LGBTQ Literature is a Readers and Book Lovers series dedicated to discussing literature that has made an impact on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. From fiction to contemporary nonfiction to history and everything in between, any literature that touches on LGBTQ themes is welcome in this series.
LGBTQ Literature posts on the last Sunday of every month at 7:30 PM EST. (This one was postponed a week due to family crisis. —Clio2)
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The news fanned out by word of mouth, letter, carrier pigeon, newspaper, handbill: envoys from British colonies up and down eastern North America had announced a divorce from the parent nation. The “free and independent states” bubbled with excitement, doubt, tension, euphoria, anxiety, war preparations.
A warship of the new Continental navy, the Columbus, soon eased her way into the busy harbor of Providence, R.I. Even before the Declaration, the Columbus had seen combat, capturing British vessels in the Caribbean. Now she came home to guard the New England coast. But first, she had to disembark prisoners and undergo repairs.
Together with her prisoners, the Columbus offloaded a stowaway: contagion. Dubbed “Columbus fever” by locals, the sickness spread through the seaport and beyond.
A few miles north in the town of Cumberland, the 23-year-old daughter of Quaker widower Jeremiah Wilkinson fell ill with the fever on October 5. Her alarmed father called in a physician from Attleboro, Mass., ten miles off. The doctor could offer little help or comfort. As her fever climbed, Jemima fell into a coma. The family resigned themselves to the loss of this bright, attractive, energetic young woman on the threshold of her life.
...[H]owever, in the predawn hours of Friday, October 11...she suddenly recovered and rose from her bed…
[T]he young woman announced that she was no longer Jemima Wilkinson, explaining that she had died and her soul had gone to heaven, but her body had been reanimated by God and invested with a divine spirit that was neither male nor female in order to serve as his holy messenger….
...Wilkinson abandoned her [sic ] birth name and took a new one: the Public Universal Friend.
--Moyer, p. 12.
The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm In Revolutionary America, by Paul B. Moyer (Cornell University Press, 2015)
Dr. Paul Moyer (Ph.D. College of William and Mary, 1999, now professor at SUNY Brockport) is apparently the first writer to have published a book-length account of the Public Universal Friend in more than 50 years. It is IMO a valuable work, yet in some ways a frustrating read.
While packed with a treasury of detail, the account I think could have been better organized. His subject’s greatest point of interest as a historical figure—namely, unique gender identification—does not receive a chapter of its own nor much in-depth examination.
Physical descriptions of the Friend are detailed, as well as as behavior. Contemporary reactions to the Friend’s gender nonconformity are reported. Beyond that Moyer declines to interpret much, in contrast to the author’s willingness to expand and even speculate on quite a few other points.
Moyer also stresses at length ways in which the Friend’s message and actions resembled and paralleled those in other religious movements. At times this emphasis almost smothers the more compelling points of main narrative, which must be extracted from thickets of contextual matter.
Some of Moyer’s speculations seem peculiarly skew to his subject. For instance, in discussing events leading up to the Friend’s transformation:
Jemima Wilkinson faced...anxieties….[E]ntering her mid-twenties....it is possible that she began to face the fear of becoming an old maid…. (pp. 15 f.)
Moyer respects the Friend’s chosen signifiers most of the time, using she/her pronouns only in reporting the words of contemporaries who employed those pronouns. Yet he curiously deadnames the Friend, not only before the Friend’s transformation—excusable—but in both the book title and concluding paragraph.
The total pattern in dealing with Friend’s gender identity seems as if it might hint at either discomfort around the concept, or a text revised to accomodate it, midstream.
Still, The Public Universal Friend conscientiously assembles a great many facts, including contemporary testimony and social context, and so rewards study. Meanwhile a handful of other academic and local historians, bloggers and journalists also have taken an interest in the Friend. Supplemented with some of their insights, Moyer’s book provides a solid place to start, for those of us who want to work out our own interpretations.
BTW, a reader might wonder if it was right to use the anachronistic term “transgender” in the headline of this story. I gave the question a lot of thought before concluding, “Yes.”
The Friend’s followers referred to the Friend using he/him pronouns, which one adherent explained as a “mark of respect” (Moyer, p. 100; I follow suit in this article). Some also referred the Friend as a “brother.”
Outside observers, however, universally seem to have gendered the Friend as female and stuck with “she/her.”
The Friend adopted a style of dress and behavior that appeared to many closer to typical of men—at least certain clergymen—than of women at that time.
Yet the Friend never asserted male identity. He abandoned his birth name and adopted no other personal name. He was simply the Public Universal Friend (often shortened to just the Friend), or sometimes, the Comforter.
