This essay is excerpted from Adam Morris’s American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation, which offers the first comprehensive account of the long chain of messianic movements to emerge throughout the first 200 years of US history, beginning with Jemima Wilkinson and the Universal Friends. American Messiahs will be published on March 26, 2019.
MERE MONTHS AFTER the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a strange figure on horseback began to circulate throughout the New England colonies. The body atop the horse responded to the name of Public Universal Friend, and the double column of riders who followed behind their leader all believed that the Friend’s body housed the Spirit of God, sent to Earth to deliver an urgent message. Paying little heed to worldly skirmishes between Revolutionaries and Redcoats, the Friend galloped across the countryside announcing that the Apocalypse was drawing nigh. The Public Universal Friend exhorted audiences to heed heaven-sent warnings meant to save those who would listen, believe, and endeavor to live righteously — that is, according to the Friend’s advice.
God had selected a handsome female body for the Universal Friend to inhabit, one that had recently belonged to Jemima Wilkinson of Cumberland, Rhode Island. Jemima was known as an intelligent and attractive 23-year-old woman when she was struck by fever on October 5, 1776. Her family summoned a doctor when her condition worsened, but there was little to be done; the patient seemed doomed by the 10th, when her illness climaxed in babbling delirium.
Miraculously, the fever broke and the body calmed. According to family lore, Jemima’s body had chilled in death before it warmed and revived. The other Wilkinsons were astonished when her body arose from the bed on October 11. But if the family at first rejoiced that Jemima had been spared, they were mistaken: the newly risen patient announced that Jemima had died and that her body had been requisitioned by God for no less holy a purpose than the salvation of humankind.
Unusually, Jemima Wilkinson was unwed at the time of her illness: most of her peers were married mothers by their early 20s. She was born November 29, 1752, the eighth child of Jeremiah and Amey Whipple Wilkinson, and was named after one of Job’s daughters. Amey would go on to have four more children, the last of these deliveries killing her in 1764. Jemima was only about 12 years old when this occurred but would later understand that her mother had spent her entire adult life pregnant and nursing.
Jeremiah Wilkinson did not remarry, carrying on with the family by himself. Like any young woman of farmer’s stock, Jemima was expected to help with chores and raise her younger siblings. Formal education was out of the question; at the time, women bore much of the responsibility of instructing their children, their daughters in particular. Lacking a mother, and expected to labor in the home, Jemima turned to books, proving herself a prodigious autodidact. Aside from the Bible, she read deeply from the work of esteemed Quakers, including George Fox, William Penn, and the martyr Marmaduke Stephenson, one of three Quakers executed in Boston in 1659.
Although they were a simple farming family, the Wilkinsons were not the poor bumpkins that many of the Friend’s critics would later make them out to be. Jemima and her siblings were fourth-generation Americans who traced their origins to the first Wilkinson’s arrival in New England in 1650. They were connected to prominent families in Rhode Island, including Jeremiah’s first cousin Stephen Hopkins, a colonial governor and signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Jeremiah Wilkinson had inherited his farm in Cumberland, but his family more or less resembled the modest but self-sufficient sort of yeoman farmers so adored by Thomas Jefferson. His principal crop was cherries, and he was fondly called “Cherry Wilkinson” by the villagers in Cumberland.
Although Jeremiah was a successful farmer with aristocratic relations, there was nothing extravagant about the Wilkinson family before the autumn of 1776. However, reports of Jemima’s alleged death and resurrection caused her to become infamous across New England and the Middle Colonies, leading to considerable embellishment of the Universal Friend’s words and deeds, and to the invention of numerous apocryphal childhood anecdotes meant to demonstrate that the Friend’s public ministry had resulted from the inherently corrupt character of a girl who had always been headstrong, lazy, arrogant, and manipulative. The folktale of Jemima’s girlhood was concocted largely by adversaries, including her first biographer, David Hudson, whose unflattering 1821 biography was meant to influence the outcome of a lawsuit that would determine the ownership of valuable lands belonging to the communal society the Friend had founded in upstate New York — a suit from which Hudson stood to gain.
