The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About

 

Saints, Sinners and Reformers

The Burned-Over District Re-Visited

by

John H. Martin

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers

Chapter 5

Jemima Wilkinson

Celibacy and the Communal Life

The Re-Incarnation of the Divine in Female Form, 1758-1819

Jemima Wilkinson was a woman ahead of her time. In many ways, however, she was also a product of her time: growing up in what had been Puritan New England, she was conscious of the sinfulness of man. Yet as a Quaker inspired by the Inner Light of the faith of John Woolman, she was a member of her family's Quaker meeting which did not share the grimmer aspects of the Puritan faith. On the other hand, she was also to be influenced by the emotional doctrines and practices of the New Light Baptists of the 1770s who stressed the need to repent one's sins. Thus she seems a contradiction as a Quaker and as one who was influenced by the Puritan concern for man's sinfulness as well as the religious revivalism of 18th century New England which she encountered among the New Light Baptists who offered repentance as a way of freeing oneself from sin. She was, however, to rise above these concerns to develop a new doctrine of her own. Her preaching was to attract a group of settlers who would become the first of the pioneers in the new territories which Massachusetts was selling from its land holdings between Lake Seneca and the Genesee River in New York State in 1788.

Her ideas were revolutionary for the 18th century. She envisioned a form of communal living as a better way of life and a more equitable society. She also favored an equality of the sexes at a time when women had no legal rights in the United States. The position of women was very much like that of slaves since they had no legal standing of their own in courts of justice. They were totally under the control of their husband or their brothers under both common law and Christian doctrine, and they could neither hold property nor in times of divorce have possession of their children who belonged to the husband.

When it came to religion, in opposition to the new revivalism and Biblical literalism of late eighteenth century American Christianity, she emphasized the more liberal and gentle portions of the Bible rather than the rigidity of the faith of the autocratic society of New England's Puritan Calvinism. Because of her concern about sin, derived no doubt from the influence of New England Puritan and Presbyterian theology and the new revivalist attitudes with a concern about sin and sexual license, she favored celibacy over marriage. Sin and sex had been a continuing and troubling linkage for many Christian Divines whose narrowed beliefs derived from Saints Paul to Augustine and later theologians, an influence she could not escape. Of course, her doctrine of celibacy had its drawbacks, for, taken too seriously, in time it could lead to the extinction of a movement, as happened to Jemima's group in time.

Jemima Wilkinson was born in the town of Cumberland in Rhode Island in 1758 of Quaker parents. Thus she grew up in the colony which Roger Williams had established where Quakers and other dissident groups could live without fear of prosecution because of their religious beliefs. In Rhode Island they were free of the narrowness of the intolerant Christianity of the founders of New England. Unfortunately, what we do know of Jemima Wilkinson has too often come down to us as hearsay, often started by those who were opposed to her and to her later teachings. There is, however, a positive side to accounts relating to her, indicating that she was an attractive individual as a young woman, although she seemed to have a tendency to some un-Quaker-like virtues in her passion for clothes and joyful company as well as being a most capable horse woman.

As with most girls of her time, Jemima had little formal education, but she was an avid reader of the Bible and of Quaker history and beliefs. Thus, as a Quaker, she knew that God makes His will known through an inner-light within an individual, and this was quite different from the Calvinist or Presbyterian doctrine of standard New England Christianity. When Jemima was 18, George Whitefield, an important eighteenth century English emotional preacher sparked the so-called "Great Awakening" of religion in many areas of New England. It offered an emotional approach to religion which aroused an impassioned concern for the condition of one's soul. In the preaching of untrained clergy of the Baptist and some Methodist sects, this led to a stress on the sinfulness of one's in-born nature, and it could manifest itself in emotional excesses during religious services.

As a result of Whitefield's preaching, a religious sect called the "New Light Baptists" arose. They believed in the inspiration and enlightenment which could come to individuals through the Holy Spirit. For them, only the Bible and the Holy Spirit provided the truth and all authority for life. To this must be added the emotional quality of their ministerial preaching and the emotional behavior on the part of church members during religious services. The New Light Baptists were pietistic, evangelistic, and somewhat noisy in their emotional worship. Their doctrine of individual inspiration, when added to the more conservative Quaker understanding of the "Inner Light" which came from God, was to affect Jemima's future life. In August of 1776, Jemima joined a New Light Baptist group and gave herself to intensive study of the Bible. As a result, she was expelled from her Quaker meeting.