He even described himself in his will as the person who was previously called Jemima Wilkinson, and signed that document with an X (Moyer, p. 194).
Taken all together, the fact patttern suggests to me a person who—had today’s concepts and vocabulary been available—might have called himself agender and/or nonbinary. (Whether agender or nonbinary persons should also count as transgender has been debated; I think consensus is moving towards “Yes, if the person wishes.”)
A thumbnail of the Friend’s career:
During the war, the Friend gathered hundreds of followers as he traveled and addressed crowds across five states. His gender nonconformity, together with a more conventional apocalyptic message of repentence, created a stir. In 1783—just as the Treaty of Paris was signed—the Church of the Universal Friend established a written credo and formal structure. Congregations sprang up in several cities.
In 1788 the new nation ratified its Constitution. That same year, the Friend started working to acquire a large land parcel on the frontier in upstate New York. (This, it must be noted, was part of a general land rush in the post-Revolutionary period. One result of American victory was that Western lands wrested from Native Americans were legally opened to white settlement.)
By 1790, the Friend had moved his base of operations to what is now Yates County. The Friend portioned out the purchased land among church members as private landholders and their households, rather than forming a collective like the Shakers or the later Oneida Community.
Over the years, the congregation built up a successful farming and craft economy with all the necessary infrastructure. They were not strict separatists like the Shakers, but did business with the surrounding community. Nor were they necessarily celibate, though as with Quakers, marriage was not a duty.
As the group prospered, the Friend upgraded his own dwelling from a simple hipped-roof box to an impressive three-story, double-chimneyed structure. He even acquired a handsome private carriage. Meanwhile, the settlement also attracted curiosity seekers, foreign travelers, and journalists.
The group survived scandalous accusations by outsiders. They also wrangled, however, over land shares, argued about the Friend’s leadership, and eventually split in two. Through all this, and despite persistent legal attacks—including a charge of blasphemy—the Friend remained securely in place. He passed away, surrounded by loyal adherents, in 1819 at the age of 68.
The Church of the Universal Friend, however, fragmented after his death. Its last remaining believer passed away in 1847. Only a scatter of primary sources and artifacts survive.
I won’t try to fill in the entire story, but want to expand a bit on three topics:
First, how the Friend—in the parlance of our time—performed in relation to gender, and what that performance may have signified to hearers;
Second, how a core church community formed under the Friend’s leadership, and how the Friend’s gender identity related to social context;
And third, how the the Friend dealt with attacks from the period’s binary and male-hegemonic power structure.
The performance of gender
(This section uses details of the Friend’s appearance reported by Moyer; the suggested comparisons and deductions from period art works are my own.)
Clothing everywhere speaks a symbolic language, designed to signal the wearer’s status and role. The characteristic dress of the Friend may read as “feminine” in modern dialect; but in the Friend’s own day, was universally parsed as masculine.
For one thing, the Friend’s fashion of hat was decisive in forming that impression: a broad-brimmed, low-crowned affair of beaver-fur felt, typical of Quaker men. The Friend wore such hats in various shades from white through brown and black, but apparently always kept to that style. In fact, one of his hats survives in the Yates County museum (Moyer, pp. 90f.). No respectable woman would have been seen in such a thing.
Equally telling, indoors when the Friend removed the hat, he would go bare-headed. Except for young girls, and ladies on social occasions, no decent woman would appear without a linen or silk cap covering her hair (worn outdoors also, under the bonnet).
The long hair draping the Friend’s shoulders also read as masculine. Again, with few exceptions, women kept their hair tucked up.
Although many people have read the Friend’s sartorial choices as masculine, an article in The Freeman’s Journal [a Dublin newspaper] described the Friend’s clothing as “neither male nor female.”
--"The Public Universal Friend in Philadelphia,"
Podcast, Elfreth’s Alley Museum, July 7, 2020
Just my suggestion, but regarding the Friend’s hairstyle, there is one detail, mentioned by chroniclers and appearing clearly in this portrait, that seems at odds with any contemporary male portrait I have located.
That is, the ringlets.
To find men with dangling ringlets, I had to go back to upper-class portraits from the 1600s, and even there, the curls are different—a cloud of them covering the whole head.
Were dangling ringlets a detail that caught the reporter’s eye? And were they meant by the Friend as an outward and visible sign of gender ambiguity?
Some contemporary clergy wore a black robe known as a Geneva gown.
