Jackson, Rebecca Cox

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JACKSON, Rebecca Cox

Born 15 February 1795, Hornstown, Pennsylvania; died 24 May 1871, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Daughter of Jane (Cox), later Wisson or Wilson; father's name unknown; married Samuel S. Jackson (date unknown, before 1830; separated 1836)

Rebecca Cox Jackson was a charismatic itinerant preacher, the founder of a religious communal family in Philadelphia, and a religious visionary writer. Though an important example of African American female religious leadership and spirituality in the 19th century, she was virtually unknown from her death until the rediscovery and publication of her spiritual autobiography; Gifts of Power, in 1981. Virtually all that is known of her life is recorded in this autobiography and in Shaker archives.

As the result of the powerful religious awakening experience in a thunderstorm in 1830 with which her spiritual autobiography begins, Jackson became active in the early Holiness movement and came to challenge the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church of her upbringing. She moved from leadership of praying bands to public preaching, stirring up controversy within AME circles not only as a woman preacher, but also because she had received the revelation that celibacy was necessary for a holy life. She criticized the churches, including the AME church and its leaders, for "carnality." Her insistence on being guided entirely by the dictates of her inner voice led ultimately to her separation from husband, admired older brother (Joseph Cox, an AME preacher with whom she had lived since her mother's death), and church.

After a period of itinerant preaching in the later 1830s and early 1840s, in June 1847 Jackson joined the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing (the Shakers), at Watervliet, New York. She was attracted to their religious celibacy, their emphasis on spiritualistic experience, and their dual-gender concept of deity. With her younger disciple and lifelong companion, Rebecca Perot, Jackson lived at Watervliet until July 1851. Increasingly disappointed in the predominantly white Shaker community's failure to take the gospel of their founder, Ann Lee, to the African American community, Jackson left Watervliet on an unauthorized mission to Philadelphia, where she and Perot experimented with séance-style spiritualism. They returned to Watervliet for a brief second residence in 1857, and at this time Jackson won the right to found and head a new Shaker "outfamily" in Philadelphia. This predominantly black and female Shaker family survived her death by at least a quarter of a century.

Like several other African American women preachers in the 19th century, Jackson achieved her religious leadership role largely through visionary experience and her ability to communicate such experience to others, at first solely through oral testimonial. Illiterate into her middle age—"the only child of my mother that had not learning"—she depended immediately after her conversion on her literate elder brother to help her religious correspondence. Her autobiography records her increasing frustration with this dependency and her joy when she prayed for literacy and received it by divine gift.

Gifts of Power records her spiritual journey as a woman with a divine calling, from her awakening through her discovery of Shakerism and the founding of her own community. She describes a wide variety of visionary experiences, including mysterious prophetic dreams and supernatural "gifts of power" (such as the ability to control the weather by prayer). The dream visions give access to a world in which laws of nature are violated with ease. The physical body left behind, the dreamer soars into the air, and is given flashes of understanding about both the physical universe and the spiritual world. Jackson's visionary dreams also show her confronting fears of racial and sexual violence; working out an understanding of the mother aspect of the godhead; and even resolving conflicts that arose in her relationships with brother, husband, spiritual companions, and Shaker leaders.

Alice Walker has described Gifts of Power as "an extraordinary document," which "tells us much about the spirituality of human beings, especially of the interior spiritual resources of our mothers." Writing of Jackson's relationship to Perot, Walker coined the term "womanism" to distinguish a specifically black feminist cultural tradition that includes women's love for other women but is not "separatist."

Other Works:

Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress (reissue, 1987).

Manuscript writings include an autograph version of her incomplete autobiography in the Berkshire Athenaeum at the Public Library, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. A short booklet containing Perot's dream accounts dictated to Jackson, a few of Jackson's dreams, and a rough draft anthology of all Jackson's extant writings, produced by her Shaker historian, Alonzo Hollister, are in the Shaker Collection, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio. A fair copy of this anthology is in the Library of Congress Shaker manuscript collection.

Bibliography:

Braxton, J., Black Women Writing Autobiography (1989). Gates, H. L., Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988). Williams, R. E., Called and Chosen: The Story of Mother Rebecca Jackson and the Philadelphia Shakers (1981). Duclow, G., "The Philadelphia Shaker Family," in The Shaker Messenger (1994). Evans, J. H., Spiritual Empowerment in Afro-American Literature: Frederick Douglass, Rebecca Jackson, Booker T. Washington, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison (1987). Humez, J. M., "Visionary Experience and Power: The Career of Rebecca Cox Jackson," in Black Apostles at Home and Abroad, D. M. Wills and R. Newman, eds. (1982). McKay, N. Y., "Nineteenth Century Black Women's Spiritual Autobiographies: Religious Faith and Self-Empowerment," in Interpreting Women's Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives, the Personal Narrative Group, ed. (1989). Sasson, D., "Life as Vision: The Autobiography of Mother Rebecca Jackson," in The Shaker Spiritual Narrative (1983). Walker, A., "Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Cox Jackson," in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens (1983). Williams, R. E., Called and Chosen: The Story of Mother Rebecca Jackson and the Philadelphia Shakers (1981).

Reference works:

NBAW (1991). Black Women in the United States: An Historical Encyclodpedia. Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History. ANB.

Other references:

Jackson of Feminist Studies in Religion (Fall 1989). Tulsa Studies in Women's Litertaure (Fall 1982).

—JEAN MCMAHON HUMEZ