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The Messenger

Since their earliest days, Quakers challenged gender norms, but in the 1770s, former Quaker Jemima Wilkinson went further, becoming the first American-born woman to found her own religious sect.

Wilkinson was ill for many days before—according to her—she died, Jemima’s soul ascended to heaven, and her corporeal body was reanimated by the spirit of a divine messenger beyond gender known as “The Publick Universal Friend.”

Favoring celibacy but not requiring it of followers, the Publick Universal Friend adopted a style of dress, grooming, and manner that blurred gender lines. The physical presentation and spiritual message of the Friend proved hugely charismatic yet controversial, and eventually her followers, the Universal Friends, removed to the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.

After “leaving time” in 1819, the Friend’s remains were buried in a secret location that, according to local lore, is known only to two people in each successive generation.