The Friend apparently did not wear an actual Geneva gown, but produced a similar impression in a black petticoat, old-fashioned long black waistcoat, and covering cloak. Some observers stated the Friend wore male attire; others reported mixed signals. The look was clearly at odds with female convention, which called for a fitted bodice, or waist at the very least.
Ordained clergy members often sported linen preaching bands as neckwear. Depictions of the Friend show him only approximating that look. Refer back to the three portraits shown above: all show the Friend wearing two white accessories, layered, at the neck. In each instance, one of the two resembles a man’s cravat. The other varies: a scarf, a loop of fabric, something that looks like preaching bands but with acute-angled ends. Exactly what message these choices implied is unclear today, but the Friend’s aim apparently was something other than to duplicate male clerical dress.
As well, the Friend’s voice and manner of delivery were described by some as “manly” but in at least one case as "masculine-feminine” (Moyer, p. 97).
But the Friend’s appearance and demeanor were only an outward and visible sign of more profound gender nonconformism.
In general, women of the Revolutionary period simply did not engage in public speaking. Those who had some public cause to support—even Independence itself—were enjoined to do so domestically, for instance by eschewing tea while sewing and knitting for the soldiers in their family.
The Quaker faith allowed for one exception to this convention: in theory anyone could speak in Quaker prayer meetings, extemporaneously as the spirit might move them, and in some cases, women did so. Sect founder George Fox, urged by his wife Margaret Fell, created separate but parallel church administrative meetings for men and women, both powerful although men had the final say in business decisions and the sect’s interactions with the outside world.
Speaking in public was another story.
Quakers regularly authorized a few of their number to serve as travelling ministers, who might preach in public. (These individuals were known as Public Friends—clearly the inspiration for the Friend’s chosen name.) This was not a recognized role for women.
Just two women had ever served as missionaries for the Quaker faith, back in the 1600s. Anne Hutchinson, outspoken Puritan reformer, had been ejected from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638. Mother Ann Lee—contemporary with the Friend—imported the ethos of an odd English splinter sect and founded, against heavy opposition, a unique denomination, separatist and celibate. Traditional ordination was, of course, open only to men.
In this context the Friend’s behavior in traveling from town to town, surrounded by a core group of adherents; preceded by what we would call “advance men” (and women); addressing large crowds in the open air; speaking “as one having authority” to warn in traditional but emotive terms of the coming judgement and urging sinners to repent; all these read as very masculine behavior indeed. The pattern closely resembles earlier 18th century evangelicals such as John Wesley and George Whitefield, English Methodists who visited America, except that the Friend was not an ordained member of the clergy.
Given that the Friend was quite open about his personal history, in hindsight it seems surprising that the Friend was able to accomplish this at all.
Though some observers might sneer, the Friend was neither shut down by the civil authorities nor physically mauled by mobs—as happened to Ann Lee, and would happen later to women who spoke in public against slavery or in favor of women’s rights.
A self-presentation appearing both vaguely clerical and more masculine than feminine would doubtless support by nonverbal messaging the Friend’s claim of a right to engage in public speaking.
Curiosity, charisma, and community
No doubt many who turned out to hear the Friend preach were moved to do so at first by sheer curiosity.
Moyer attempted to discover statistically what might distinguish those who formed a real attachment to the Friend’s organization. He came up virtually empty.
Their profile looked much like that of the Quaker community from which the Friend had sprung. Indeed, a good many though by no means all of the Friend’s followers were originally Quakers themselves—including members of the Friend’s own family. Typical adherents were solvent, respectable, hard-working, serious-minded people of middling social status. A few were more than middling.
Many had families. In some cases whole families joined with the Friend. Other families became theologically split. Only a few individuals seem to have left the bosom of a family in order to join the Friend’s western settlement. Women in the group outnumbered men, but not by much.
A small number of the Friend’s adherents were Black. Their background stories are fragmentary, but we know the Friend persuaded white converts to free some people they held in slavery. At least one manumitted individual, 18-year-old Chloe Towerhill, later joined the sect and remained with the Friend for life.
As for the Friend’s message, he combined aspects of familiar Quaker piety with modernist Evangelical style. By all accounts, the Friend also possessed that indefinable gift—charisma.
And—was that really all?
Isn’t it likely that the Friend’s cutting against gender norms formed part of the positive attraction, at least for some followers?
From time to time, observers...chided female disciples for contravening their identity as women by imitating the Friend’s manner of dress and hairstyle, and at least one writer hinted at what he saw as a dangerous lack of masculinity among the prophet’s male followers.
--Moyer, p. 97
That writer was a Frenchman, who recorded his impressions on a visit to Philadelphia in 1782.
