The Public Universal Friend

Black-and-white portrait of The Public Universal FriendOn 11 October 1776, 23-year-old Jemima Wilkinson lay close to death in her bed in Cumberland, Providence, Rhode Island, suffering from a fever, possibly typhus. Much to her family’s relief, instead of dying, she awoke and rose from her bed, alive but forever changed. She announced to those around her that she was no longer Jemima Wilkinson, who had died. Her soul had gone to heaven, and in its place, God had sent down a divine spirit charged with preparing his flock for the coming millennium. This holy messenger, neither man nor a woman, was to be known as the “Public Universal Friend.”

The Public Universal Friend lived during a time of widespread religious fervor known as the Great Awakening, which began in colonial America in the early 18th century and continued in successive waves up to the late 20th century. In reaction to the ideas of the Enlightenment and Calvinist theology, the evangelical movement of the 18th century emphasized free will, the possibility of universal salvation, and a personal relationship with God.

The Friend operated within the tradition of the Quaker public Friends, itinerant preachers who were allowed to travel between meetings and communities to preach. However, the Quaker Society of Friends disowned the entire Wilkinson family in response to the Friend’s religious claims. Adherents of the resulting new sect called themselves the Society of Universal Friends, and cut ties with the main body of the Quakers in order to follow the person they often called the “Comforter.”

The Public Universal Friend traveled across Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and eastern Pennsylvania, preaching to large crowds. The meetings attracted the attention of local newspapers, which tended to focus on the Friend’s ambiguous gender rather than the content of the sermons, commenting on the preacher’s masculine clothing and hair.

The Universal Friends rejected predestination, encouraged abstinence, and called for the abolition of slavery. In many ways, their theology was very similar to that of mainstream Quakers. However, the perceived transgressive nature of the Friend’s ministry began to attract negative attacks from without and sowed dissension within the group. The fact that women held influential positions in the Society of Universal Friends, and that outsiders often saw male Universal Friends as subservient to their female counterparts, rankled some outside the group. Reports that Wilkinson claimed to be Jesus Christ, along with lurid rumors of attempted murder in the community, began to turn public opinion against them.

In the late 1780s, the Friend and their followers decided to create a place for themselves in the wilderness in upstate New York. They gathered the funds to purchase land in the newly opened Phelps and Gorham Purchase in the Genesee River area. The two towns they built came to be called The Gore and Jerusalem.

In the 1810 U.S. Federal Census, the Friend appears as “Jemima Wilkinson or Universal Friend” in Jerusalem, Ontario, New York.

Image of Jemima Wilkinson/Public Universal Friend's name in census record

Four men and seven women were in the household, four over the age of twenty-four and seven over the age of forty-five. These were the preacher’s closest associates.

Disputes over land, and problems with disillusioned (mostly male) members of the Society, plagued the later years of the Friend’s ministry. Their failing health emboldened their enemies, who decided to pursue litigation over one of these land disputes. In the end, the court found that no indictable offense had occurred, and invited the preacher to give a sermon in the court room.

The Public Universal Friend died on 1 July 1819 in Jerusalem. Their body was placed in a stone vault in the cellar of their house. Years later, it was removed and buried in an unmarked grave. The Society of Universal Friends carried on for a short while without the Comforter, but they were hampered by continuing disputes over land and an inability to attract new members without their charismatic leader. By the 1860s, the sect ceased to exist.

10 thoughts on “The Public Universal Friend

  1. For more information on the first universalists in America google Hosea Ballou from Gloucester then Oxford, MA.
    I’m fascinated with the evolution of Protestant churches as they splintered then recombined more recently in the 20th century. For example the universalists merged with the Unitarians, who had spun off from the Congregationalists, led by Harvard theologians who questioned the Trinity.

  2. My husband’s ancestor Thomas Hathaway 1731-1795, was one of those who accompanied the friend to New York and was involved in many of the groups early land transactions. Thomas is a proven Mayflower descendant of Francis Cooke and Richard Warren via the Arthur Hathaway- Sarah Cooke line.

  3. My fourth great grandmother, Mary Reynolds Gardner, followed the Universal Friend from Rhode Island to Jerusalem. Mary left her husband and took their three children with her. When the conflicts over land ownership came to a head, Mary’s brother, John Reynolds, of East Greenwich, RI, supported her by purchasing a 10-acre plot of land for her in the Gore area in 1796, “separate, distinct, and exclusive of her husband, George Gardner of Washington Co., RI.” The deed stated that she could “sell or dispose of the land fully and completely as if she was legally discharged from her said husband.” (Ontario Co., NY Deeds, Vol. 7, p. 257.) About 10 years later, she did just that, moving to Milo, Yates Co., on the other side of the lake (Keuka). The Friend’s house purportedly still exists today, overlooking the west branch of Keuka Lake. Mary and several of the other followers of the Friend are buried on the east side of the lake in City Hill Cemetery, Penn Yan, NY,

  4. It would be great to see the 1810 US Federal census where The Friend lived in NYS. I believe my Great-grandmother, Mary Bostwick Hendee, who was born in 1817 in what was later called Yates County, had parents who were followers of the Friend. She lived in Michigan with her husband John Jackson Hendee, who was born also in 1817 in VT. They moved to California and died there in the 1890s/1900. The Bostwicks were a longtime New Milford CT family and the Friend had some success there getting adherents. I am stuck not being sure as to who her parents were, although some records show as her father Jesse Bostwick who married a Hazard from RI, Rhode Island being the main source of members of that society. Any help would be appreciated.

  5. My husband’s ancestor Thomas Hathaway (1731-1795) of New Bedford, Mass. was one of those in the initial group traveling to NY and was the signatory on many of the early land purchases. Thomas was also a Mayflower descendant, Cooke and Warren via the union of Arthur Hathaway and Sarah Cooke.

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