Two months later, on October 4, 1776, Jemima became ill, an illness which cannot be identified. Some said it began during a typhus epidemic, some saw it as an emotional breakdown. Be that as it may, Jemima claimed that she lay in a deathlike state for several hours or days. One of her brothers was later to say that she only had a fever, was never in a trance, got well quickly, and then began to preach. On the contrary, Jemima testified that she had died, had gone to Heaven, and there she visited with angels. There, too, the Spirit of God had possessed her, and she thus returned to life, sent back to earth to make God's will known to all people. This new Spirit within her was the "Publick Universal Friend" who was to preach to a sinful and dying world. As Jesus was the First Messenger of God, she was a newly sent Second Messenger of God. Thus, according to her account, she was suddenly aroused from her deathlike state, rose, dressed, and reported the astonishing facts to her family as to her death and her rebirth with a new Spirit from God. As with Joseph Smith of Mormonism in the next century, her first recruits came from within her family.

On October 13, 1776, nine days after her illness had laid her low, she began to preach, her sermons being concerned with the need to lead a moral life, the dangers of sin, and the need for repentance. She offered no new doctrines, no original theology. Instead, she offered what was a combination of various religious beliefs extant in her time: the sinfulness of man (from Calvinistic Presbyterianism), the doctrine that one could be saved through the true repentance of sins (from Methodist and Baptist doctrine), the immanence of Millennial Judgment, and the eternal punishment of sinners, To this was added a combination of the Quaker "Inner Light" concept combined with the New Light Baptist idea of inspiration through the Holy Spirit. All these doctrines thus flowed from her as the Publick Universal Friend sent by God, and it was made public in what was to become a most effective and strong preaching mode.

In many ways, Jemima hit upon some of the major religious themes which were to engulf a portion of the nation between the founding of the new United States in the 1790s and the beginning of the American Civil War. However, as one listener said of her preaching. "She do preach up terror alarmingly." She was a true follower of the new emotional revivalist mode of sermon giving, a far cry from the silent approach to religion of her Quaker forbears. She obviously had an appeal, for others in the community, beyond her family circle, and before too long many became her followers.

Jemima made a striking appearance since she wore a loosely flowing black robe with a white cravat at her neck. On her head she had a white Quaker-styled beaver hat, and she rode upon a white horse which contrasted with her black robe. When she went out to preach, it was an impressive sight: she rode in her black robe on her white horse ahead of her followers who came after her, two-by-two in procession. Her meetings were Quaker-like in beliefs and practices. There were no sacrament, no baptism, no rites or ceremonies. The meetings involved a waiting upon the Spirit of God to well-up within one, and this could lead to a public statement by individuals in her group. Morally, there was a firm opposition to war and to slavery among the concerns being made manifest at her meetings. One difference from traditional Quaker meetings did occur: this was the one-hour long sermon which Jemima gave extemporaneously during the meeting. Her preaching generally followed Quaker ideas, but some of her concepts were close to the basis of later religious revivals in the 1820-1830s as well: that man can choose between good and evil; that Jesus' death was the atonement for sin for all who accept him.

In November of 1778, Jemima met Judge William Potter, a wealthy fifty-seven year old, well-known individual in Rhode Island, a man who had thirteen children and a household of twenty-seven people and eleven slaves. Judge Potter became her convert in 1779, and he began to free some of his slaves. Then he built a fourteen room addition to his large mansion for the use of Jemima and her retinue of followers.

At this time, Jemima came to sense that the Millennium was immanent and would occur about the first of April 1780. Then on May 18, 1780, the sun was entirely blotted out from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., a sign to many individuals of the immanent coming of the Christ. Jemima received additional followers as a result of this event which seemed to fulfill a portion of her prophecy. By September 16, 1783, sufficient converts had joined with her that a "Declaration of Faith" was composed, and the group became known as "The Society of Universal Friends." Her Society was dependent upon gifts from her supporters. Unlike similar groups which would follow in later decades, Jemima held no property herself. All property was held in the name of the Society by a Board of Trustees.