“They were tall, handsome young men, the youngest not above nineteen, with large round flapped hats, and long flowing strait locks, with a sort of melancholy wildness in their countenance, and an effeminate, dejected air.”
--The Marquis de Chastellux (French officer in the American Revolution, traveller, and friend of Washington and Jefferson), quoted in Moyer, p. 98
Open emotional expressiveness of any sort was viewed as both uncivilized and “feminine,” Moyer explains. Even in religious contexts, men who showed less than rigorous emotional control could expect deprecation.
Marriage in the Friend’s sect—as in the Quaker tradition—was neither prohibited nor a duty. Single life ranked as an honorable choice. Also as among Quakers, the average number of children per couple was less than in the population at large.
In some ways daily life in the Friend’s settlement, called Jerusalem, remained traditionally gendered. Men performed most heavier labor, women most of the domestic work. But more than in society at large, some responsibilities were shared.
In assembling land for the settlement, and most other negotiations with outsiders, the Friend relied on certain men in the group to carry out his intentions. At the same time, a core group of up to 40 or 50 women, referred to as “The Faithful Sisterhood,” made up an inner circle of confidants. All but a few of these women were unattached. Their position
...placed them outside the gender hierarchy, gave them the opportunity to exercise independence, and involved them in tasks deemed as men’s work. Some younger members...lived with their parents, while older ones who were widowed sometimes resided with...a married child….Some of the Sisterhood...lived and worked in the Friend’s household….In several other cases, members of the Sisterhood owned property and lived in a state of full economic independence….That these women served as witnesses on important legal documents such as deeds also reflects their expanded role.
--Moyer, p. 157
Women who owned property, farmed, and engaged in business transactions flew in the face of the prevailing assumption that economic power should properly be reserved for males. Under the new Constitution, in fact, the possession of real property, whiteness, and masculine gender became more explicitly tied to the right of self-government. Women and Black men actually lost political power in the early 1800s.
Serving as the Friend’s long-time, right-hand assistants were first, Sarah Richards and later, Rachel Malin. These women acted as the Friend’s “spiritual lieutenants” as well as “chief business agents” (Moyer, p. 158).
Richards had been widowed young, with one child, and did not remarry; her nightly dreams of a second wedding had been filled with foreboding imagery. Her health had never been strong; she passed away at only 36. Malin belonged to a set of four siblings that converted together; she remained single and was among the women members criticized by outsiders for “masculine” attire. The Friend eventually bequeathed his landholdings to Malin and her sister Margaret with instructions to care for former household members and help poorer people belonging to the sect.
The Friend not only ruled over some 60 to 80 households and infrastructure including farms, roads, mills, other industries, a school and meetinghouse. He asserted a claim to be involved in political affairs. For example, in 1794 the Friend attended a council meeting in Canadaigua, N.Y., between a U.S. delegation and representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy (Six Nations). The Friend stepped forward unbidden to offer a prayer and sermon based on the text, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Moyer, p. 155).
The Iroquois, at least reportedly, titled the Friend “a great woman preacher.” Perhaps U.S. officials were annoyed at the unplanned interruption. The Friend made his point that he and his adherents were also members of the wider community.
The New York constitution of 1777, however, explicitly restricted the vote to males. I’ve seen no indication the Friend ever tried to participate in an election.
Slings and arrows
There were, of course, observers who ridiculed the Friend from the first.
Some thought the Friend was merely delusional and his acolytes deluded. Others viewed him as a clever manipulator and conscious fraud. The sect’s stretching of gender norms sparked curiosity, earned newspaper page views, and provided fresh grist for gossip.
What Moyer characterizes as a “media campaign” (p. 104) against the Friend had begun to gel in 1787. Negative opinion gained enough traction that the Friend ceased visiting formerly friendly Philadelphia. Almost surely this bad press also contributed to the choice of a fresh start in the Western country.
Juicy reported scandals appear more entertaining than reality-based. One woman who heard the Friend preach at the home of a Quaker sympathizer, and then stayed overnight, claimed that the Friend’s entourage had tried to murder her under cover of darkness. Much debate over this incident took place at the time; Moyer finds the accusation less than credible.
Later another Frenchman, the Duc de la Rochfoucauld-Liancourt, retailed a comic story that in the western settlement the Friend maintained a sexual relationship with disciple James Parker and—again under cover of darkness—on one occasion bedded him in the presence of a 14-year-old girl who imagined the Friend to be communing with the Holy Spirit.
The Duc piled on a further claim that the Friend had secretly given birth to an infant, which a Black woman in the sect had supposedly been caught in the act of smothering between two mattresses (p. 169).
