Jemima Wilkinson was born in 1752 to a Quaker family in Cumberland, Rhode Island. Her mother died when she was twelve, and she was raised by her older sisters who taught her the traditional education of girls at that time- riding horses, gardening, and reading the basics of Quaker theology. Historian Stafford C. Cleveland wrote in his 1873 History and Directory of Yates County she “took pleasure in adding to her good appearance the graceful drapery of elegant apparel”, and was a lady of “personal beauty”.
At 16, Jemima became involved in the “Great Awakening”, a religious movement sweeping New England in the 1770s. Jemima often sat meditating alone on the Bible in her room. Soon after, Jemima fell ill with typhus fever. She descended into delirium from a high fever describing visions of heaven and angels. Her pulse slowed and she became immobile for 36 hours, and everyone thought she would die. However, she came back from the edge. She informed her family Jemima Wilkinson had “passed to the angel world”. What was now inhabiting Jemima’s body was a spirit destined to “deliver the oracles of God.” She said she would only answer to the name Publick Universal Friend.
The Friend made her first appearance preaching at the Baptist revival meeting the Sunday after her recovery. She took the meeting by storm and was soon travelling around New England and down to Philadelphia. Her message was very close to Quakerism- repentance from sin, humility, the Golden Rule- but it struck a chord with her listeners. She went on to eschew formal church services, hold the Sabbath on Saturday and encourage celibacy. The doctrine was loose and really was simply do unto others, but coming from a girl claiming to be a reanimated spirit it was revolutionary.
After the Revolutionary War, the Friend’s followers created a community in Central New York. This region became known as the “Burned-Over District” because of the fervor of their later religious movements. However, feelings of the fellow pioneers were mixed about the Friend. She cut a strange figure in a flowing cape and wide brimmed hat. A popular story about her goes as follows:
“One morning, the Friend led a band of followers to a lakeshore, where she preached to them on the powers of faith. She built to a fiery conclusion and then proclaimed she was going to walk on water. “Have ye faith that I can do this thing?” she demanded of the crowd. “Yea, we believe!” followers replied. “Then if ye have faith,” the Universal Friend said, “there is no need for any vulgar spectacle.” And with that she turned around, got into her carriage monogrammed with her initials, U * F, and rode off.”
The only verifiable part of this story is the monogrammed carriage, which still exists. Her influence prevailed until her death in 1819, but even that was controversial. Stories said her body was smuggled out of the basement of her home, but it was interred in a vault on her property.
It was the first of many religious movements to come out of the Burned-Over District.
Sources available on request