Jemima's Society, as with many religious societies with a charismatic leader, was thin on theology. Her religious statements were often ambiguous, particularly where celibacy was concerned. For Jemima, celibacy was a higher state of grace, but, as Paul said in his preaching and writing, it is better to marry than to burn. Thus celibates would be more highly regarded in her sect than were the non-celibate members. In 1782 Jemima began to visit Philadelphia where at first she was welcomed by Quaker groups. Soon, however, rocks were being thrown at her when some of her followers described her as "The Messiah Returned" or "Christ in Female Form," claims Jemima never made for herself. Her welcome soon became worn out among Philadelphia Quaker groups since her approach to religion deviated from the traditional Quaker approach to its faith. Jemima then spent eight years in Worcester, Pennsylvania, where she increasingly gathered additional adherents. Jemima Wilkinson did have certain idiosyncrasies which were always remarked upon. She ate by herself in her own room with the door closed, and she was excessively clean, bathing daily and insisting on fresh, clean clothes, a condition and an attitude not generally prevalent in her day.

As her following continued to increase, Jemima came to the conclusion that she needed to create a "New Jerusalem," a communal society where righteousness would prevail. Such a group would work together as a community, but this did not mean that communal living, such as occurred in Shaker and the later Oneida communities, would take place. In 1785, therefore, she sent scouts under her younger brother Jeptha to the new Genesee Territory of western New York to ascertain whether the "New Jerusalem" should be established there in what was Iroquois lands. Their positive recommendation led to the sending of a small exploring party of three of her followers in 1787 up the Susquehanna River to the new Genesee Country between Lake Seneca and the Genesee River to look for land for their settlement. These explorers were following the trail blazed by General Sullivan's soldiers in the Revolutionary War expedition against the New York Indians a few years earlier.

The exploring group favored an area on the western side of Lake Seneca for their new utopia, and here their member James Parker bargained for six townships along the west side of Lake Seneca at the site of the present village of Dresden, half-way between the southern and northern ends of Lake Seneca, and paid £800 to the New York Genesee Land Company, a group of speculators who had, against New York law and the Hartford treaty, leased a large tract from the Indians. Soon New York Governor George Clinton declared the leases with the Indians illegal which made the title acquired by Parker for the followers of The Friend worthless. They got no money back although one of the lessees, Caleb Benton, did give them 1104 acres in a strip six miles long and 82 rods wide from a town he received from Oliver Phelps in payment for his aid in competing with the Niagara Genesee Land Company and to satisfy the Indians.

A group of twenty-five of Jemima's followers began to clear twenty-five acres of its virgin forest. Here in 1788 the first white settlers in the western frontier of New York State built their individual log cabins along the creek which led from Lake Keuka (The Crooked Lake of Indian name) to Lake Seneca. It was an ideal location since the outlet of Lake Keuka furnished the water power which would be needed for a grist mill. The machinery for a mill and a blacksmith shop were brought by great travail across the wilderness of western New York from Albany. In 1790, two years after their arrival in this wilderness, the Society had its grist mill in operation at the outlet of Lake Keuka. It was to be the salvation for Charles Williamson and his early settlers who were to come into the territory after 1792, since the "Universal Friends" could grind other pioneers' grain into cornmeal and flour. Some writers say that Williamson did offer the Friends three acres for every acre they lost in their transaction with the lessees. (Two hundred years later, a buckwheat mill stood at the outlet of Lake Keuka in the modern town of Penn Yan at the beginning of the creek which in a few scant miles empties into Lake Seneca. Penn Yan was thereby able to proclaim itself "The Buckwheat Capital of New York.")

The followers of Jemima Wilkinson had what became known as "The Genesee Fever," a phrase which had two meanings to it. First, it was a "Fever" or a desire to start life afresh on the former Indian lands of western New York where land was cheap and plentifully available now that the Indians had been deprived of their lands. Secondly, "The Genesee Fever" was also an illness which pioneers called the "ague," their term for what is now known as malaria caused by the mosquitoes in the marshy areas of the territory. As a result, many of these early pioneers were a sickly lot, not the handsome and buxom stalwarts of Hollywood pioneer film epics.

In March of 1790, Jemima started up the Susquehanna River by boat to Newtown (just to the east of the present day city of Elmira) on the Chemung River, a tributary to the west of the Susquehanna at the Pennsylvania-New York border. It took fifteen days for the trip from Wyoming (present Wilkes-Barre) on board a shallow-draft Durham boat, Jemima sleeping in her carriage which was being transported to the New Jerusalem. From Newtown she traveled in her carriage over rough and narrow Indian trails to the foot of Lake Seneca, and then by boat up the lake to the new Universal Friends' settlement at the outlet of the creek from Lake Keuka to Lake Seneca.

There were now two hundred and sixty individuals in this new religious community, and they soon built the first frame house west of Lake Seneca for their leader. The house was built one mile west of the lake on the south side of the outlet creek from Lake Keuka. The house built for Jemima was not a simple dwelling since it was a two-story structure with a gambrel roof, and it had nine fireplaces about a central chimney. Here she was to live from 1790 to 1794; a thirty-foot-square log meeting house also being constructed for her religious services. (An archeological dig in the mid-twentieth century uncovered artifacts from Jemima's house there, and today an historic marker exists one-half a mile west of New York State Route 14 on the Hewlett Road outside of Dresden to mark the site.) The Universal Friends' town with its more than two hundred members was the largest settlement in western New York in the early 1790s. Later, according to the earliest U.S. census, Newtown (Elmira), and Geneva at the head of Lake Seneca, would each have one hundred inhabitants; Canandaigua would have ninety-nine settlers, Culver Town (Watkins Glen) had seventy individuals, while Queen Catherine's former town (Montour Falls) had thirty residents.

Dissension was to break out in this new community following the loss of the land purchased from the lessees and partly due to land title problems involved with the questionable survey of the Pre-emption Line which marked the border between the ownership by New York State and Massachusetts. An additional strain developed in the community over the question of the secular leadership of the Society. Captain James Parker, an early convert to the faith of the Universal Friends, had been granted the secular leadership of the Society. He had been responsible for the deal with the lessees that cost all the members. Rivalry was growing between the secular and religious leadership of the group. Judge Potter, Jemima's earliest financial supporter, was becoming dissatisfied with the situation as well.

To free her and her more faithful followers from the land-title problems, the Trustees of the Society purchased 23,040 acres of land to the northwest of Lake Keuka at forty-five cents an acre. This was some twelve miles west of the original settlement at Lake Seneca. Such a purchase could occur since many of the members of the Society were well-to-do New Englanders. The New Jerusalem township was divided into seventy-two lots of three hundred and twenty acres each. Some 1,400 acres were given to the Universal Friend for her house and for the agricultural support of Jemima and those who lived with her. The first house created for Jemima was a simple log cabin with two log units added, one of which served as a meeting room for religious services. Later a second floor was added to the original unit and the original log cabin and the new addition were covered with siding.

A permanent home for the Universal Friend was begun in 1808 in Jerusalem Township overlooking the Valley of the Brook of Kedron, a mansion still standing and privately owned today. It would be seven years before the mansion was completed in 1815, and it was here that Jemima spent her last five years "In Time," a phrase she repeatedly used since "Time" was running out and Jesus would appear before long. The new home for the Universal Friend was three stories tall with twelve windows on its south side and nine on its east side. Two massive chimneys of home-made bricks rose above the roof. A separate kitchen stood at the rear of the building as a precaution against fire which might spread from its cooking fireplace to the main structure. Two great hallways crossed at right angles within the structure, thereby creating four large rooms on the lower floor. A staircase landing above the west entrance hall served as a place from which Jemima could preach to her followers who gathered on the floors above and below her.

In front of the house and to one side was a semi-underground structure in which the bodies of the deceased members of the Society could be held in winter until the ground had thawed in the spring for their proper burial. The mansion itself became a home for every needy member of the Society, and generally, some sixteen to seventeen lived here, celibate women, one a former slave. Some women lived in cabins nearby, and there were many service buildings about the large house, all of these subsidiary structures now gone. Celibate men would also live in similar log cabins.

Jemima worked the fields and cut fire wood, and she paid for any labor which she and her cohorts could not accomplish by themselves. Gradually the all-encompassing virgin forest was pushed back and open fields resulted. Here at the mansion in the midst of these fields Jemima was the matron, the advisor, the aid to the ill. She treated the local Indians with respect, and they trusted her, as they did all Quakers, since, among the Christian missionaries coming into the area, it was the Quakers alone who helped the Indians without proselytizing among them.

It was inevitable that in this partially settled wilderness, and with a policy of celibacy, a decline in the Society of the Universal Friends would set in with the passage of time. There were few converts in this unpopulated area to bring into the Society, there was also the problem of a lack of organization and firm doctrine, as well as an aging membership, and these factors led to a slow dissolution of the Society. Litigation by those who left the Society were to bedevil the last years of Jemima's life. She was even brought to trial on a charge of Christian blasphemy in Canandaigua in the General Court in June of 1800. In an outstanding decision, the judge at the trial declared that blasphemy was not a charge which could be tried by an American court, since blasphemy was a religious matter alone, and the U.S. Constitution rightly separated matters of Church and State. Freedom of belief and speech were essential in the new nation.

On July 1, 1819, at age sixty-one, Jemima Wilkinson "Left Time," as the Universal Friends put it. Her body was quietly buried, its location known only to the two who buried her and to their descendents to this day. One of the Malin sisters was the executor for the Society, and she unfortunately permitted her own relatives to partake of Society holdings. Liquidation of the Society of Universal Friends after her death was to continue for years as dissident members brought charges against the Society. The mansion itself was sold in 1840, and it remains today in New York State's Jerusalem Township in the Town of Friends. Nonetheless, benefits from the Society's estates were paid to survivors of the Society for forty-three years after Jemima's death, income not running out until 1862. The last survivor of the community died in 1874.

The followers of Jemima Wilkinson were to disperse in the years after her death, the faith of the Society of Universal Friends not surviving its originator by too many years. Many of these former Universal Friends went into the more liberal Protestant churches of the area as these churches developed in time. They thereby provided a body of commonsense which helped to strengthen the anti-revivalist feelings and the reaction against the religious excesses which were to blossom in western New York after the 1820s.

What was it that Jemima Wilkinson brought to western New York in its early days, and what was to survive to influence future developments in this area?

1. The doctrine which the Wesleys had begun and which influenced the New Light Baptists was to undercut traditional Protestant theology. Instead of the pre-destinarian concepts of Calvin and the Presbyterian Church, whereby one was destined to Heaven or Hell before one was born, there came into general Protestantism the concept that there was unlimited salvation available to all who believed in Christ.

2. In traditional theology, Jesus had assumed the sins of mankind and absolved believers through his sacrificial death. Jemima had preached a more gentle version of this doctrine than future conservative Protestant groups were to preach. She did not place the emphasis on Jesus' death as a sacrifice to free men of sin, since this was a traditional doctrine which had not come into being until years after Jesus' death. Jemima's doctrine held that the repenting of one's sins and the doing of good works would lead to salvation, and this was to become an undercurrent for future Protestantism in western New York. Thus her followers often became the backbone of the more liberal Protestant groups.

3. Jemima's Quaker concept of the "Inner Spirit," which was heightened by her contact with the New Light Baptists, was to be expanded upon, albeit distorted in the revivalist movements of the future when people in revivals could be "moved by the spirit," often through violent paroxysms.

4. Her Quaker-like avoidance of ceremony, ritual, and concepts such as baptism, the sacraments, among other traditional doctrines, were to be taken up by various liberal Protestant groups such as the Universalists and the Unitarian groups as the nineteenth century progressed.

5. Her preaching which encouraged the "doing of good works" would find its home in many of the reform movements which would suffuse the nineteenth century in western New York State, particularly the Temperance Movement, the Anti-Slavery Impulse, and the Women's Rights cause of equality for women within American society.

