As the British Empire, and by default its colonies around the world, was casually losing twelve days to bring their calendar in line with Ugo Boncompagni’s Gregorian version, something wonderful was happening in Cumberland, in the northeastern corner of the small American colony of Rhode Island.
Jemima Wilkinson, the forgotten pioneer, was being born.
The colony Wilkinson arrived in was founded by Roger Williams, the theologian not the pianist, on the principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, and that boded extremely well for Wilkinson, one-hundred-and-sixteen years after William’s visionary creation.
Wilkinson’s early life was a literary one, and included the dedicated study and memorization of Quaker texts and Bible passages, though at some point Wilkinson switched from quaking in God’s presence to simply turning up with a bucket and praying with the New Light Baptists, whose emphasis on individual enlightenment may have appealed, at least temporarily.
While it took Wilkinson many years to outmaneuver the benighted idea that you are born to any given religion or doomed to a parentally-designated station, it took President Biden about four seconds to course-correct one aspect of the previous administration’s bizarre doctrine, by reenabling all ‘qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform’, whether they are transgendered or not.
Of course, transgenderism isn’t anything new, because we’re all just variations on a human theme.
You can wander back in time for thousands of years, to the southern Sumerians or the northern Akkadians, and find countless texts that describe all sorts of genders, or to ancient Greece and Anatolian Phrygia, where people embraced whatever gender they felt right, or to civilized Rome to meet the emperor Elagabalus, who sought sex reassignment surgery around eighteen-hundred years ago.
So, Jemima Wilkinson’s choice of gender at the age of twenty-four was really nothing that should've kept her Quaker parents awake at night, if they'd studied as hard as Wilkinson had, and weren't restricted to the chosen few narratives and parables that guided their apparently immoral moral compass.
How it came about, though, might have been more challenging for them.
Of course, outside of Wilkinson’s New World environment, millions of people were recognized as a third gender. In Asian, Arabian, and African society, being non-binary was rarely a talking point, let alone a problem, and, if the colonists had stopped murdering indigenous Americans for even half a moment, they would’ve noticed the prominent roles given to their fully-integrated third or transforming gendered community members, showing how far more ‘christian’ Native Americans were than their righteous, narrow-minded, and disease-ridden invaders.
One of those diseases, or its generationally-mutated offspring, struck Wilkinson down at the end of 1776, leading to a grave illness, and their death.
Or so it seemed.
Because, after receiving instructions directly from God while in that post-mortal state, Wilkinson was returned to the world as someone very different. The person that reappeared in Wilkinson’s now-alive-again body was called the ‘Publick Universal Friend’.
And so began a brave new era in a new nation.
With restored life and renewed purpose, The Publick Universal Friend became a preacher, and toured the towns discussing their beliefs and the positivity that can be had by embracing them.
The Friend was accepted universally, requested to be called by no gendered pronouns, and was referred to only as the Publick Universal Friend, or simply the Friend, or, quite wonderfully, just PUF.
And, when asked about their name, or about the androgynous way in which they dressed, in black clerical robes, a purple cravat, and a broad-brimmed beaver hat, the Friend often replied, ‘I am that I am’, predating Jerry Herman and Gloria Gaynor by about two-hundred years.
Interestingly, while the Friend's voice probably didn't change as a result of any of this, the perception of the Friend as being more masculine than feminine, or somewhere in the middle, gave rise to descriptions of their voice as both ‘feminine and masculine’ and ‘grum and shrill’, at the same time. Some hundred or so years after the Friend was born, Albert Cashier didn’t appear to garner that confused perception.
Cashier enlisted and served in the Union Army, and fought in the battle for common sense against the Confederacy, and, after sense won out, at the cost of six-hundred-and-twenty-thousand American lives mind you, Cashier was admitted to the Soldiers' and Sailors' Home in Quincy, Illinois, following a car accident.