If a written affadavit of this last incident had actually existed, as the Duc claimed, without doubt there would have been consequences, even in this frontier setting. In any case the Duc’s accusations equate to classic slanders flung throughout history at self-determining women: “whore” and “baby killer.” The racial component of the allegation is also noteworthy.
Other writers grumbled that the Friend acted overbearing and dictatorial. Further, they objected, his giving orders and spiritual direction to men was unseemly, and he imposed arbitrary and humiliating punishments on the errant.
It is apparently true that the Friend once ordered a Peeping Tom, caught in the act, to wear a sheep bell on the hem of his coat.
It is also true that the Friend did overreach. For instance, he several times sought to prevent marriages that might weaken his own position in light of internal politics. Serious harm resulted for individuals, their relatives, and the group as a whole.
The Friend, before 1800, could already sense his strength declining, charisma fading, and congregation shrinking, with no fresh source of converts. Several influential men broke away and formed a separate community with their families—including James Parker. Yes, that James Parker, the alleged lover!
Leaders of this splinter group also commenced lawfare. Via the all-male province of the court system, they maneuvered to weaponize glitches in title transfers—very common in the area—to grab more land for themselves and simultaneously bring down the Friend.
That legal fight lasted the rest of the Friend’s life. In the process he was even forced to sign his former name, “Jemima Wilkinson.” But he refused to settle. At great cost, his defense prevailed at last. But the Friend did not live to see that verdict.
One precedent-setting victory, however, he did get to celebrate. Had his adversaries succeeded, this could have been the coup de grace.
Here’s how it went.
By 1799 James Parker—yes, that same James Parker—not only was a well-to-do landholder, he had forged political connections and been appointed a justice of the peace. Other former adherents of the Friend now held office as a constable and a judge (Moyer, p. 168 f.)
Parker issued an arrest warrant against the Friend for alleged blasphemy. Central to the charge was a witness ready to testify that she had heard the Friend claim to be the Son of God.
Another former follower tried to serve the warrant as the Friend, on horseback, travelled to a neighboring settlement. The Friend galloped off down a steep hill to avoid him. A second attempt, at small cloth manufactury, ended with women workers driving the process servers out of doors and beating them.
Finally a mob of men attacked the Friend’s residence by night. They broke down the door with an axe. The Friend agreed to answer the charge at the county courthouse.
In the end,
...the three judges of the district court could not agree if blasphemy was even a crime in New York. One judge thought that it was, but the other two overruled him, arguing that such a charge ran counter to the state and federal constitutions.
...[T]he presiding justice...announced the decision and then reportedly invited the defendent to say some words…[T]hose who had hoped to witness the prophet’s conviction, instead got to hear him give a sermon.
--Moyer, pp. 173 f.
And so New York State experienced an early clarification of the First Amendment’s meaning.
Religion is not for everyone
Today under the First Amendment, we are free to dismiss religion entirely, choose any, condemn the Friend’s or any other brand as absurd, and/or create our own.
Meanwhile Moyer’s scholarship offers a feast of detail, rich enough that a reader can form an independent own opinion of this historic innovator:
Apparently the first European-American individual to stand up and publicly announce a personal identity entirely transcending binary gender categories. In utter defiance of all religious and social certainties belonging to that particular time and place. With zero support from precedent, language, philosophical categories, personal accounts by others, or psychological theory.
All That Is Interesting blog post about the Friend, March 3, 2020
Elfreth's Alley Museum podcast (The Friend In Philadelphia), July 7, 2020
Futility Closet podcast, with bibliography, March 9, 2020
History Is Gay podcast about the Friend, April 1, 2018.
“Indescribable Being,” scholarly article about the Friend’s self-presentation by Scott Larson in Early American Studies, Fall 2014 (requires JSTOR access, so I haven’t read beyond the summary)
Sidebar: "Female husbands" in the 1700s, The Guardian, Sept. 10, 2021
LGBTQ Literature Schedule (2021):
If you are interested in taking any of the following dates, please comment below or send a message to Chrislove. We’re always looking for new writers, and anything related to LGBTQ literature is welcome!
January 31: Chrislove
February 28: Chrislove
March 28 April 4: Chrislove
April 25: rserven
May 30: Chrislove
June 27: Chrislove
July 25: Clio2
August 29: Chitown Kev
September 26 October 17: Chrislove
October 31 November 7: Clio2
November 28: OPEN
December 26: OPEN
READERS & BOOK LOVERS SERIES SCHEDULE