Although Hudson’s biography was obviously a work of character assassination, his accurate claim to be personally acquainted with the Friend allowed the stories he invented and the tall tales he repeated to pass into the historical record unchallenged for more than a century. Hudson and other detractors portrayed Jemima as an exceptional young woman, though not in any ways becoming to a Quakeress. She was called “a fine blooming girl” who was “spritely in her manners,” but possessed of “an unconquerable aversion to labor, an unusual cunning in shifting upon others the tasks assigned to her, an imperious will, and a strong propensity to dictate and rule, together with a love for idleness, finery, pomposity, and superiority” — all supposedly well in evidence by her 17th birthday. Even more fantastic lies adhered to the Friend’s decades-long career as an itinerant prophet.
The truth is that little is known about Jemima’s youth and young adulthood beyond what might be surmised from her later activities. She was, for example, a skilled horsewoman by the time the Friend occupied her body. Her robust physique, often described as masculine by those who went to hear the Friend preach, suggested that Jemima did her fair share of chores on the family farm. Jemima’s command of the Bible and knowledge of Quaker theology were likewise in evidence by the time of her illness, and they indicate that, far from being an indolent girl who was scornful of work, she was industrious and even excelled in the few activities available to an unmarried woman.
The Friend’s assumption of Jemima’s body transpired at a time of great confusion and turmoil in Rhode Island generally, and in the Wilkinson family in particular. The months preceding Jemima’s illness had been far from calm in Cumberland: hostilities with the British, begun the preceding year, had transformed New England into one of the principal battlegrounds in the fight for independence. British forces were besieged in Boston and then evacuated in March 1776, but they loomed off the coast in naval vessels, which were used to launch surprise attacks on coastal villages. Members of the Society of Friends, to which the Wilkinson family belonged, found themselves in a quandary when they were forced to choose between faith and country: patriotic Quakers who wished to be involved in the independence movement faced excommunication from the Society if they dared to take part in defense-training exercises with the local militia. This was the case for three of the Wilkinson brothers: Benjamin, Stephen, and Jeptha were all expelled from the monthly meeting of the Smithfield Friends for the un-Quakerly act of taking up arms. To these dismissals, another was added in 1776, when Jemima’s sister Patience was disciplined for the disgrace of having a child out of wedlock. All of them were disowned by the time of their sister’s metamorphosis.
Jemima had likewise been booted from the Smithfield Friends meeting in the summer of 1776, mere weeks before her illness. The cause in her case was not sex or guns but religious unorthodoxy: Jemima was disciplined when it became known among the Smithfield Friends that she was attending the revival meetings of New Light Baptists in the region.
The New Light revivals in New England resulted from religious enthusiasm that had spread across the colonies in the preceding decades in reaction to declining satisfaction with the Puritan interpretation of Calvinist doctrine. Collectively known as the Great Awakening, the revivals of 1730–1770 gathered up disaffected Christians from the several Reformed churches that had already established themselves in the colonies. The New Light stir of the 1770s saw a resurgence of this activity in rural New England communities distressed by the tumult of war. New Lights believed that individual inspiration and personal enlightenment from God held priority over the worldly authorities in the established churches. They accepted the Puritan teaching that conscience reigned in matters of the spirit but rejected the belief that abiding by church traditions and hierarchies while awaiting the final judgment was the way to steer clear of error and vouchsafe salvation. Saving grace, the New Lights believed, was a prize to be sought and gained. This democratic attitude struck an unmistakable contrast to the elitism that had become entrenched within the Congregational churches, as the Puritan assemblies became known.
Like the other Protestant sects that placed an emphasis on individual conscience, Quakerism found itself on the defensive when the New Light ignited in its vicinity. The Quakers already taught a relatively liberal doctrine, one that affirmed the existence of a God-given “inner light” universally present in all humankind; this was one of the principal reasons why the Quakers opposed slavery. A crucial difference between New Light and Quaker orientations, however, was the Quaker belief that God’s will becomes apparent only through dialogue among the enlightened. Members rise to speak in meetings when the Spirit moves them to do so, and the opinion of the congregation is forged by arriving at consensus.
New Light theology was more unruly than this, holding that God’s truth was available to anyone at any time — there need be no consensus. Similar views on individual inspiration and spiritual authority later became commonplace in 20th-century American evangelical communities, whose members believe they can literally speak to God through prayer and receive his responses through signs, intuition, or biblical passages that God brings to their personal attention. At the close of the 18th century, however, such beliefs invited the censure of traditional Calvinist clergy, who rightly understood the evangelical movements as a challenge to their authority. New Light flirtation with antinomianism threatened to overturn the doctrines that distinguished the established denominations from one another, and to divide them from within along this new cleavage of individualism.
If the young Jemima Wilkinson was half as rebellious as her detractors claimed, then it is easy to see why antinomian currents in the New Light evangelical movements would have drawn her to investigate them for herself. It is just as likely that she merely sought a new religious community, one that was not already in the process of expelling her family. With several siblings already disowned by the Quakers, and with revolutionary fervor upending political and religious orders in New England, Jemima had little to lose and much to gain by associating with the New Lights.
But Jemima did not stop with association. After being seized by the New Light, she stood before the Smithfield Friends to hold forth her opinions and refused to take her seat when consensus demanded it be so. The Friends regarded her outbursts as disrespectful and uncouth. Quakers were used to being censured for speaking their minds in public, particularly when it came to their pacifist convictions in a time of war. But Jemima’s garrulousness extended to political concerns in ways that went beyond the pale of accepted opinion among the Quakers when she spoke at length about the growing conflict. Her views were not recorded, but she likely spoke in defense of her brothers and against their punishment.
Following Quaker custom, the Friends’ disciplinary committee first requested that Jemima reform her conduct and cease attending New Light meetings. This she would not do. By August, Jemima remained insubordinate, becoming the fifth of her siblings to be expelled from the Smithfield Quaker meeting. She spent the next weeks brooding at home, avoiding the company of others by spending long hours reading the Bible and praying. Her fever followed this interval of solitude.
Although no one ever doubted that Jemima’s religious conversion was sincere, her illness was the subject of malicious conjecture. The Friend’s later account of Jemima’s sickness and death described it as the result of the “Columbus fever,” an outbreak of typhus named for a colonial warship that had inadvertently contaminated Providence by transferring contagious British sailors to shore as prisoners. In the Friend’s retelling, the malady struck on “the seventh day of the week” and worsened for several days until “[s]he appear’d to meet the Shock of Death.”
In her hour of mortal anguish, Jemima experienced a vision. Although not yet embodied, the Public Universal Friend was already present in spirit, and later transcribed the vision for posterity:
The heavens were open’d And She saw too Archangels descending from the east, with golden crowns upon there heads, clothed in long white Robes, down to the feet; Bringing a sealed Pardon from the living God; and putting their trumpets to their mouth, proclaimed saying, Room, Room, Room, in the many Mansions of eternal glory for Thee and for everyone …
The angels explained to the expiring young woman that “[t]he time is at hand, when God will lift up his hand, a second time, to recover the remnant of his People.” The “Spirit of Life from God,” the angels continued, had returned once more to Earth “to warn a lost and guilty, perishing dying World, to flee from the wrath which is to come.” The Spirit was “waiting to assume the Body which God had prepared, for the Spirit to dwell in.” This, of course, was the body of Jemima Wilkinson.
Thenceforth, Jemima’s body ceased recognizing her father and siblings as relatives, began to prefer male pronouns, and responded only to the names of “Public Universal Friend,” “the All-Friend,” “Friend of Sinners,” and “the Comforter.” The transformation was later complemented by the Friend’s preference for wearing men’s clothing when he began his public ministry, a quirk that became one of his most remarked-upon characteristics.
By Sunday the illness had retreated. Finding himself comfortably accommodated in Jemima’s body, the Friend of Sinners decided to attend services at the Elder Miller Baptist meetinghouse that Jemima had been rebuked for attending. The other congregants soon learned that, although Jemima Wilkinson’s body had returned to their midst, it was the Public Universal Friend who replied to their greetings. Those who were not repelled by this sudden transformation gathered after the service to hear the Friend deliver his first public sermon under a shade tree near the meetinghouse. Thereafter, the Friend began to hold meetings in the Wilkinson family home. The four Wilkinson sisters and Jemima’s brother Stephen became the Friend’s first followers. Patience and Stephen had already been ejected from the Smithfield Friends; the other three girls were forced out by 1779 for indulging their sister’s delusions.
