Up until 1776, the Public Universal Friend has been known as Jemima Wilkinson, a spirited if not incredibly precocious young Quaker woman from Cumberland, Rhode Island. In the year 1776, at the age of 24, she succumbed to a terrible illness—likely typhus—but was resurrected and reanimated by what was described as the “Spirit of God.” Following this born-again transformation, she was no longer Jemima Wilkinson—indeed, she was no longer a she, but a genderless spirit inhabiting a human body on this earthly plane. This “indescribable being” invited others to call them the “Public Universal Friend,” or simply “The Friend.”
Not long after their resurrection, the Public Universal Friend began to preach about the imminent apocalypse urging listeners to repent, turn away from sin, and towards the Gospel. The Friend’s assertion that they were merely a vessel for a genderless spirit resulted in their expulsion from their local Quaker Meeting. The Friend then traveled up and down the eastern seaboard preaching about the end-times and the forthcoming judgment day; there are numerous accounts of witnesses who remarked upon the Friend’s androgynous style of dress, their feminine ringlets peeking out from a man’s beaver cap, and the “low, grum” voice with which the Friend preached their apocalyptic sermons.
By 1787, the Friend had become such a sensation that their well-attended sermon in Philadelphia caused a riot. The local press fanned the flames by publishing slanderous stories about the purported licentiousness of the “preacheress;” one story even went so far as to accuse the Friend of murder. It became clear to the Friend that in order to live peaceably, they and the Society of Universal Friends—the tight-knit group of adherents that had been drawn to the message of the Public Universal Friend—needed to remove themselves from the “wicked world” that so mistreated them.
After much legal and financial finagling, the Society of Universal Friends acquired a large parcel of land in Western New York close to Keuka Lake. They had originally attempted to secure land from the bungled Phelps and Gorham Purchase of 1788, engaging in the widespread speculation of aborginal lands. When the purchase fell through, however, the Society of Universal Friends moved to the Finger Lakes region, where they built their Jerusalem. Small homes clustered together around a Quaker-style Meeting House prior to the construction of the Friend’s Home.
The Home of the Friend, which served as the focal point of the settlement, was built between 1809 and 1815. In this impressive five-bay, 2½-story Federal-style residence, the Friend lived, dined alone, and received both followers and visitors to the community. To this day, it is the only structure remaining from the Friend’s tenure at Jerusalem.
Among the Society of Universal Friends, men and women alike could own land and preach openly. Yet the genderlessness of the Public Universal Friend was seen as an exception rather than the rule. Members of the community occasionally professed to housing the spirits of other prophets, but they never wholly inhabited their bodies in the way that the “Spirit of God” completely enveloped the Quaker formerly known as Jemima Wilkinson. The Friend’s sermons, too, made extensive use of gendered biblical language, reinforcing ideas of the inherent sinfulness of women with the liberal use of misogynistic terms like Jezebels, witches, whores, and fornicators. Like other early intentional communities established by radical Quakers, Shakers, and Moravians, social progress could often go hand-in-hand with social stagnation.
The Public Universal Friend departed this world on July 1, 1819; the Friend was originally interred in their own home, but was later moved to an unmarked grave close to the property, in accordance with their wishes. The Society of Universal Friends remained active in the area of Jerusalem until the 1860s, when waning interest and a declining congregation led to the movement’s dissolution.