It was there that Cashier was found to have been born female, and thus illegally served his country. Still, Cashier lived out his life in the home until, with deteriorating mental health, he was sent to an insane asylum in Watertown. Because of the management's fear of nonconformity, he was forced back to being the Irishwoman Jennie Hodges, and made to wear dresses and suitable female attire, until his death there in 1915.
The Friend, of course, was fighting their own war, to encourage people to repent of their sins and be saved from the ubiquitous and imminent judgement day, and, in the process, became the first native-born American to found a religious community. The ‘Universal Friends’ was formed mainly of ‘Quakers who’d fought in the Revolutionary War, and been disowned by the Society as a result’.
While much of the Friend’s theology was exactly the same as mainstream Quakers, they did differ in some respects, rejecting predestination, and preaching God's acceptance despite exhibiting free will. The Friend applauded those who chose how their own path rather than those who just followed. They discouraged marriage, and asked women to ‘obey God rather than men’, which I guess was the best of two bad options, and called continually for the abolition of slavery, one-hundred years before William Lloyd Garrison and his band of Liberty Bell’rs.
The Friend wasn’t actually the first American to adopt a non-binary gender, because in 1603, in colonial Virginia, Thomas Hall, who often referred to themself by their birth name Thomasine, was happily dressing and living as both a man and a woman. Though there is some doubt as to Thomasine’s original gender, there is none about their desire to not be pigeonholed into any of them, or excluded from exploring fully which they preferred to be, or what relationships they could have.
The Friend appears to have explored too, with Sara Richards specifically, who moved in with the Friend when Richards unhappy husband, Abraham, died in 1786.
Richards adopted a very similar hairstyle and attire as the Friend, eventually came to be known as Sarah ‘Friend’, helped design the house they shared together, and entrusted her child to the Friend when she died seven years later.
After Sarah Friend's death, the Friend preached on for many years, accompanied often by her brother Stephen, and sisters Deborah, Elizabeth, Marcy, and Patience, all of whom had already been rejected by the Society for flouting the conditions of membership, by doing things like having a child without being married, or training for that Revolutionary War before they had to actually fight in it.
While the newspapers buzzed about the Friend's gender preference, the community of Universal Friends spent their time planning a safe haven of their own, that would’ve been the ‘largest non-Native community in western New York’, had the local Government not contrived to steal it from them.
With the same fervor that the United States government banned non-binary people from actively serving in the military, because of their fear that comes with ignorance, so the authorities in New York determined to punish the Friend and their community for being different.
First, in 1791, the authorities changed the established borders, forcing some twenty-five of the people who lived there to buy back their own homes.
Next, the land they were on was repeatedly sold and resold for ever-increasing prices, making it almost impossible for the incoming wave of Friends to purchase homes, and so the influx stopped.
And third, they attacked the Friend personally.
Several disillusioned former followers determined to arrest the Friend for alleged blasphemy, a thinly-veiled smokescreen for their desire to assert authority and conformity over what they viewed as an unholy leader.
They tried to nab the Friend while they were riding through the town, but the Friend outrode them and escaped.
They tried to grab the preacher at home, but the Friend fought them off.
Finally, they formed a mob to take the Friend by storming their home, breaking windows and doors, and they still failed. Instead, the Friend agreed to stand trial for the conjured crimes, and was found absolutely innocent, and asked to preach to the audience instead.
Nineteen years later, the Friend led a final sermon, for a relative of one of those former followers who attempted to quash liberty, equality, and friendship.
On July 1, 1819, the community's record reads, "25 minutes past 2 on the Clock, The Friend went from here."
Whether the Friend's illness did result in actual death or not has always been a matter of conjecture, with differing reports from witnesses. Whether God spoke directly to Wilkinson is something we can only take their word for.
But, what is true is that Jemima Wilkinson changed, and as the nations around them broke from their predestined shackles, so the Friend influenced the world they touched, and pioneered the way for others to embrace whatever gender they feel works for them.
And as per their own wishes, the Friend was quietly buried in an unmarked grave, because none of us need labels to die and live free.
photo by Alain Frechette