I’ve been a Quaker for 26 years and only now learned about the Public Universal Friend. The Public Universal Friend is hard to describe. They are considered by some to be the first transgender evangelist, by others the first American-born woman to lead a religious movement, by others a controversal non-binary preacher during the Revolutionary war.
Their origins go back to Jemima Wilkinson, a woman born in 1752 in Cumberland, Rhode Island. The Wilkinsons were a devout Quaker family, running a prosperous cherry farm in Rhode island. Jemima was a strong, intelligent young person who was struck in October 5, 1776 with a mysterious fever that her family assumed would consume her. Instead she seemed to “miraculously” recover six days later, which would be cause for celebration. But something even more remarkable occurred.
The person who awoke proclaimed that Jemima Wilkinson had died and who had emerged was a person who described themselves as “the Public Universal Friend.” The Public Universal Friend (or shortened to “The Friend”) renounced traditional gender roles and wore a mixture of male and female attire of that era.
The Friend went on to found a religious movement that spread like wildfire throughout the colonies. They preached traditional Quaker values of pacifism, plain dress and peaceful relations with native peoples, as well as more evangelical messages of sin and redemption. Women and men were accorded equal status in her movement, with women taking on many leadership responsibilities. Quite radical for the times!
Their preaching drew thousands to their cause throughout the colonies. The Friend eventually founded a religious community in Upstate New York. However schisms within the community led to its collapse shortly their death in 1891.