I wanted to start this series off with the person who inspired it. The Public Universal Friend, about whom I learned just the other day, was born Jemima Wilkinson on Nov. 29, 1752 in the Colony of Rhode Island. After suffering an epidemic disease, now widely regarded as being typhus, this person was near death with an extremely high fever. After recovering from this disease, this person adopted the moniker of “The Public Universal Friend”. This is a reference to the term for itinerant preachers within the Society of Friends (Quakers). These preachers were referred to as “Public Friends”. The Friend claimed from this point forward that Jemima Wilkinson was dead, and her body was granted a new soul, that of the genderless Public Universal Friend.
The followers of the Public Universal Friend founded the Society of Universal Friends, many of whom were unmarried women. This group acquired land in Western New York, on which they founded the township of Jerusalem.
The Friend and their followers were disowned by the greater Society of Friends at the time, specifically because of the Universal Friend’s rejection of gender. The Friend’s teachings were otherwise very much in line with those of the Society of Friends. Popular newspapers and other literature from the time harshly rebuked this idea that anyone of any gender could gain access to God’s light, eventually stirring up enough controversy to incite protests outside of the Friend’s sermons and speeches. This is the reason I have decided to include the Public Universal Friend in this series. They were persecuted for their gender expression, an experience with which so many people to this day can identify.
In closing, I offer this quote as a way of placing the Public Universal Friend within a historical framework: “Scott Larson…writes that the Friend can be understood as a chapter in trans history ‘before ‘transgender’.'”
To learn more about the Public Universal Friend, check out the NPR podcast Throughline episode entitled “Public Universal Friend”, and complement this with the next LGBT+ Figure in History: Ernestine Eckstein.