America’s Favorite Nonbinary Preacher
During the latter days of the American Revolution, a genderless prophet called the “Public Universal Friend” drew audiences of hundreds to tell them that the apocalypse was near. They had lived as a woman named Jemima Wilkinson until they fell ill from a fever and recovered claiming to have been reincarnated by God by a genderless spirit. Although many followers referred to the Friend using he/him pronouns, they simply signed letters as “Public Universal Friend” or “the Friend”.
Wearing mostly men’s clothing and letting their hair hang loose, the Public Universal Friend’s message attracted a lot of people. They and 12–20 of their supporters relied on converts’ and friendly listeners’ generosity for food and lodging as they went around the country preaching. Their speeches attracted audiences of hundreds.
Believing in a mixture of Quaker and Methodist teachings, the Friend opposed slavery and promoted the idea of gender equality before God. These teachings were not radical or new for their time. In fact, compared to some other things Quakers did, holding these beliefs was quite blasé. Quakers were notorious for appearing naked in marketplaces and interrupting sermons from other denominations.
The Friend’s gender identity was rarely questioned until the Yates County History Center called them “the first American born woman to form a religious society”. However, some seeking to discredit the Friend saying that they were “a fine blooming girl…with an unconquerable aversion to labor”. Others called them a “fake prophet”, a “scam” and called their gender a “sign of devilry”.
After several Friends left the society and left a devoted few behind, the Public Universal Friend died, likely from illness, in 1819. As neither a woman nor a man, the Friend challenged ideas didn’t just challenge gender roles of the time. Rather, they poked holes in this time’s of gender itself: as both a social identity and its roots in physical characteristics. As a trailblazing nonbinary Christian, the Public Universal Friend’s work reminds us that there really is no male or female, Jew or Greek, or free or slave in Jesus Christ.