Friday, August 12, 2016

Journal of the American Revolution: "The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America"

By Michael Tuosto here. A taste:
The Public Universal Friend is an exploration of the development, culture, and tenants of the sect, so aside from the occasional repetition, the lack of a chronological order is appropriate. The sect was born in 1776. Jemima Wilkinson was living in Cumberland, Rhode Island in 1776 and she contracted typhus, which was introduced into the area by a Continental ship. When she recovered she claimed the Holy Spirit had descended into her body and she assumed the role of the Public Universal Friend. After this transition “the person” recognized “itself” as a “he” because of the presence of the holy-spirit. The author illustrates the confusion felt by contemporaries over this supposed change in sex by interchanging the pronouns, ...  
Jemima Wilkinson the prophet began preaching throughout New England, including Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Throughout the 1780s a sect known as the Society of the Universal Friends began to develop. The excessive number of funerals and executions resulting from the Revolution fostered a widespread demand for salvation and created the opportunity for the Public Universal Friend to succeed in forming a new religious sect. Deaths of spouses and sons in battle, diseases spread by armies, and a pacifist sentimentality among former Quakers and New Light evangelicals were some reasons the Public Universal Friend was able to establish a unique American religion.  
The sect was heavily influenced by Quakerism and New Light evangelical beliefs and characteristics.  ... They eschewed traditional doctrine espoused by elitist professional clerics, traditional denominational institutions and rituals, the concept of original sin, and the puritan concept of predestination. They embraced spirit-driven preaching by charismatic leaders, universal salvation, and free will. Furthermore, the Public Universal Friend encouraged celibacy, prohibited lust, discouraged marriage, and opposed slavery. It is unclear whether the Public Universal Friend had a messianic complex, but the devastation imposed by the Revolution did provide a fertile landscape for fears of Armageddon and the need for salvation before the final judgment.  
The Public Universal Friend is emblematic of a distinctly American religious culture. The turn away from theological arguments and educated clerics can be viewed as anti-intellectual and while there might be some truth to that, I prefer to think about it as just another expression of American’s aversion to the shackles of authority. Moyer explains that “… the forces of popular religion reshaped American spiritual life as control over faith shifted away from the established clergy and orthodox theology and toward lay folk who favored more … liberating creeds …The Public Universal Friend’s emphasis on universal salvation and stress on the individual believer’s relationship with the divine … served to ease, if not erase, hierarchies of class, race, and sex.” The Public Universal Friend embodied the strengthening democratic ideals in Revolutionary America.

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