Jemima Wilkinson of Cumberland, Rhode Island was a 25 year old woman in 1776, and shortly thereafter became the first American-born woman to found a religious group. Her initial success was stunning. While Jemima was not completely successful in achieving all her goals and visions, she did blaze a trail that may have helped other passionate women bring their dreams to fruition in later times.
Jemima Wilkinson was the great granddaughter of my emigrant ancestors, Lawrence Wilkinson & Susanna Smith. Lawrence Wilkinson was of Harperly House, Lanchester, Durham and Providence, RI. S usanna Smith was the daughter of Christopher Smith family, a well respected family in the early RI colony.
Lawrence Wilkinson was a Captain in the Army of King Charles I and fought in the battle of Newcastle-on-Tyne in about 1645. He was captured by forces of Oliver Cromwell, his lands were sequestered and sold by the Parliment. Through a negotiated agreement between Cromwell and the King's advocate, Wilkinson was released and made passage to Providence, RI about 1652-54.
Jemima was the fourth generation of this Wilkinson family and related, by extension, to the Smith & Whipple families. All three families were instrumental in developing the Providence Plantations from their infancy in the 1600's. The Lawrence Wilkinsons' influence continued to direct the development of Providence, RI for the next four generations. High water marks of achievement over the first four generations belong to cousin Stephen Hopkins, who served posts as Governor of RI and Chief Justice; Hopkins was also the last signer of the Declaration of Independence. He also wrote draft sections of the Constitution with other founding fathers. Another brother, Ezek served as Commander of the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War.
Hopkins' cousins were the great grandsons of Lawrence Wilkinson through son Samuel's line of descent. Jemima was a great granddaughter through Lawrence's son John's line of descent. We are direct descendants of Jemima's father and brother, both named Jeremiah. Jemima's line of ascent, upward to emigrant ancestor Lawrence is (Jemima4, Jeremiah3, John2 , Lawrence1.)
Jemima Wilkinson, born November 29, 1752, was probably the 8th child of Jeremiah and Amey Elizabeth Whipple Wilkinson of Cumberland, RI. It appears that she was one of 12 or 13 children born to this couple. It's thought that her mother died when Jemima was approximately 14 years old, and this event had a bearing on young Jemima's growing interest in the expression of her spiritual beliefs.
Fourteen-year-olds tend to be impressionable. It would appear, from the record of her life that still exist, that Jemima Wilkinson was no exception to the rule. Jemima's exploration led her down a path that pushed the boundaries normally thought of as appropriate for women folk before modern times. Wilkinson "pushed the envelope" and served as a trail blazer for others like Mary Baker Eddy and Susan B. Anthony who later sought leadership roles in their chosen fields of pursuit.
Jemima was described as "a tall and graceful woman with dark hair and dark eyes." She possessed a magnetic personality and powerful preaching style that seems to have provided an outlet for numbers of fervish patriotic worshipers.
Wilkinson had a near death experience (NDE) in October, 1776 that resulted in a profound religious conversion. She claimed to have had a vision, where she died and was now of the Light. Many survivors of NDE today speak of being embraced by an omnipotent Light force after their clinical death. Additionally, NDE survivors sometimes speak of their participation in a "Life Review", where every event of one's life is played back along with the corresponding ripple effect that these events had on others. Many seem to return to life with a decidedly different view of the purpose of life. The overwhelming refrain is that life's journey is all about spiritual development and freedom of choice is a gift to be honored, as it derives from our Creator. Jemima reportedly talked about her so called "death" experience with anyone who would listen. She basically preached about love, peace and later in life sought to create an uptopian environment on earth. These are also qualities strongly desired by those who have embraced the light and returned to tell the tale in our times.
Jemima's life after this October, 1776 "awakening" had its origins about a decade earlier, when she discovered the teachings of great English evangelist, George Whitefield. Whitefield was all the rage in those days just prior to the "rebellion." In fact, messages such as this helped to fuel the fires of discontent with the status quo. From about 1738 forward, Whitefield inspired Americans to turn to God and question established authority. According to James Henretta, author of an article in the Fall, 1996 Edition of Biographies from Early America entitled, "Unruly Women Jemima Wilkinson and Deborah Sampson Gannett":
"By the 1760s New Light Presbyterians in Philadelphia and elsewhere had declared they had no king but King Jesus and had joined the Patriot movement. At about the same time, around 1768, when she was sixteen, Jemima Wilkinson discovered Whitefield by reading his sermons; two years later she joined the religious revival that followed his final visit to New England. By 1776 she had forsaken Quakerism, the faith of four generations of Rhode Island Wilkinsons, and joined the New Light Baptists."
