Note: Out of respect for the subject of this profile, we use the pronouns “they/them/their” and their preferred name of the Public Universal Friend (“the Friend”) throughout the life story.
The Public Universal Friend was born in Rhode Island on November 29, 1752. They were identified as female at birth and named Jemima Wilkinson. The Friend was the eighth child of twelve. They were only eight years old when their mother died. The Friend’s father never remarried and raised his children on his own.
Growing up, the Friend attended the local Quaker meeting. When they were in their early twenties, a religious group called the New-Light Baptists visited their town. The New-Light Baptists were an intensely religious group whose leaders made impassioned speeches and encouraged a radical approach to worshipping God. They were part of a larger religious movement that historians now call the First Great Awakening, a movement in which religious enthusiasm spiked and people came up with new ways of worshipping. The Friend was drawn to the intensity of their meetings.
A few years later, in 1776, the Friend fell ill with a contagious and deadly fever that spread throughout their community. The Friend survived, but they were transformed by the experience. They told their family that they had died and the Spirit of God had brought them back to life as a new person who was neither male nor female. This new person was called the Public Universal Friend and lived only to serve God. The Friend refused to respond to the name Jemima Wilkinson. They dressed in a combination of male and female clothing, including vests, neckties, and skirts. They kept their hair short on top of their head, with ringlets in the back.
Almost immediately after their rebirth, the Friend began to preach publicly about their spiritual awakening. Their family’s Quaker Meeting did not believe their story and dismissed them from the community. But the Friend was not deterred. They traveled throughout the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions and continued to preach, slowly building their own community of followers, who became known as the Universal Friends.
In 1784, the Friend began to publish advice for their followers, guidelines that they wanted their followers to live by. They encouraged the Universal Friends to honor God’s teachings, treat others as they wished to be treated, and pursue a righteous and peaceful life. The Friend’s teachings were not radically different from those of other leaders of the First Great Awakening, but their non-gendered identity and their insistence that they had a direct connection to God through their rebirth made them unique.
The Public Universal Friend traveled throughout the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions and continued to preach, slowly building their own community of followers.
Women played an important role in the First Great Awakening. They were the primary audiences of religious meetings and were sometimes invited to preach. But the Friend’s refusal to adhere to traditional gender roles made them an outsider with both men and women religious leaders. Their story attracted a lot of attention. Large crowds would come out to hear the Friend’s sermons. Some attendees were supporters who sought religious salvation. Others simply wanted to see the so-called spiritual being who was neither male nor female. And others were critics who accused the Friend of being a dangerous fanatic who threatened the world with their lies, unholy thoughts, and sexual immorality.
Many of the Universal Friends believed that the Friend was a savior like Jesus Christ, which led to tension with other religious groups. In the 1790s, the Friend and the Universal Friends established the town of Jerusalem in New York. They hoped the town would be a safe place to practice their faith and fulfill God’s will, away from the curiosity and critique of the general population. But this plan ultimately failed. Few new followers moved there, and many chose to leave the community because of disputes over land ownership and religious beliefs.
The Friend passed away in 1819. The Universal Friends told the world they had “left time,” because they believed the Friend died in 1776. Fascination with the Friend continued long after their death. Nineteenth-century historians researched their life and tried to determine the “truth.” Many of these historians rejected the Friend as a true religious leader, and claimed that they led a religious hoax. These historians pointed to their clothing and rejection of gender identity as proof of their mental instability. Most of these books refused to use the Friend’s chosen name, calling them Jemima Wilkinson. It is only in the last decade that scholars have started to reconsider the story of the Public Universal Friend and how it fits into the larger history of gender roles and identity in the United States.