- The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America by Paul B. Moyer
One of the more intriguing religious phenomena of the American Revolutionary period has to be the Public Universal Friend. He emerged in 1776 when a young Quaker woman, Jemima Wilkinson, fell seriously ill and was on the verge of death. But Wilkinson recovered, and then she claimed she had in fact died and ascended to heaven, and her earthly body had been taken over by a male spirit known as the Public Universal Friend. This entity began a preaching mission, spreading a classic, conservative Quaker massage, gathering converts in and around Wilkinson’s Rhode [End Page 249] Island home, and eventually founding a community in western New York that would last nearly one hundred years. This fascinating figure and his community have been largely overlooked by scholars, which is a shame since, as Paul B. Moyer’s new book clearly demonstrates, the Public Universal Friend helps to uncover and analyze several important aspects of not only the alternative religious world of the American Revolutionary era but of the larger culture as well.
The Public Universal Friend joins a relatively small body of scholarly research concerned specifically with this Quaker sectarian movement. Represented primarily by Herbert A. Wisbey’s Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Public Universal Friend (1964) and a handful of research articles, the Friend’s movement was in need of a fresh look, especially one informed by the ideas and methods of gender and sexuality studies, as well as more sophisticated demographic research. Moyer has admirably accomplished this task, and The Public Universal Friend should be on the reading lists of scholars of colonial and Revolutionary America and scholars of new and alternative religions. The book is also accessible enough to work in the undergraduate classroom. The chapter structure is clear and consistent, with easy-to-follow arguments. The research is well documented and the notes and bibliography are useful and clear. Ideas and concepts that might be obscure or technical are well explained. Illustrations are numerous and complement the text well. Professors looking for a case study in this vein should definitely consider using it.
From the start, Moyer is clear that this book is much more than a case study of a religious movement or a biography of an interesting character. In fact, scholars expecting a biography of the Friend will likely be disappointed. Certainly, biographical details of the Friend and his followers abound, but the book is much more microhistory and cultural history than biography. Using those approaches, Moyer argues, “sheds light on the complex cross-currents that shaped the lives of men and women during the revolutionary era” (6). For example, using the theories and methods of gender and sexuality studies, Moyer subsequently tells his readers that the Friend’s story will “illuminate the dialogue between religion and gender in revolutionary America … [and] the Friend’s ministry ended up carving out a larger space for female agency” (7). This aspect of Moyer’s analysis is one of the strongest elements of the book, appearing throughout the chapters to illustrate how, although the Friend himself adopted masculine [End Page 250] sartorial styles and preaching patterns, as a result of his work, his females disciples “preached and prophesized, owned property, came to dominate spiritual life with the sect, and … eschewed the traditional roles of wife and mother” while still presenting themselves as women (7–8).
Moyer tackles the environment and circumstances of the Friend’s birth in chapter 1, “Genesis.” He argues that the instability of the time combined with Wilkinson’s illness and the psychological tensions from which she suffered created the Friend: “She was a young adult grappling with the various forms of stress related to both the Revolutionary War and her stage in life. Layered on top of this was an atmosphere of religious experimentation and instability wrought by the Great Awakening and a later wave of revivalism in New England” (18). This is a compelling argument, yet it also...