'The Public Universal Friend,' Or The 1776 US History Story You Never Learned In School
1776 was a time of revolution in America. But it wasn't just a time for political revolution. It was a time of changes of other kinds too, as you're about to find in today's strange story from history that we've dug up for you.
Our Story Begins With Our Hero's Death
When you were in school, maybe they taught you something about Pilgrims coming to Massachusetts in 1620 because they, unlike those evil people back in England, believed in religious freedom. It's a nice story that falls apart a little when you hear the settlers soon turned to expelling and even killing people for their religion. Within a few decades of landing at Plymouth, the settlers passed a law banning all Quakers. When some of these banished Quakers insisted on lingering, the Bostonians whipped them, cut off a few ears, and finally executed three via hanging.
Many Quakers moved to Rhode Island, where they responded to their past persecution by setting up their own restrictive society, as is tradition. A century later, when the colonies were getting swept up in the spirit of 1776, the Quakers didn't care all that much about national identity and wanted no part in the Revolution. But they did care a lot about religious identity. That brings us to the family of Quakers we're looking at today, the Wilkinsons.
Amy and Jeremiah Wilkinson had 12 kids. They named child number eight Jemima, after a daughter God gave Job after killing his other kids to win a bet, which is the sort of thing that might set a kid up for a religious life. In October 1776, while founders were passing around and signing a declaration of independence, 23-year-old Jemima caught a serious disease, possibly typhus. This disease proved fatal.
Well, based on the fact that Jemima recovered and went on to live for another 40 years, you might say that the disease was NOT fatal. Based on firsthand testimony of the patient, however, the disease did indeed kill Jemima Wilkinson. Two archangels greeted the soul in heaven then announced that God had a new plan, as well as a new identity to confer unto the departed. And so Jemima awoke and answered to "Jemima" no more. Now, they were to be known as "The Public Universal Friend."
"Uh, that's not a name," dad Jeremiah presumably said. "If you want a new name, how about Sam? You can't go wrong with Sam." But no: His child was now the Public Universal Friend, who was destined to leave home to preach the good news.
A Ministry With Absolutely No Sinister Foreshadowing
This good news was that the world would soon end. Which might sound like bad news to some people, but times were tough in the 18th century, before Bluetooth and deodorant, and many were happy to hear Jesus was about to destroy everything and spirit us away. The Public Friend preached in various towns, including those occupied by the British during the growing war. Many American soldiers liked taking a break from soldiering to listen to this "good-looking female preacher."
The Public Universal Friend did not identify as a good-looking female preacher. According to them, along with assigning a new name, God had stripped them of all gender. They explained this using a Biblical verse: "How long wilt thou go hither and thither, O thou backsliding daughter? For Jehovah hath created a new thing in the earth: A woman shall encompass a man."
Like many Bible verses, these words are ambiguous (they could be explicit porn instructions), and when someone asked outright whether they were a man or a woman, the Friend replied with another Bible quote: "I am that I am." The speaker behind this quote in the Bible was God, suggesting that maybe the Friend was claiming to be God, made flesh. This would cause some trouble later on.
For now, though, enthusiastic followers grew in number. Help the poor, said the Friend, and followers said, "Yeah, that sounds right." Oppose slavery, said the Friend, and followers said, "Right on." Stay celibate, said the Friend, and followers said, "Hold on, let's not go crazy," and most ignored this advice and married. An exception: 50 women stayed single and formed a group within the movement known as the Faithful Sisterhood. If that name make them sound like militants willing to respond with violence when necessary, good instincts. Keep that thought in mind.
The Murder Accusation
In January 1797, a bunch of the Friend's disciples were staying in Worcester, Pennsylvania, in the home of member David Wagener, a wealthy farmer. They held one of their religious meetings, and two of the women, Sarah Wilson and Abigail Dayton, had an argument about some unrecorded matter. That night, according to Sarah, Abigail entered her room. Her goal: to strangle Sarah to death. But she got confused between the two women sleeping there and set her hands around the other woman in the bed, Anna Steyers. Once she realized her mistake, Abigail let go and left the room without completing the job.
The next morning, when Sarah told everyone else in the home that an attempted murderer stood among them, the others were skeptical. The skeptics included Anna Steyers, who said, "Uh, no one strangled me last night. I'm pretty sure I'd remember that, or at least have some kinky bruises to show for it." Sarah had just had a dream, most agreed.
But Sarah repeated the story to whoever would listen. A Philadelphia newspaper wrote it up, including further details that Sarah would later admit were kind of exaggerated. The account still wasn't interesting enough for other people, who hadn't heard of anyone involved, so the story mutated, now saying that Public Universal Friend was the one who had tried to strangle Sarah, out of some mysterious religious motive. The Friend had a pretty good alibi, having been in Rhode Island during the night in question, but there was no official accusation and so no official chance at a defense.
