Wilkinson, Jemima (1752–1819)
Wilkinson, Jemima (1752–1819)
Religious leader and self-proclaimed "Public Universal Friend." Born Jemima Wilkinson on November 29, 1752, in Cumberland, Rhode Island; died at Jerusalem, near Seneca Lake, New York, on July 1, 1819; eighth of twelve children of Jeremiah Wilkinson (a farmer and member of the Colony Council) and Elizabeth Amey (Whipple) Wilkinson; had some public school education; never married; no children.
Jemima Wilkinson was born in 1752 in Cumberland, Rhode Island, the eighth of twelve children of Jeremiah Wilkinson, a farmer and member of the Colony Council, and Elizabeth Whipple Wilkinson . She had some public education. As an adult, Wilkinson heard the preaching of George Whitefield and witnessed the meetings of the evangelizing "New Light Baptists." In 1775, while suffering a severe illness, she believed she died and was the recipient of a vision where she was "reanimated" by the spirit and power of Jesus. Given a charge by God to "warn a lost and guilty, gossiping, dying World to flee from the wrath … to come," she took the name "The Public Universal Friend" and began to speak at open-air meetings where the spirit of her personality rather than the content and message of her words held her audience captive. The basic content of her preaching involved the elevation of the state of celibacy over marriage, the importance of the church over family, and her assertion that she was indeed Jesus Christ come again. Although similarities exist between Wilkinson's thought and the Society of the Believers in Christ's Second Appearance (the Shakers), there is no evidence that she had any contact with this group. Furthermore, as the Shakers, having come to America only in 1774 and in 1775, were still a very small group located in New York City, influence by the teachings of Mother Ann Lee is unlikely.
Beginning in 1776, Wilkinson gathered a group of about 20 of her most devoted followers and traveled a circuit through Rhode Island and Connecticut, preaching her message. In such processions, she rode wearing a flowing long robe, her followers riding two by two behind her. Unlike the Shakers, she was originally well received, in both the towns and countryside, founding churches in New Milford, Connecticut, and East Greenwich and South Kingston, Rhode Island, between 1777 and 1782. In conjunction with her church in South Kingston, Judge William Potter, a devoted follower, built a special addition to his mansion for Wilkinson, who gradually came to control his business and the management of his house and estate. Due to rising antagonism in Rhode Island and Connecticut against her and her followers, in 1783 Wilkinson transferred her headquarters to Philadelphia. It was here that her only published work appeared, The Universal Friend's Advice, to Those of the Same Religious Society, Recommended to be read in their Public Meetings. Philadelphia, however, was only slightly less intolerant and Wilkinson and her followers returned to New England in 1785. Three years later, she decided to try a different climate for her preaching and purchased a large parcel of land in Yates County near Seneca Lake in western New York state. A body of her follows began work to establish a colony, called Jerusalem, where "no intruding foot could enter." Wilkinson joined this group in 1790. Like the Shaker colonies nearby, the enterprise prospered in agriculture and lumbering, and by 1800 it had increased to about 260 members. Wilkinson was well liked by the neighboring Native Americans, who called her Squaw Shinnewanagistawge, or Great Woman Preacher, and she was often visited by European dignitaries and wealthy travelers. The prosperity of the colony, however, created difficulties among its members over land and profit divisions. Wilkinson, furthermore, developed a penchant for requesting gifts and personal effects from members by saying, "The Friend hath need of these things," and for assigning degrading forms of punishment for various infractions of the society rules. Over time a number of members began to leave, some after unsuccessful attempts at gaining some legal authority over the land, and others in anger over Wilkinson's domineering and greedy demands for precedence in person and in items. Having set aside 12,000 acres of the colony's property for her personal use, Wilkinson had an estate built on its farthest corner and remained there in luxury, although ailing with dropsy. She died on July 1, 1819, and the colony soon disintegrated.
Adams, J.Q. "Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Friend," in Journal of American History. April–May, 1915.
"Jemima Wilkinson," in Quarterly Journal of New York State Historical Association. April 1930.
Wisbey, Herbert A. Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1964.
Amanda Carson Banks , lecturer, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee