Nonbinary Identity in the 1700s? – The Public Universal Friend, Part One

Well, friends, I keep promising you cross-dressing cowboys and trans-feminine lumberjacks, but once again, I’ve been distracted by earlier events in trans history. This time I’m not even going to apologize for this digression because I think you’re in for a treat.

I’m going to talk about one of the most distinctive figures in 18th century U.S. history, a person who (at least in my corner of the internet) has gain recent fame. I speak of the Public Universal Friend, a genderless preacher and founder of the Society of Universal Friends.

Tweet reading: FRIEND SAID NONBINARY RIGHTS IN THE 1700s

In 2019, the Public Universal Friend sparked many a social media post, which is how I learned about them. Of course, as a historian, I don’t regard Know Your Meme as a reliable source, even though memes about the Public Universal Friend delight me. The P.U.F. immediately sparked a great many questions for me, some of which were very personal and perhaps a little idiosyncratic because the Public Universal Friend and I have a lot in common.

The Public Universal Friend and I both live as genderless or nonbinary (there’s really no word that completely fits) and we were both raised in Quaker families. In this brief article, I’ll endeavor to place the Friend’s story into the context of both trans history and Quaker history – a level of complexity that the Friend is rarely granted, but one that I think their story demands.

The Public Universal Friend was born November 29th, 1752 in Cumberland, Rhode Island into a large Quaker family and a society brimming with conflict. The American Revolution was right around the corner, the settler-colonial dispossession of Native land was in full-swing, and the colonies were in the midst of a religious upheaval called the Great Awakening. Charismatic protestant preachers of all types were gaining followings as more and more people came to believe that Christian salvation was a matter of individual belief. The Public Universal Friend’s family found themselves in the middle of these profound shifts, trying to chart a very idiosyncratic course.

As Quakers, the Public Universal Friend’s family were on the outskirts of the white religious mainstream even before the Great Awakening. They found their way to Rhode Island along with many other Quakers because their faith made them unwelcome in the Puritan colonies. Soon, however, the P.U.F.’s family became even more isolated as they adopted beliefs that did not fit in well with Quaker communities. One by one they were kicked out of their local Quaker meeting. The P.U.F.’s sister Patience was expelled from Quaker membership because she had a child out of wedlock and their brothers Stephen and Jeptha were expelled because they decided to begin military training to fight the British, a departure from Quaker teachings of pacifism. The P.U.F. was very religious and valued Quaker teachings, but in their 20s they began attending a charismatic denomination called the New Light Baptists. The New Light Baptists’ teachings didn’t fully satisfy the Friend, but the church’s charismatic style proved a profound influence.

In 1776, the P.U.F.’s life changed – in fact, the P.U.F. believed that it ended. The Friend was struck down by an infectious disease, likely typhus. After several days on a death bed, the Friend recovered. Upon awakening, the Friend announced that they were no longer Jemima Wilkinson, their birth name, but that Jemima was dead. They said they received a revelation from God through two archangels and was reanimated as a genderless being charged with preaching the gospel.

From that point on, the Friend refused to answer to Jemima – it was a very literal deadname – and asked to be known as the Public Universal Friend and to be referred to without gendered pronouns. The P.U.F. adopted an androgynous style, wearing long robes that looked much like priest’s, a white or purple cravat, long hair, feminine shoes, and a typical Quaker men’s hat. I have to say, to me, that sounds like a LOOK.

The P.U.F.’s manner of dress and genderless identity put them at odds with norms in multiple ways. Since most people misgendered the P.U.F. as female, they felt that the P.U.F. shouldn’t be preaching in public and that their dress was beyond strange. For Quakers, the stakes were even higher.

Quakers believed profoundly in gender equality and women had the right to minister, inherent property, and receive educations. However, Quaker life was highly gendered: men and women wore different clothing (the style was called plain dress and it was a simple, affordable, common style of men and women’s clothes). Men and women also sat on opposite sides of the meeting house when the community gathered for Meeting for Worship. In adopting a genderless expression, The P.U.F. no longer fit in the community– there was literally nowhere for them to sit.

But more importantly, the P.U.F.’s decision to wear clerical robes probably sat poorly with most Quakers. Quakers hold that God speaks directly to all people without an intermediary, like a priest. Many Quakers held that the P.U.F. was placing themselves above others as a pastor or prophet, a practice that struck at the very heart of Quaker teachings. When the P.U.F. spoke during a local Meeting for Worship (Quakers gather in silence and speak when they believe they are moved to do so by God) and shared their revelation, they were told by several Friends to sit down.

Just how Quaker was the P.U.F?

I’ll admit that this question might be interesting only to other Quakers, but I think it deserves to be answered. The answer is, pretty damn Quaker and very different.

  • On the one hand, traveling and preaching was common on among Quakers at the time. However, the P.U.F.’s style was much more charismatic that most Quakers.
  • Quakers do believe that God speaks directly to people, so the P.U.F.’s revelation was not atypical. However, the P.U.F. behaved much, much more like a pastor or prophet than Quakers generally did. They attracted followers that placed a lot of belief in them personally – and frankly, I think I would have felt as uncomfortable with that as many of the P.U.F.’s detractors.
  • Okay, this is a nerdy point almost no one will care about, but this is my blog, so there: The P.U.F. believed in universal salvation, which a number of Quakers advocated, including Robert Barclay. It wasn’t a universal Quaker belief, but, of course, nothing really is. Okay, nerd-out over.
  • The P.U.F. preached that a day of judgement was at hand and that the prophecies of Revelation would begin around April 1780. That was NOT a typical Quaker belief.
  • The P.U.F. preached that celibacy was a spiritually beneficial practice, but that marriage was an acceptable alternative. This was also not a usual Quaker teaching, but it’s one that probably wouldn’t have offended any Quakers, as Paul makes a very similar argument in the Bible.
  • The P.U.F. did not believe in pacifism, a key Quaker tenant. However, many Quakers were questioning pacifism at the time. The P.U.F. drew followers from the Free Quakers, a group of Quakers who participated in the American Revolutionary War.
  • The P.U.F. was an ardent abolitionist, before that practice was widespread among Quakers. Thank goodness.
  • The P.U.F. had a very typical Quaker attitude toward Indigenous people, seeing them as children of God, but in no way questioning the right of white settler-colonialists to their land (more about that later).

As you can see, the P.U.F. was distinct from most Quakers – after all, they started a separate group called the Society of Universal Friends. But they also had much in common with them. One Quaker who listened to them preach reported that they said nothing that wasn’t typically heard in a Quaker meeting house. Personally, I don’t think I would have become a Universal Friend, but I would have really loved the P.U.F.’s outfit, the idea of genderlessness as a divine revelation, and their abolitionism – and I certainly don’t agree with the rigid infighting and, sexism and racism many other Quakers were engaged in during the 1700s.

Next month, I’ll have more about the P.U.F. for you, focusing on how transphobia impacted their life and what we can learn about gender from their story.

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