Publick Universal Friend (1752-1819)

Public Universal Friend (also known as the Friend or PUF) was born in Cumberland, Rhode Island on November 39, 1752.  As birth, they were identified as female and given the name Jemima Wilkinson. They grew up in a Quaker family and attended the local meeting. In the early 1770s, they attended meetings of the New-Light Baptists - a radical religious sect which was part of the First Great Awakening.

At 24 years old in 1776, the Friend contracted a serious illness which resulted in a high fever and unconsciousness. After awakening from this fever, the Friend announced that they had died and had been reanimated by an angel. This messenger from God told them that they were no longer male nor female, but that they were now named Public Universal Friend and were tasked with preaching God's word. The Friend preached throughout the northeast dressed in androgynous, dark robes and a short hairstyle.

The Friend promoted equality between genders, denounced slavery and encouraged sexual abstinence. In many ways, their theology was very similar to the Quaker beliefs in which they were raised. PUF amassed a following who became known as the Society of Universal Friends. The community was unusual in that it was both integrated with Black members (several of whom had been enslaved in Rhode Island) and included a group of "Faithful Sisterhood" - a group of unmarried women who held leadership roles.

In 1778, Judge William Potter of South Kingstown, Rhode Island became a followed of PUF. Potter was politically influential and one of the wealthiest planters in South County. He offered the Society of Universal Friends use of some of his land and built the Friend a 14-room addition to his house. Following his conversion, he manumitted at least three enslaved men who all joined the Society. You can learn much more about Potter's relationship with PUF here. The Society of Universal Friends left Rhode Island in 1790 after purchasing property in Yates County, New York where the lived until the Friend's death on July 19, 1819.

Public Universal Friend's papers are held at that Yates County History Center. You can also learn more about Public Universal Friend by visiting the RI LGBTQ+ Community Archives in the Special Collections of PPL!


Mathies, John. Public Universal Friend. 1816. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Yates County History Center, Penn Yan, NY.