The Public Universal Friend

by | Aug 17, 2022 | What I'm Seeing and Hearing | 4 comments

After I posted about Benjamin Lay last week, one of my most devoted readers (okay, he’s my son), sent me a link to an NPR podcast about the Public Universal Friend. The PUF, as the podcasters refer to them, was a person who had a near-death experience in the fall of 1776, just a few months after the Continental Congress declared that the former British colonies of what is now the eastern United States were independent. (Remember that there were other British colonies in North America that eventually became Canada.) 

When the PUF, who had taken to her sick bed as Jemima Wilkinson, a 23-year-old woman who had been raised as a Quaker but who had been recently expelled from her Rhode Island meeting for attending a non-Quaker church, rose from their sick bed, they did so with the name Public Universal Friend. Rejecting all gender labels, the PUF adopted a costume that had both masculine and feminine elements and refused to answer to the name Jemima from that day forward.

While detractors continued to refer to the PUF with female pronouns, followers avoided the use of pronouns or gender-specific references. (On the occasions when they did use them, followers tended to refer to the PUF as he ). When asked point blank about their gender, the PUF responded, “I am that I am.”

Despite Wilkinson’s involuntary break with Quakerism, the PUF drew on Quaker principles for the founding of a new religious sect, the Society of Universal Friends. The Friend traveled through New England and south to Philadelphia, preaching and gathering disciples. The PUF must have been quite a charismatic figure, as hundreds of followers joined the movement and followed the PUF to what was then the wilderness of western New York, including a number of Quakers who had been disowned or marginalized and some quite prosperous people who were so moved by the spiritual message of the Friend that they were willing to give it all up. Like Quakers, the PUF and the Universal Friends were pacifists who opposed slavery and gave women and men equal roles in their religious communities.

The Friend died in 1819 and the Society of Universal Friends gradually followed suit. The Yates County History Center, in Penn Yan, New York, has an extensive collection of artifacts and documents related to the Public Universal Friend.  In recent years, the collection and the Public Universal Friend have drawn increasing attention from those who challenge the gender binary, as well as from those who see the life of the Friend as emblematic of the spiritual, social, and political ferment of the founding era. Many people were questioning the role of religious institutions in public life. And many people took words such as liberty to apply to them, even if those who wrote them into the founding documents had not expected that interpretation.

The PUF died over two hundred years ago and was an outlier regarding a gender neutral identity, but I wonder what gender will look like in two hundred years. I suspect it will be very different, and our descendants may well look upon many of us with pity, imprisoned as we are in our narrowly defined gender identities.