Understanding gender as a spectrum is a part of life in twenty-first century America. But gender-nonconforming people have always existed. Historian Scott Larson takes a look at one example, the religious prophet of the late eighteenth century known as the Publick Universal Friend.
The story, as the Friend told it, went like this: In 1776, a 24-year-old Quaker woman named Jemima Wilkinson died of fever. On her deathbed, she received a vision of Archangels. Wilkinson “droppt the dying flesh & yielded up the Ghost. And according to the declaration of the Angels, the Spirit took full possession of the Body it now animates.”
Larson reports that the Friend began preaching, prophesying a coming apocalypse, and was quickly expelled from the Quaker meeting that Wilkinson’s family belonged to. The embodied spirit began traveling the roads in a mix of men’s and women’s clothes and clerical robes, attracting followers who gave up families and livelihoods to be part of their growing religious movement. They purchased a parcel of land in upstate New York, which they named Jerusalem. At its height, it was home to as many as 260 people. These followers did not use gendered pronouns for the Friend.
Larson suggests that, despite the Friend’s norm-breaking clothes and behavior, the modern word “transgender” does not properly describe the Publick Universal Friend. For the Friend’s followers, eschewing gendered pronouns was a matter of religious faith. The people of Jerusalem didn’t consider the Friend to be a person with an unconventional gender identity. In fact, they didn’t consider the Friend a human person at all. This reflected the biblical notion that people living “in Christ” would be “neither male nor female.” But Larson notes that it didn’t mean that ordinary humans could live without gender. He writes:
Genderlessness, while taken seriously as a divine state to be experienced after death, was not imagined as a space of freedom wherein people were encouraged to follow their feelings, intuitions, desires, or individual senses of self…Rather, it was a giving up of the self; it was a fully possessed self, passive to the point of death and resurrection.
Still, detractors of the Jerusalem community described unconventional gender presentations not just of the Friend, but also others in the group. According to reports by hostile neighbors, James Parker, a central figure in the community, claimed to be possessed by the spirit of the prophet Elijah and wore “a white gown with long sleeves and a girdle… whatever he fancied might belong to the costume of the ancient prophets.” Another rumor told of a masculine “woman” who traveled with the Friend, and who was suspected of being either a man in disguise or a woman who was in a sexual relationship with the Friend. Other critics identified ambiguous gender presentation with the devil, and accused the Friend of seduction, fraud, and even infanticide.
While it seems reductive to identify the Friend with trans people today, one thing they seem to share is the tendency to draw the ire of many people committed to a rigid view of gender.
Editor’s note: This post was updated after publication to more accurately reflect the underlying scholarship.