Posted on 12 May 2021
Rejecting a male or female identity, the Public Universalist Friend (PUF) was one of America’s first non binary preachers.
Alleged Death And Rebirth
The PUF was born Jemima Wilkinson in 1752, Rhode Island, to Quaker parents. Aged 23, the young woman suffered a severe illness that was most likely typhus and resulted in a life-threatening fever. Wilkinson claimed that she had died during the fever and, with the intervention of angels, had been reborn as a genderless spirit from God and named Public Universal Friend or just Friend for short.
Refusing the pronouns, he / she, the PUF insisted on being addressed in the third person. It’s possible that the PUF was influenced by both Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 that Christ “is neither male nor female” and Jeremiah 31:22 that states “the Lord hath created a new thing in the earth, A woman shall compass a man”.
The PUF dressed in a manner perceived to be either androgynous or masculine, in long, loose clerical robes which were most often black,and wore a white or purple kerchief or cravat around the neck like men of the time.
The PUF began to travel and preach throughout Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania accompanied by their four siblings. Preaching a mixture of Free Grace and Universal Love, the PUF argued that God’s love was everywhere and equal to all (possibly in a similar way to Anne Hutchinson two centuries earlier). Delivering long-lasting sermons from memory, the PUF preached that people needed to repent of their sins and be saved before an imminent Day of Judgment.
Therefore, many of the PUF’s beliefs were aligned to those of the Society of Friends – apart from the coming apocalypse. However, the PUF and their siblings proved too radical for the times and drew drew significant criticism, particularly in Philadelphia, where rioters threw sticks and bricks at the home where the PUF was lodging. The criticism was more over the PUF’s lack of gender rather than Quaker-based theology.
As as a result of the public backlash the PUF and their siblings were disowned by the Society of Friends.
Society of Universal Friends
Despite being disowned by the Society of Friends, the PUF continued to be an independent travelling preacher whose Quaker-style meetings drew a large crowd of followers. Some of these followers formed a congregation that called itself the Society of Universal Friends – thus making the PUF probably the first native-born American to found a religious community!
The majority of members of the Society of Universal Friends were Quakers who felt that the Society of Friends was too strict. One group of Friends that was sympathetic to the PUF and the Society of Universal Friends were the Free Quakers who themselves had been disowned by the Society of Friends for their participation in the Revolutionary War. The Free Quakers opened up their Meeting Houses to allow the Society of Universal Friends to gather and as a result the new society thrived and openly campaigned for both American independence and the abolition of slavery.
The most committed members of the Society of Universal Friends were a group of unmarried women who took leading roles and named themselves the Faithful Sisterhood. In the 1790s, members of the Society of Universal Friends acquired land in Western New York where they formed the township of Jerusalem near Penn Yan, New York.
The PUF gave a final regular sermon in November 1818 and died the following year, aged 66. The Society of Universal Friends continued for a few decades, but as members died off, the society had ceased to exist by the 1860s.
The Society of Universal Friends ceased to exist by the 1860s.
Images from en.wikipedia.org/