The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America


July 20, 2016
by Michael Tuosto Also by this Author


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Book Review: The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America by Paul B. Moyer (Cornell University Press, 2015)


Paul Moyer’s The Public Universal Friend explores the history of a particular sectarian movement in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.  The connection to the American Revolution seems tenuous at times, but it is actually important and real.  The analysis is similar to Gordon Wood’s, The Radicalism of the American Revolution in that it explores the changing dynamic of social norms, hierarchies, and interpersonal relationships between different socioeconomic classes during the revolutionary era.  This book does not explore events on the battlefield, like a John Ferling book, or the political philosophies of the founding fathers, like a Joe Ellis book.  The Public Universal Friend establishes a correlation and a causation between the democratic principles of the Revolution, including the Revolution itself, and the emergence of the Society of Universal Friends.  It explores the social history of this particular sectarian movement and how it was reflective of the broader American population.  The author shows how the Revolution and revolutionary fervor was instrumental to the emergence of this sectarian movement and how the sect pushed the boundaries of egalitarian sentiment in the mainstream of America at the time.

The author makes an obvious effort to reinforce the idea that this is a book, in part, about the American Revolution.  Most sections end with a brief summary of the connections between The Public Universal Friend and revolutionary America.  Moyer writes that the Public Universal Friend’s ministry “offers up important lesson about this tumultuous period [the America Revolution].  It highlights that the Revolution was truly revolutionary – that it was not just a process of political and constitutional change accomplished on battlefields and in state houses, but of deep social and cultural transformation enacted in homes, communities, and churches across the nation.”  There were limitations on the move towards equality and the sect was ahead of the mainstream of Revolutionary America in several areas including gender norms.

The Revolution’s “democratic overtones nurtured a brand of Christianity where lay control and popular forms of religious expression held sway.”  The rise of the Public Universal Friend was a result of “religious impulses emanating from below” and, in typical Revolutionary fashion, the people rejecting “elite sources of religious authority.” Moyer writes that “The story of the Society of Universal Friends supports the notion that a positive relationship existed between religious innovation and the American Revolution,” and that both the changes in the religious landscape of America and the American Revolution were spurred on by similar sentimentalities.  Moyer explains throughout the book that one of the most radical components of the revolutionary era was that common folk no longer deferred to their “social betters” and this was as true in the religious sphere as it was in the political sphere.  The religious sects that emerged during the American Revolution reflect this attitude and the success of the Public Universal Friend’s sect was an example of this.

The Public Universal Friend is an exploration of the development, culture, and tenants of the sect, so aside from the occasional repetition, the lack of a chronological order is appropriate.  The sect was born in 1776.  Jemima Wilkinson was living in Cumberland, Rhode Island in 1776 and she contracted typhus, which was introduced into the area by a Continental ship.  When she recovered she claimed the Holy Spirit had descended into her body and she assumed the role of the Public Universal Friend.  After this transition “the person” recognized “itself” as a “he” because of the presence of the holy-spirit.  The author illustrates the confusion felt by contemporaries over this supposed change in sex by interchanging the pronouns, which was certainly confusing to me at times as the reader.

Jemima Wilkinson the prophet began preaching throughout New England, including Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.  Throughout the 1780s a sect known as the Society of the Universal Friends began to develop.  The excessive number of funerals and executions resulting from the Revolution fostered a widespread demand for salvation and created the opportunity for the Public Universal Friend to succeed in forming a new religious sect.  Deaths of spouses and sons in battle, diseases spread by armies, and a pacifist sentimentality among former Quakers and New Light evangelicals were some reasons the Public Universal Friend was able to establish a unique American religion.

The sect was heavily influenced by Quakerism and New Light evangelical beliefs and characteristics.  It was not new or innovative in any way.  They eschewed traditional doctrine espoused by elitist professional clerics, traditional denominational institutions and rituals, the concept of original sin, and the puritan concept of predestination.  They embraced spirit-driven preaching by charismatic leaders, universal salvation, and free will.  Furthermore, the Public Universal Friend encouraged celibacy, prohibited lust, discouraged marriage, and opposed slavery.  It is unclear whether the Public Universal Friend had a messianic complex, but the devastation imposed by the Revolution did provide a fertile landscape for fears of Armageddon and the need for salvation before the final judgment.

The Public Universal Friend is emblematic of a distinctly American religious culture.  The turn away from theological arguments and educated clerics can be viewed as anti-intellectual and while there might be some truth to that, I prefer to think about it as just another expression of American’s aversion to the shackles of authority.  Moyer explains that “… the forces of popular religion reshaped American spiritual life as control over faith shifted away from the established clergy and orthodox theology and toward lay folk who favored more … liberating creeds …The Public Universal Friend’s emphasis on universal salvation and stress on the individual believer’s relationship with the divine … served to ease, if not erase, hierarchies of class, race, and sex.” The Public Universal Friend embodied the strengthening democratic ideals in Revolutionary America.

The Public Universal Friend had detractors, some of who published harsh critiques about him in the exploding print media of revolutionary America.  The Public Universal Friend recognized himself as a man, but the public at large saw a woman at the head of a growing religious sect, which challenged traditional gender norms.  Founders like John Adams believed that the American Revolution unleashed democratic forces that were dangerous and the Public Universal Friend was a seen by many as an example of those apprehensions.  Many contemporaries felt that demagogues would be free to steer people away from republican virtue and “… along with liberty and independence, [the Revolution] also brought in uncertainty, instability, and risk.  The Public Universal Friend and his Society appeared to be just such a source of danger: a seductive Siren leading the nation’s citizens toward disaster.”

The sect began migrating west in 1787.  The Society of Universal Friends established two different settlements in upstate New York, one referred to as Jerusalem.  The goal was to leave behind the sinful world of the colonies, but between 1790 and 1820, more western land was settled than during the entire colonial period.  The sinful world followed them in search of a better life and more opportunity.  The disciples of the Public Universal Friend cultivated productive farms in the face of Indian attacks, food shortages, and government land battles.  In these settlements, disciples were able to fully embrace the domestic lifestyle espoused by the Public Universal Friend, which included eschewing marriage and reduced procreation.  Women were also engaging in labor that was traditionally fulfilled by males.  Women in these settlements had more independence and authority than mainstream American women, in part because of a shifting view of marriage as a spiritual connection instead of an economic one, but equality for women would remain a slow development.

The Public Universal Friend failed to institute formal doctrines and construct enduring institutions, so his faction soon dissolved after his death.  The “messenger had always been more important than the message.”  The perspective Moyer provides of this uniquely American religious sect makes the reader reconsider potentially condescending views they might have held about modern American religions with less than ancient histories and vast institutions.  Moyer writes that “One of the most radical developments of the revolutionary era was the common folk no longer looked to their social betters and settled ministers for spiritual insight; instead, they sought their own answers with the help of the Bible and the guidance of charismatic leaders … By century’s end, America’s old, elite-dominated, orthodox Christian order was no longer meeting the spiritual needs of many ordinary and even well-to-do people.” In this way, The Public Universal Friend is very much a story about the American Revolution.  It just so happens that in the 1770s and 1780s the American Revolution was not just taking place on the battlefield, but was a comprehensive shift in the hearts and minds of colonial Americans.

The Public Universal Friend is a historical analysis of the revolution taking place in the homes of ordinary Americans at the time military giants like Washington and intellectual giants like Madison were leading the fight against Great Britain.  A student of history cannot appreciate the driving force behind the men made famous by the American Revolution without an understanding of the social history of the American colonies during the latter half of the 1700s.  Paul Moyer’s book provides an in depth analysis of an important component of that social history.

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