Born in Rhode Island in 1752, Jemima Wilkinson would become, at the age of 25, the first American-born woman to found a religious group—following what she claimed was her death and resurrection. She abandoned her birth name, asked to be referred to as “The Publick Universal Friend,” and asserted that she was no longer male or female.
Wilkinson’s family attended Quaker meetings and, in her 20’s, Wilkinson also attended meetings with New Light Baptists, a movement that was part of the Great Awakening, a religious revival in the American colonies. Her mother died when she was fourteen.
In 1776, a minor typhoid epidemic spread through Rhode Island, and Wilkinson contracted the disease.
In a few weeks after, she became feeble and wan and the apparent decline of her health so increased the solicitude of the family; that nightly watchers were procured to attend in her room, while she received the constant care of her sisters by day. She now began to speak of having visions from heaven, and extraordinary visitations from the regions beyond the …. On Thursday evening, about the latter end of October 1776, two women of the neighbourhood came to watch with Jemima…. until a little past eleven o’clock, when she fell into a light slumber, and continued in that situation for nearly an hour. Her nurses, during this interval of quiet, went several times to her bed side, and observed her to be pale and motionless, and apparently lifeless ; but upon a close examination found her features unchanged, her pulse regular, and her respiration so soft and silent as almost to elude the closest scrutiny. Immediately after the clock struck twelve, she raised herself up in bed, and appeared as if suddenly awakened from a refreshing sleep. Her attendants inquired of her what she wanted, when to their utter astonishment, she, in an authoritative tone, and a voice much stronger than usual, demanded her clothes; one of them desired her to lie clown and compose herself to rest, but she still persisted in her demand with increased firmness and austerity, declaring she had passed the gates of death, and was now risen from the dead. Her father, who had been sleeping in an adjoining room, being awakened by their loud talk, rose and came to the door, and on being informed of her strange whims, endeavored to quiet her clamour and sooth her to repose, but she disdainfully rejected his kind attentions, as an impertinent interference, and told him she owed obedience to the higher powers only. Her apparel was procured, and she immediately got up and dressed herself, and from that lime forward went about in apparently as good health as she had usually enjoyed, though somewhat feeble and emaciated by her long confinement.
She soon began to preach and attract followers. In her new persona, she rejected gendered pronouns and her birth name:
In order to establish and perpetuate the belief of her divine mission among her people, and to spread the same idea among others, she adopted a settled course of practice in one particular, which was in no case departed from; this was, never to acknowledge her proper name. Having assumed the title of “Universal Friend of mankind,” she had no further occasion for the name of Jemima Wilkinson ; accordingly all her followers were taught as a duty to consider and call her the ” Universal Friend,” and on all occasions to abstain from speaking of her in such a manner as to indicate any distinction of sex. In speaking of Jemima, or any thing belonging or appertaining to her, they always said “the Friend — it is the Friend’s”; thus it was, “the Friend’s house” — “the Friend’s carriage,” &tc. but would never say her or hers, though to avoid it they might be compelled to use the word “Friend” a hundred times in the same conversation. Such articles of her apparel and household furniture as usually bear the initials of the owner’s name were marked “U. F.” and her traveling carriage bore the same impress. It was derogatory to the character to which she pretended to acknowledge any relationship or connection with the human family, none therefore, over whom she exercised any influence, dared to call her by her name, or allude to her family or kindred.
The Friend’s manner of dress was consistent with this new identity:
A part of her pride consisted in dressing after a fashion entirely her own, which resembled neither that of men or women. She wore an undergarment with long sleeves, wristbands and collar, and a large cravat about her neck — petticoat and slippers ; a vest cut sloping to the right and left from the centre, a kind of coatee dress similar to a lady’s riding habit, the upper part buttoned, and cut sloping below, so as to show the edges of her vest, and over the whole a long robe of black silk or white satin ; and in public she always appeared with a huge black beaver turned down at the sides and tied under her chin with a ribbon. She wore no head dress, having her fine black hair combed and dressed in several sets of curls and ringlets, which by frequent welting and oiling were kept as smooth and glossy as a raven’s wing, so that with a fine complexion, a regular set of features, masculine countenance, a commanding air, and a liberal stock of assurance, she had the appearance of a personage of no ordinary character.
The Friend was largely rejected by traditional Quakers in Rhode Island, and thus traveled to Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts to preach and attract followers. As a person refusing traditional gender roles, the Friend also attracted derision and slander. Eventually, the Friend and the Friend’s followers founded a religious settlement in New York State.
Quotations from David Hudson’s History of Jemima Wilkinson, a preacheress of the eighteenth century; containing an authentic narrative of her life and character, and of the rise, progress and conclusion of her ministry (1821).