The Public Universal Friend

Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America

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Paul Benjamin Moyer
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , September
     2015.
     272 pages.
     $27.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780801454134.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is a readable, well-researched, and insightful book with a carefully thought out theme. It offers a provocative approach to an obscure topic that sheds light on a neglected period of religious development in the revolutionary and early national periods in the United States.  It also illuminates the history of a spin-off denomination of the Religious Society of Friends, so much so that Moyer might have, without criticism, referred to the Universal Friends as Seventh-Day Quakers.

The Public Universal Friend is not a biography of Jemima Wilkinson, a Quaker born in 1752 who supposedly died in 1776 in revolutionary Cumberland, Rhode Island, only to awaken the next morning to announce “his” reincarnation as the Public Universal Friend. It is more a history of the ordinary people who believed the Friend’s message. These are the Universal Friends, who followed him and clung to his legacy for over twenty years after the Public Universal Friend’s final death in 1819. Moyer explains in his notes that he follows historian Jill Lepore’s model of a “microhistory” that makes the story told “an allegory for the culture as a whole” (205, n. 6), a method that could have usefully been included in the text itself.

Moyer emphasizes the “gender-bending” challenges that Wilkinson presented to the larger society, such as referring to the Friend as a man when “he” was clearly a woman, and the “gender-stretching” that gave women much larger roles in the day-to-day management of the community’s property and message than other religious groups of the era allowed. These challenges partially occurred, Moyer believes, via opportunities Wilkinson as Prophet could seize because of the social upheavals of the Revolution. These same expansions gave outside critics weapons to use against the leader and the movement, particularly after they finally settled in western New York, in an area most scholars know as the “burned over district.” The story Moyer relates benefits from recent scholarly emphases on gender studies and seems somewhat predictable, though highly suggestive, in this regard.

Despite his stress on the Friend’s expansion of the boundaries of gender, Moyer never really tackles the gendered contradictions contained within the movement’s insistence that the pronoun “he” be used when referring to their leader. For example, though Moyer hints that the Universal Friends believed their leader actually embodied Christ, they never made any effort to identify part of the Trinity as female. Apparently, the Prophet did not extend gender-stretching feminism to theology, only to “his” temporal practice.

In this way, Moyer’s Friend does not come across as a very serious thinker, but as more of an improviser. Even with the paucity of sources, which Moyer mines exceedingly well, this limitation is clear. One is forced to wonder if the Public Universal Friend ever seriously considered the movement’s long-term survival. It is not surprising, then, that after the leader’s physical decline and death, probably from congestive heart failure, disciples gradually took their leave and disappeared.

Because Wilkinson came from a Quaker background, Moyer should have been more open to broader definitions of mysticism than he offers; he limits the mysticism’s scope to faith healing, dreams, and prophecy, rather than broadening it to show that it was another way to know and commune with God. Likewise, it is an overreach to twice call Margaret Fell the “cofounder” of Society of Friends (with George Fox) rather than the more apt “co-organizer.”  That may have been a principal reason Quakerism survived to nurture Wilkinson a century later.

Paul Moyer has pulled the curtain back to reveal about as much as we can possibly know about the Public Universal Friend. Scholarly and general readers and those interested in Quakerism, women in places of religious leadership, the longstanding impact of revolutions, and even the process of frontier settlement will find this book useful and exciting.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Larry Ingle is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul B. Moyer is Associate Professor of History at The College at Brockport (SUNY). He is the author of The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America and Wild Yankees: The Struggle for Independence along Pennsylvania's Revolutionary Frontier, both from Cornell.

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