The Gore Commune
At this point, we understand it sounds like this whole tale is building toward some kind of religious mass slaughter. So, let's warn you now that no such slaughter is forthcoming, but it's going to sound even more like one is, when you learn the Friends opened a commune known as The Gore.
The issue was the world had turned hostile against the group. With the Public Universal Friend having maybe tried killing someone according to the rumor mill, a mob assembled outside their home and rioted, pelting the place with "stones, bricks, bats, et cetera." There was no friendship to be found from the Quakers either. The church expelled two of the Wilkinson boys for joining the Revolution, expelled two of the Wilkinson girls for attending unauthorized religious meetings, and expelled Public Universal Friend for founding their own religion (this is a dealbreaker for most churches).
The disciples needed a place of their own, and so they opened a commune in the wilderness of New York. They called it The Gore, seemingly after Nathaniel Gorham, who'd bought the land for New York from Massachusetts. And least they thought he'd bought the land. Maps weren't so great in those days, so it wasn't till they'd made the move that they realized they hadn't quite got the rights to the land they were on and would need to pay a bunch more to stay there.
A little bit more time there revealed a new problem: Life in the wilderness sucked. These were people used to living in towns, and this commune lacked a whole lot of stuff, such as food. They set about growing crops – anyone raised Quaker back then had oat-based superpowers -- but it still wasn't a comfortable life. People kept getting sick. And so a couple of the members who'd put down the most money for the church now changed their minds and sought to destroy it.
Arrested For Blasphemy
These men, William Potter and James Parker, told the New York authorities that Public Universal Friend had been blaspheming and belonged behind bars. Part of this was the idea that Friend had falsely claimed to be God resurrected (a claim that Public Friend denied when asked directly). Another was that they had been falsely claiming to resurrect other people. According to the dubious story, Public Friend had called people to watch them heal William's recently deceased daughter Susannah. Then someone, suspicious, asked to stick a blade into the corpse to make sure she really was dead. At this point, Susannah jumped up and
Potter was a magistrate, and Parker was a judge. Between the two of them, it was easy to get a warrant out for Public Friend's arrest in the fall of 1800. Actually serving the warrant, though, was more of a challenge. An officer approached a horse-riding Public Friend, who turned tail and rode away, with the cop in pursuit. They made it to the commune home of a supporter, who barred the cop from coming in.
Then came the second arrest attempt. This time, the officer brought backup in the form of a deputy. The two of them came to Public Friend's home. But also in the home were the Faithful Sisterhood, who responded to the incursion by throwing themselves at the officers. Soon, the two men were kicked out of the house, their clothes torn from the scuffle.
Finally came arrest number three. The authorities weren't screwing around this time. Thirty men arrived to take the Public Universal Friend into custody. Their leader smashed through the front door with an axe. Even so, the disciples convinced them to go away, saying the Friend was ill, and if the men threw their suspect in an ox cart like they planned, they might find themselves transporting a corpse. So the officers left, and the Friend instead agreed to give themselves up and go to court. The judge presiding over this case? James Parker.
And The Verdict Is ...
At least the judge was James Parker initially. But someone must have raised an obvious objection, because he was replaced by the impartial Morgan Lewis, signer of the Declaration of Independence and future governor of New York.
Lewis dismissed the case, because, "What is this crap? Blasphemy isn't a crime. And if there were a law making it one, that would be unconstitutional." Even if the Puritans hadn't been so great about religious liberty, America had enshrined the freedom into law through the recently ratified Bill of Rights. Then Judge Lewis invited Public Friend to deliver a sermon to the court. Which might not be totally in line with the establishment clause as we know it, but hey, baby steps.
So that was victory, mostly. Parker and Porter had another ace up their sleeves, though. If they couldn't jail Friend, they realized they could still expel everyone from the commune because the land was conveniently in the two men's names. Public Universal Friend hadn't been able to use their own, since "Public Universal Friend" was never their legal name, and they also hadn't wanted to use their deadname of "Jemima Wilkinson" (and by "deadname," we mean "the name that they had back when they literally died, of typhus").
With the commune gone, the church of the Public Universal Friend didn't grow much in the final decades of its leader's life. And when Public Universal Friend did die, their congregation watched over the body, wondering if, maybe, they would resurrect once again. They did not. But still, just by living, they had proven that America is a place where you can be whoever you want. Religious founder? No problem. Neither male nor female? Sure, no one can stop you.
But they were wrong about the world ending soon. Sorry about that, Friend. Check back in 2023 or something.