Rising from her sickbed in October, 1776, Jemima was inspired to create a new life full of wondrous possibilities. Transformation was the keyword of the day on every level. Her physical fever was replaced with an emotional and spiritual transformation that seems quite in step with the larger events surrounding that historic year. Her cousins, Stephen and Ezek Hopkins were deeply involved in the events surrounding the colonies breach with England and the ensuing War of the Rebellion. Periods of social upheaval create, by their very nature, produce potential opportunities for individuals and groups to push the limits of accepted customs and norms. The first examples of such "breakthrough" behavior may not be long lasting, but can sometimes set the tone for the advancement of evolution in succeeding generations. Such was the case of Jemima Wilkinson.
Wilkinson claimed that she was truly on a mission from God, declared herself the founder of a new religious order called "The Universal Friends" and repudiated her given name, Jemima. From that time forward she insisted on being called the "Universal Publik Friend" or "The Friend." Jemima, the Universal Publik Friend, also threw away her daily attire and began wearing robes similar to a clergyman's gown. Her preaching consisted of a hybrid blend of Whitefield's evangelical teachings and qualities found in the Quaker faith of her ancestors. She stressed pacifism, the freeing of slaves and chastity. She did appear to have a flair for the dramatic and keen sales skills and these qualities seemed to help her initially draw positive attention to her cause.
Some say that actions speak louder than words and Wilkinson's ability to move others to action seems to validate her choice of vocation. According to James Henretta's article, "Judge William Potter of Rhode Island was so moved by the Universal Friend that he gave up a promising political career, freed his slaves, and built a fourteen-room addition to his mansion for Wilkinson to use. Another wealthy farmer provided her with a home in Pennsylvania, and supporters built churches in three New England towns."
However, when Jemima, Publik Friend, began the practice of faith healing & prophesying, she effectively hit a brick wall. Her actions drew the wrath of her Quaker & New Light Baptist peers and her activities resulted in a public stoning in Philadelphia. Society was not yet prepared to accept or tolerate such actions.
Wilkinson also claimed to possess the gift of clairvoyance; some said with a fair degree of accuracy. Studies by Dr. Moody, a pioneer in the study of NDE, also indicate that increased levels of perceptiveness often occur after such a life altering event. Why, we do not know.
Soon after the stoning incident, Wilkinson shifted her focus from evangelical preaching to the development of an utopian environment. In 1790 she established the community of Jerusalem in the Yates County wilderness of western New York. Ten years, the settlement grew to include 260 inhabitants.
A remote location may have been a factor in the dwindling of numbers within the Society of Friends. More central to the point, however, was the dichotomy between the utopia that Wilkinson sought to create and the perception that the Friends leader was an opportunist. Whatever the circumstances, purpose and energy gradually drained away and within two decades of Wilkinson's death in 1819 her sect had all but disappeared.
A short doctrinal pamphlet, The Universal Friend's Advice to Those of the Same Religious Society (1794) survives today as does Jemima's home which is now a museum in her honor.
Approximately 100 years after Wilkinson's death another woman succeeded in forming a religion based on the connection between the mind and the spirit and embraced a form of faith healing. She also created a successful newspaper publishing enterprise that is still well respected and reportedly well managed. The woman was Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science faith. The newspaper of her vision is The Christian Science Monitor.
It's not surprising to note that by 1902, my great grandfather, Edwin Henry Wilkinson, descendant of Jemima's brother Jeremiah, was a practicing Christian Scientist. It has been the chosen faith of some of our Wilkinson family members now for the past 5 generations.
In Loving Memory of another Notable Woman ... This article on Jemima Wilkinson is dedicated to my mother Jill Wilkinson who wrote it.
She dedicated so much time, energy and love into her family genealogy. She was amazed and proud of her ancestors' acomplishments and of the history that was passed down to us all.
She taught us many things while she was with us. The most important thing was KNOWLEDGE and love of knowledge. For that I can say thank you, and may others share in your passion and gift you left us with.
She faced a courageous battle with our ever changing science frontier with heart transplantation. May her gift of love, courage and strength remind us of our ancestors' pioneering spirit that has changed the world for us all.
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