6. Her doctrine favoring celibacy was but a mark of the Christian concern as to the place of sex in life, a question, as indicated earlier, which can be traced back to Paul and then compounded by Augustine and the early Church Fathers (and not to Jesus) as a concern which continues to bother Christianity.

In western New York, sex was to be regarded in various ways in the years to come, from the celibacy of the Universal Friend and some of her followers and the Shaker movement, to the polygamy of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, to the "Complex Marriage " doctrine of the Oneida Community where each member was wed to the other members of the group, to the question of same-sex marriage today. Sex, if one reads present local newspapers with its reports of single parent births remains a concern which none of the nineteenth century or later organizations has as yet been able to face with any degree of complacency or solution.

####

There were many stories about Jemima, some by her enemies, some by skeptics, some of just plain malicious rumor. One which is probably not true, but is worth recalling, says something of the matter-of-fact sagacity for which Jemima was noted. At one point, it is claimed, Jemima was challenged as to whether she, as the Bible purported Jesus did, could walk on water. She agreed to satisfy skeptics of her reputed divine powers by walking on the waters of Lake Seneca.

At the appointed time, a crowd is said to have gathered at the lakeside, and Jemima preached a stirring sermon to them which moved her listeners greatly. Throughout her peroration, she punctuated her preaching with a forceful, "Do ye have Faith?" Worked up by her energetic preaching, the forcible answer always came back, "We do!"

Finally, at the end of her very long and rousing discourse, she looked straight at the group and asked, "Do ye have faith? Do ye belief that I can do this thing?"

"We believe!" shouted the now much aroused listeners.As she departed with a flourish, she is said to have replied to the group, "If ye have faith, ye need no other evidence."

There is another version of the story in which the crowd insisted that she prove that she could walk on water. "Do ye have faith that this is possible?" Jemima asked? When some one in the crowd jeered, she looked straight at the miscreant and said, "Without thy faith, I cannot do it."

This is a story which can be traced back to Arabic tales, and it is associated with Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism as well. While it is hardly a true event in Jemima Wilkinson's life, it does impart a sense of the spirit of this most unusual individual.

###

What remains of Jemima Wilkinson's physical being?

In the Yates County Historical Society Museum in Penn Yan, New York, there is her portrait, her side saddle, her beaver hat, and few artifacts of her life. Her carriage in which she came up the Susquehanna River on a Durham boat in 1790 is on display in the Carriage Museum of the Granger Homestead in Canandaigua, New York. Her mansion and the partially underground burial temporary burial chamber remains in the Town of Friends in Jerusalem Township to the northwest of Branchport, New York, at the northern end of Lake Keuka.

The rest is history and the memory of an outstanding individual.

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers
© 2005, John H. Martin

Further Reading

Wisbey, Jr., Herbert. Pioneer Prophetess. Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1964. (The only complete study of Jemima Wilkinson and her followers, a very readable book.)

Cleveland, Stafford. History and Directory of Yates County, Containing a Sketch of its Original Settlement by the Publick Universal Friend. Penn Yan, N.Y.) 1873. (An original source for serious scholars of Jemima Wilkinson and her Society.)

Papers concerning Jemima Wilkinson are on file on microfilm in the "Collection of Regional History" in the Cornell University Library. (The most detailed source of early materials on Jemima Wilkinson and her Society.)

An early biography of Jemima Wilkinson by David Hudson, History of Jemima Wilkinson: A Preacheress of the Eighteenth Century published in Geneva, New York, in 1821 and then as Memoir of Jemima Wilkinson published in Bath, New York, in 1844 is not considered reliable because of its prejudice against Jemima Wilkinson and her Society.

###

Brief information on Jemima Wilkinson can also be found in the following books:

Cross, Whitney R. The Burned Over District, the Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1950.

Holloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880. Dover Publications, New York, 1966.

Tyler, Alice. Freedom's Ferment: Phases of American Social History to 1860. The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. Minnesota, 1944.

In addition, Carl Carmer's delightful novel Genesee Fever. Farrar and Rhinehart, New York, 1941, includes Jemima Wilkinson as one its characters in this work of fiction.

 
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR