Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Public Universal Friend

While watching Michele Bachmann emerge as both spiritual and political leader within the now faith-based Republican Party, I got to wondering how Jemima Wilkinson would have fared with similar media, political and monetary advantages.

Although Mother Ann Lee and her Shakers have gotten far more attention, Jemima, who styled herself the Public Universal Friend, was the first native-born American woman to found and cultivate a religious movement.

Bachmann is and Wilkinson was a utopian, both transfixed with the idea of creating a New Jerusalem that conforms to their visions of God's will in America. Wilkinson was a pacifist and Bachmann is not; and the Friend practiced and promoted celibacy (for heterosexuals), and Bachmann does not (except, perhaps, for homosexuals). That fire in Bachmann's eyes surely is messianic, however, a trait shared with the Friend.

I first came across Jemima while researching the background of Chariton's Smith Henderson Mallory, and much of what follows is lifted from a post that eventually will find its way to the Mallory's Castle blog. He was born Dec. 2, 1835, in Yates County, upstate New York, where Wilkinson attempted, and failed, to establish New Jerusalem. His ancestors, Meredith Mallory and David Wagener, were among the Friend's earliest followers. This is the same region where holy fire was lighted under Joseph Smith Jr. and his emerging Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, another uniquely American and far more successful  expression of Christianity.


Yates County is located in the heart of western New York’s Finger Lakes region, so named for the 11 long, slender glacial lakes that punctuate the area. Seneca, one of the largest Fingers and the second-deepest lake in the United States, forms the eastern boundary of what now is Yates; Canandaigua Lake bounds its northwest corner and Keuka (earlier known as Crooked Lake) lies largely within it.

The region is within a triangle drawn from Elmira on the south northwest to Rochester, then east along Lake Ontario’s south shore to Syracuse, then southwesterly to Elmira again.

This was immensely fertile ground for uniquely American expressions of Christianity. Palmyra, birthplace of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lies within the triangle, as does Yates County’s New Jerusalem, home of the Universal Friends.

Smith H. Mallory’s great-grandparents, Meredith Sr. and Mary (Barnum) Mallory,  were among Wilkinson’s earliest followers, converted in their native Connecticut. They produced three sons in Connecticut, Meredith Jr. (born Jan. 13, 1781), John (born ca. 1783) and Ephraim (born ca. 1785).

All were far too young to know that their parents had hitched their wagon to the star of a quite remarkable person, the first native-born American woman to found a religious movement.

Jemima, born Nov. 29, 1752, into a Rhode Island Quaker family, had transcended her religious heritage by 1776 after exposure to the sermons of George Whitefield and the philosophy of New Light Baptists in Rhode Island, the most religiously diverse of the American colonies/states.

During October of 1776, Jemima later testified, she fell into a deathlike state, ascended to heaven, was possessed by the Spirit of God and returned to earth to make His will known. She called the Spirit that penetrated every aspect of her being the Public Universal Friend and as such she was known thereafter. The Friend viewed herself as God’s second messenger to earth, but did not claim as some have suggested that she was the feminine counterpart of Jesus, the first messenger, and therefore, like Him, divine.

The Friend was by all accounts an attractive and charismatic woman and a highly effective preacher, combining in an appealing theological mix of her native Quaker outlook with other religious themes then prevailing: original sin, salvation by grace through repentance, an imminent judgment and eternal punishment for the unsaved. A pacifist and opponent of slavery, she believed celibacy to be the highest state and did not marry, but conceded with St. Paul that it was better for those so inclined to marry than to burn. Celibacy never was a tenant of her faith, as it had been for Mother Ann Lee and the Shakers.

Jemima preached widely in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut after 1776 and meeting houses were erected by her followers in New Milford, Conn., and South Kingston, R.I. It seems likely that Meredith and Mary were converted during this early stage of her ministry.

During 1782, the Friend began to preach in Philadelphia, then established an informal headquarters at Worcester, Pa., some 20 miles distant. The Society of Universal Friends was organized here.

As the Friend’s ministry progressed, she became convinced of the need to establish New Jerusalem, a gathering place for her followers, and looked to the wilderness of western New York. Acting upon advice from scouts and agents, the Friend selected the western shore of Lake Seneca in what became during 1823 Yates County.


And so it was that during June of 1788, a party of about 25 of her followers,  including Meredith Mallory Sr., gathered in Schenectady, N.Y., and set out to build cabins and plant crops along Seneca Lake in the neighborhood of what now is the village of Dresden in Torrey Township, the foundation for the Universal Friends community that would follow.

The winter following was harsh and it claimed among others the life of Meredith, whose departure “from time” during the winter of 1788-89 is recorded in the Death Book of the Universal Friends.

Mary Mallory and her young sons probably had remained in Connecticut when Meredith started west, but set out perhaps during 1789 to join him, probably not knowing that he had died.

For a time, the widow and her sons made their home with Friends at Dresden, but during 1791 Mary became acquainted with and that fall married John Dow, who had lived and worked among the Friends but who was not of them. Meredith Mallory Jr. would have been 10 during that year and his brothers, younger, so Dow became their surrogate father.

John Dow, born Aug. 13, 1769, in Voluntown, Windham County, Conn., had set out alone during his 20th year on horseback for what then was known as the Genessee Country, and reached the head of Seneca Lake, some miles south of Dresden, during April of 1789. Although not of the Friends, he often visited and worked among them. It may have been while working for Friend Benjamin Brown at Dresden that he became acquainted with the widow Mallory.

After their marriage, the Dow/Mallory family moved away from the Friends to John’s home in what eventually became the township of Reading, located just over the south Yates County line in what now is Schuyler County. John Dow became a man of consequence there. A wheelwright, the profession adopted by his Mallory stepsons, he was the first supervisor of Reading. As the years passed, he became a justice of the peace in 1805 and judge of the Court of Common Pleas during 1808. Eventually, he served three terms as a Democrat in the New York State Assembly at Albany. A staunch Methodist, he probably directed Mary and her sons from the Universal Friends and toward that denomination.

Mary (Barnum/Mallory) Dow, more than 10 years older than John, had two daughters by him, one called Lucy, and died May 6, 1823, in Reading. John lived nearly 30 years more, dying at Reading on June 15, 1852, in his 84th year.


The Friend messianic fire seems to have dimmed once her community had been established and she seems increasingly to have preferred to lead and serve. Unlike the Mormon prophet from Palmyra, Joseph Smith Jr., her drive to evangelize seems to have diminished as she grew older and disputes over property among the Friends became divisive. The Universal Friends gradually faded. Few of the children of her converts joined. So it seems unlikely that Meredith Mallory Jr. and his brothers ever considered themselves among her followers.

Jemima died on July 1, 1819, at her fine house in Jerusalem, age 61, and her body was placed for a time in a walled-in chamber in the basement, apparently because there was some fear it would be stolen. It was later buried in an unmarked grave on the property. Soon thereafter, the Universal Friends dissolved entirely into a footnote of history.


Anonymous said...

I had heard of Jemima because her brother Simon was my direct ancestor (one of 512 ancestors in that generation). It seems like quite a coincidence to see her mentioned, but I'll bet that a large percentage of people with colonial ancestors are equally related.

Bill H.

Barry Alfonso said...

Your blog is very, very interesting. I am taking a trip to Western New York this weekend and will pass reasonably near the Universal Friend's house on my journey. I am drawn to this region and its strange, still-present traces of homegrown American mysticism. I look forward to reading further entries on your blog.

Frank D. Myers said...

It always makes me happy to know someone's enjoyed one or more of my meanderings --- so thanks! Have a great weekend in western New York.