist greed, rears its ugly head, the quick influx of people to the area and all of the speculation made property values. Soar. The land, the friends were on ended up being worth about 33 times what they bought it for a few of the richest members of the sect decided they wanted the land for themselves.

And because they were rich and well connected, they were able to get it. Wild how religious convictions fly out the window in times like these? Huh? Even with all the turmoil and getting clear title to the land, the friend and his followers did manage to build a thriving community. They called it City Hill.

There were 80 or so families, a saw mill and a gristmill, a traveler called the inhabitants, quiet, moral industrious people. But the friend didn’t stay long. He felt betrayed by his followers land grab. He told one of them that he would not dwell with rebels and traders and whatsoever loveth and make a lie.

This new settlement would be called Jerusalem and had two purposes first. To be a sanctuary from a godless outside world to allow the friend and his followers to wait for the second coming in peace. And the second purpose was to escape the disloyal members of the society, people who lost land in the land grab or eager to join.

And the public universal friend finally had his sanctuary. A few of the friends, closest followers died soon after, but as with the first settlement, the friend and his loyal followers built a thriving community. But visitors continued to decry the lack of proper gender roles in this community. Women forsaking their husbands and men who’ve left, their families.

Genders were all flipped around. The men became hewers of wood and drawers of water. The women’s scandalously dressed in men’s clothing. It wasn’t quite as radical as some critics said it was, but the point does stand that the society of universal friends didn’t do things like other places, especially when it came to gender.

The domestic bliss of Jerusalem didn’t last. By the 19th century, it was common for visitors to stop by and see the friend. Many of these travelers wrote about their experiences. One described the friend as a corpulent woman masculine featured her hair, nearly gray combed back, neither her tone of voice nor manner bespoke much intercourse with the world and nothing with the polite part of it.

It was interesting that up to this point, the public universal friend had never been formally accused or prosecuted for blasphemy, right. This was the time where that kind of thing still happened. And surely some angry men would have taken the chance to do that. Right. But it was 1799 before that happened.

One of the friend’s former disciples, James Parker got appointed as one of the first justices of the peace for Ontario County. He was also one of the people who orchestrated the land grab. He issued a warrant for the friend’s arrest, but the friend wasn’t going to go easily. The first time the constables tried to arrest him, he was able to get away on his horse.

He was by all accounts, a very skilled rider. They tried a second time at the friend’s home. They spotted him in a workhouse where the women of the prophet’s house made cloth, when the constables entered the building, the women mobbed them, tearing their clothes, tossing them outside, and then block the door.

So the men couldn’t get back in. My constables came back a third time with a mob of 30 men. They surrounded the house. Almost all of the posse were former followers of the friend. They broke down the door with an ax and apprehended the friend. The friend had fallen ill and after some negotiation, they decided not to take him to jail that night.

He agreed to appear in the county court to answer the charges against him. The charge was that the public universal friend had proclaimed to be Christ incarnate that he’d proclaimed that no one could come to salvation, but by obedience to his command. Testimony also included charges of the friend upsetting the proper social order that he was devoted to undermining the institution of marriage, of upending, the, for rules of class and gender.

They also testified that they feared violence against them for speaking out against the friend, they said they’d discovered several unknown persons laying around their house in the night a number of times. The evidence and testimony were collected and organized by judge Potter. The man who all years ago, made additions to his house to support the friends ministry.

He also helped orchestrate the land grab. Much to their chagrin. The court ruled two to one that blasphemy wasn’t a crime in New York, making the friend a pioneer in religious Liberty litigation. The presiding judge announced the decision and then invited the friend to say some words to the assembly.

And of course the friend wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity. Instead of watching the friend be prosecuted and convicted, former disciples got to witness one more sermon instead. The presiding judge was later asked what the thought about the friend’s message reportedly. He said, we have heard good counsel.

And if we live harmoniously with what that woman has told us, we shall be sure to be good people here, a final rest in heaven. That was not the end of the friend’s troubles at the beginning of the night century, saw a sort of resurgence in the idea that power and property worth of birthright of men, white men and white men only.

And someone like that, public universal friend, was an affront. So that idea in the end, it was the courts that slowly dismantled him. A group of angry men, picked away at him piece by piece. Lawsuits, counter suits and the lawyer’s fees that came with them drain the community of their finances. Members of the community became suspicious of each other. Who was loyal, who was disloyal?

The friend died on July 1st, 1819, the society’s death book read simply 25 minutes past two on the clock. The friend went from here. The courts eventually vindicated the friend, but he didn’t live to see it. He left the society’s assets to trusted friends, but without their leader, the group dwindled and died out quietly.

Isn’t it remarkable how little in misogyny has changed in the 200 years or so since the public universal friend died? It’s difficult to attribute our modern definition of transgender or gender nonconforming to figures who lived that long ago and figures who lived in such a different cultural context.

Right. But. In this case, it seems clear. We might consider the friend one of our own, right. He self identified as genderless. He ignored gender norms in both his behavior and his presentation. He encouraged his followers to live outside those norms too. If it weren’t for his reported death and rebirth, he might’ve been just another and a long line of people claiming to be God’s messenger and prophet. And obviously because I’m atheist, I tend to look pretty skeptically at anyone who claims to speak for a god I don’t believe exists, but that didn’t stop me from rooting for the friend. Just a little bit. I don’t think anyone should have the kind of power over a group of people like the friend did.

I don’t think anyone should be so confident. As to call themselves the final expert on worldly things or supernatural things. But it was clear that the friend was not held to the same standard as his contemporaries. His critics saw him as dangerous, not because of his theology. Because there wasn’t really much radical about that, but because of the way he looked, the way he behaved.

And that makes me feel like at least a little bit, the public universal friend is a kindred spirit, a gender rebel who courageously ignored his critics. And did his own thing. And of course he replaced the gender hierarchy with the hierarchy that placed him at the top. And I’m not stoked about that, but his community did represent empowerment and freedom for some of its adherents.

It gave them an agency they might not have had otherwise. And so while I’m not into the idea of turning the friend into a hero or anything, I think this is a story worth knowing and telling. Gender rebels have always been among us further back than today. Further back than the friend, the idea of these strict binary gender constructs is a pretty recent invention in human history.

There’ve always been those of us. Who’ve decided to stand outside that construct because we know that construct isn’t the final say on human experience. It never has been and never will be. Thanks for listening friend. I hope you enjoyed this little dive into history. Shoot me an email at [email protected] if you want to hear more stuff like this, there are a few other people I think would be cool to cover people who aren’t generally well known in queer circles and should be.

If you want to help me Celes and Wedge keep the lights on. Please consider heading to and making a per episode donation to help support the show. A share and a shout out on social media is a big help too. It is all appreciated. Before I go. I want you to know that if you’re lost to hurting, you’re scared.

If you feel like no one cares and no one understands, you need to know there’s a community out here that loves you cares for you knows that you’re capable of amazing things and that you are worthy of love. If you’re struggling. Please. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Until next time friend. My name is Callie Wright and this is Queersplaining.