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166 Chapter 7 Judges And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies round about. —Judges 2:14 Disputes and disappointments marked the last two decades of the Public Universal Friend’s ministry. The prophet had moved to the New York frontier hoping to find a peaceful sanctuary for himself and his followers, but instead he witnessed his disciples fall away and their Society descend into conflict. In addition, the seclusion that life in the backcountry afforded was only fleeting, and the Friend’s community of the faithful soon proved to be all too exposed to the baleful influence of outsiders . Methodist circuit preacher Thomas Smith demonstrated this in 1806 when he held an outdoor meeting in Jerusalem near the prophet’s home. According to Smith, he spoke to a large crowd while the Universal Friend observed from a distance. The preacher directly challenged the Comforter’s identity as a holy messenger, taking as his text Revelations 2:20: “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel,which calleth herself a prophetess,to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.” Who Smith considered Jezebel was clear to everyone. When some of the Friend’s adherents reported what he had said to their leader, Smith recalled that “she wept, and then put the black mark of reprobation on me.”1 Itinerant preachers were not the only visitors to Jerusalem, and by the nineteenth century, tourists on their way to see Niagara Falls frequently made an excursion to see the Universal Friend. Several of these travelers JUDGES 167 published accounts that give the impression of a prophet whose charismatic powers were clearly on the wane. In 1810 a man who simply signed his narrative “T.C.” described the holy messenger as “a corpulent women, masculine featured, her hair (nearly gray) combed back, her age fifty-nine . . . neither her tone of voice nor manner bespoke much intercourse with the world,and nothing with the polite part of it.”After talking with the prophet about his religious views,the visitor took his leave,having found the Friend’s conversation “unpleasantly parenetic and didactice, abounding with scripture phraseology applied somewhat at random, and strongly savouring of what seemed to me affected mysticism.” Similarly, an anonymous traveler’s report from 1812 describes the Comforter as “selfish,” “tyrannical,” and “overbearing” and his followers as “weak in intellect, and inclined to superstitions .” The writer also foresaw the sect’s decline, asserting that it did not “exceed one hundred in number” and predicting “the submission which they made [to the Friend], will not probably be imitated by their children.”2 It would be easy to pass off these observations as uninformed opinions that do not accurately portray the Universal Friend or his Society, yet there is more than a kernel of truth to them. The prophet was aging and losing the energy and comeliness of youth that had served him so well in the early years of his ministry. After the move to the New York frontier, the Friend also lost access to large numbers of potential converts in the thickly settled East;worse yet,the followers he had already attracted began to fall away. The primary source of trouble,however,was a rebellion against the prophet’s rule led by defecting members of his sect. These rebels challenged the Universal Friend’s claims to divine status and focused their attacks on his earthly bases of power.3 The apostates who led the revolt against the prophet were all men,and their methods mark the gendered nature of the rebellion. One dimension of their campaign centered on prosecuting the Friend for blasphemy. Though this effort was certainly a response to the challenge the holy messenger posed to Christian orthodoxy, it was more a reaction against what they came to see as the prophet’s usurpation of male religious authority. The dissidents’attack on the Friend’s property holdings was also related to conflict over the proper roles for men and women. What became a decades-long effort to strip the prophet of his sizeable estate was not just motivated by the prospect of material gain, but by the very fact that the Friend’s standing as a leading property holder flew in the face of basic social norms and gender hierarchies...


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