Meanwhile, tongues began to wag. In 18th-century New England, proclaiming oneself a vessel for the Spirit of God was both risky and ridiculous. But the countryside rumbled with troubles deadlier than any heresy, offering a distraction that supplied considerable latitude for religious idiosyncrasies that might have been unthinkable in calmer days. Even so, the Friend’s declarations horrified those who believed Jemima Wilkinson’s transformation to be a grandiose stunt carried off by a woman who considered herself too clever to end up an old maid. Biographer David Hudson later disseminated the belief that Jemima was a fake prophet but a natural actress, a view that was no doubt shared by some of the Wilkinsons’ neighbors. But if Jemima’s transformation was only an act, it was one she kept up until the end of her life: the “actress” never publicly broke from her character. Rather, the next 43 years of the Friend’s career provide satisfying evidence that his belief in his holy mission was sincere.
By springtime, the Friend was ready to begin his itinerant ministry, having spent the winter practicing his sermons on the Wilkinson siblings. Villagers who had already been converted during visits to the Wilkinson home began to open their doors to the Friend’s meetings, as did other New Lights and errant Quakers who had been dismissed from the Society of Friends for one or another transgression. To this ragtag set of mostly ex-Quakers, the Friend thundered his opposition to the inquisitorial and punitive meetings in which Quakers were censured, and demanded an end to the practice. He continued to insist on the right of every person to preach his or her conscience.
When moving between the homes of his new followers, the Friend usually traveled with a retinue numbering between 12 and 20 adherents, and relied on the hospitality of converts and friendly listeners for victuals and lodging. Jeremiah escorted the Friend on his travels abroad. For this he received a stern warning from the Smithfield Friends, instructing him to cease “going about” with his heretic daughter. He disobeyed, prompting the Friends to initiate disciplinary proceedings that concluded with yet another expulsion from the Smithfield meeting.
Over the next two years, the Public Universal Friend’s celebrity spread across lower New England, as a wave of rumor followed by visitations in the flesh. Opponents greatly aggrandized the Friend’s reputation by spreading lies about his blasphemous assertions to be Jesus Christ in a female body — a claim the All-Friend was careful to avoid making directly — and by inventing stories about his attempts to raise the dead and walk on water. Fantastic tales of the Friend thus preceded his ministrations throughout New England, not least due to his singular appearance. Nearly every contemporary account remarks upon the dark beauty of the Comforter’s androgynous countenance: a well-apportioned female body cloaked in black robes and a white or purple cravat, topped by a wide-brimmed hat made of gray beaver fur.
Although some regarded the Friend as demented, others were curious enough to hear him preach. The All-Friend’s dramatic predictions of impending apocalypse impressed his listeners; they seemed to square with the chaos raging in New England and slowly enlarged his following. During this early phase of his ministry, the Comforter also went out of his way to attend funerals as a way to attract new adherents: those who came to pay their respects to the departed included members of rival meetings and churches who were unlikely to seek him voluntarily. Another tactic of recruitment was to follow Christ’s advice to comfort soldiers taken as prisoners of war. When describing this aspect of his mission, the Friend cited Isaiah 61:1-2, in which the prophet writes of his duty “to bind up the broken hearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” The All-Friend’s ministry to the sick, poor, imprisoned, and wounded continued to yield converts while the war lasted, including several former soldiers.
The Comforter appeared to have little concern for the hazards of gallivanting across occupied Rhode Island. Regarding this period, one of the Friend’s secretaries later wrote:
The Friend of Sinners began to speak in the Year 1777. When this Nation was all in arms; and America had imbru’d her hands in human blood. […] The Friend was not stayed by guards of armed men, but went through; to visit the poor and condem’nd prisoners in their Chains: naked swords shook over The Friend’s head, was no terror because of the mighty Power of the Lord.
As he moved among the ranks of soldiers, the Comforter loudly denounced all war, except for the holy battle he was waging for humankind’s salvation. Although some Patriots regarded this as a tacit rebuke of their cause, the Friend was generally considered unthreatening and was permitted to preach to British captives.
The All-Friend became known for his solemn and admonishing sermons, and for the spectacles of religious enthusiasm that sometimes burst forth during the meetings over which he presided. When seized by enthusiasm, the Universal Friends would sometimes shake and convulse. In keeping with Quaker tradition, the Friend allowed anyone moved to speak to stand and deliver, but amplified this practice by teaching his followers that the message he had come to share might be transmitted through the visions, dreams, and intuitions of any who obeyed his instructions. Thus to the Quaker inner light was added the kerosene of New Light evangelism blended with folk Christian mysticism.
During the New England phase of his ministry, the Friend would predict stunning events across the globe, such as earthquakes, and demonstrated powers of clairvoyance that allowed him to see directly into the hearts and minds of his audience. This, critics alleged, was a talent the Friend maintained only by relying on a network of informants who brought him information useful for putting on a show of divine omnipotence. According to accusations made by Abner Brownell, a follower excommunicated for the disloyalty of publishing his own prophecies against the Friend’s wishes, the Comforter’s spies would disclose transgressions perpetrated by his followers, so that the Friend could inspire wonder in his omniscience when he confronted wrongdoers and traitors with their sins. These were techniques later adopted by Jim Jones.
Although Brownell hoped to destroy the Friend’s ministry, he refuted assertions that the Comforter claimed to be Jesus returned, explaining that the All-Friend considered his ministry a continuation of Jesus Christ’s. As subsequent American messiahs would do, the Friend relied on a distinction between the Christ spirit, which is immortal, and Jesus of Nazareth, its temporary mortal host. During sermons, the Friend told his listeners that the Christ spirit had returned to lift Jemima’s body in the same way that he had lifted Jesus’s body many centuries before, and that his dwelling within a woman’s body represented the fulfillment of the prophecies of Jeremiah 31:22, which ambiguously states that “the Lord hath created a new thing in the earth, A woman shall compass a man.” Because it reinforced his claim to be a divine male spirit inhabiting a female human body, this verse was one of the Friend’s favorite scriptural passages. Similarly, Brownell asserts that the Friend was often inclined to read
a Description that she has, that the Turks gave antiently concerning our Lord Jesus Christ’s outward Appearance, his Shapes, Stature, Features and Complexion, and Hair, with a long loose Gown, and his Hair being black, and curled in his Neck, or upon his Shoulders, and parted upon the Top, after the Manner of the Nazarenes, and then that they may look upon her and see how near she resembles those Descriptions.
Such heavy-handed insinuations, Brownell attests, were followed by recitation of additional biblical passages meant to bolster listeners’ belief that they beheld the Second Coming of Christ. These included Revelation 21:2-3, which describes “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The Friend wished for his listeners to associate this adorned bride with Jemima’s body, raised up and anointed by the Spirit of God.
Although Universal Friends took care to avoid gendered pronouns when referring to the Comforter, critics and apostates like Brownell insistently referred to Jemima Wilkinson rather than the Public Universal Friend. Because it was highly uncommon and regarded as unseemly for a woman to speak in public in these years, “her” preaching was considered an act of insuperable arrogance. As Brownell writes:
She exhorts in a pathetic Manner, with great Confidence and Boldness, and Confirmation of her being right, and all others to be wrong; says, that she has an immediate Revelation for all she delivers; that she is the greatest Minister that God has sent to the People this seventeen Hundred and odd Years, and advancing herself to live as she exhorts others to, fully in a State of Perfection, and no Liability of Error, or Possibility of Defect in any Respect; and thus with many great and exalted Expressions in Allusion to herself, (though in a mystical Way) she utters and holds forth, which to 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.
Although many besides Brownell assailed the Friend’s arrogance, it was only through the strength of tremendous conviction and righteousness that the Comforter was able to stand before audiences that sometimes contained as many leering cynics as repenting sinners. Many who heard him were convinced by the display. Even Brownell admitted that, as a result of the Friend’s somber sermons, he was “awaken’d at Times to a serious Concern of my immortal State” and encouraged to “seek some Way of Redress and Recovery” for the sake of his salvation. He was not the only one so deeply affected: Brownell asserts “many awakened ones” among the Friend’s listeners were “much taken in with her.”
Brownell believed the Friend’s followers were mostly “ignorant and illiterate People.” He reported that women in particular were moved to join the Comforter. This came as no surprise, considering the Friend’s assertions that both men and women should stand to testify their faith and speak the prophecies they received in meetings. The All-Friend’s incipient feminism, which continued to develop, staked out another important characteristic of his messianic movement, one that marked those of his successors: each subsequent American messiah would attract a predominantly female following, often through promises of equal rights among the faithful.