Thursday, March 21, 2024

Jerusalem, New York and the Public Universal Friend

When Jews recite "Next Year in Jerusalem" at the end of the Passover seder, they mean the city of Jerusalem in Israel/Palestine.

But there are other Jerusalems, including in New York State.

The New York Jerusalem is in Yates County, right on Keuka Lake. (In the map below, it's enclosed by the dotted red line).
From a history of the town published in 1892: 
"Jerusalem is practically and substantially the mother of towns in Yates County. The district, sometimes called township, of Jerusalem, was organized in 1789 as one of the subdivisions of Ontario County, and included with its limits all that is now Milo, Benton and Torrey, as well as its own original territory. On the erection of Stueben County in 1796, the region or district called Bluff Point, or so much of it as lies south of the south line of township seven, was made a part of the new formation; but in 1814 an act of the Legislature annexed Bluff Point to Jerusalem, and to which it has since belonged.

"In 1803 the town of Jerusalem was definitely erected, embracing township seven, second range, and so much of township seven, first range, as lay westward of Lake Keuka and lot No. 37. At or about the same time the other territory that had previously formed a part of the district of Jerusalem was organized into a town and called Vernon, after Snell and finally Benton."

The Public Universal Friend

Portrait of the Public Universal Friend, from 1812, unknown painter. Source: Yates County Historical Society
A famous resident of the town (famous then, not now), was the Public Universal Friend:

"The Public Universal Friend, Jemima WILKINSON, was of course a pioneer of this town, the same as she had been in the locality and settlement on Seneca Lake. In 1790 she first came to the Genesee country and four years later she established herself permanently in the town of Jerusalem."

The Public Universal Friend was born as Jemima Wilkinson in 1752 to a Quaker family in Rhode Island. Jemima was transformed into the Public Universal Friend after "a night of fevered dreams" on October 10, 1776.

Jemima took on a new identity after the fever. "'Reborn' in their place was the Public Universal Friend, neither male nor female. According to the Friend, Jemima’s soul had passed into heaven, and God had reanimated their body with the spirit of the Friend sent to spread the Quaker gospel. From then on, the Friend began to gather followers and travel as a preacher."

The Friend lived as a nonbinary person: "The Public Universal Friend dressed in a way that blended masculinity and femininity, and this drew much attention. Their clothing included a cravat and robe like traditional ministers and clergymen wore, as well as the kind of hat typically worn by Quaker men. They also didn’t wear the traditional bonnet or head covering women were expected to wear. The Public Universal Friend’s gender presentation caused curiosity and anger, and it was a radical challenge to the status quo that the Friend was not willing to be bound by the customs of the community."

How did the Friend come to settle in Jerusalem, New York? After their transformation, the Friend gathered a following, and they decided to create a settlement in western New York, called Jerusalem.

The Friend's house, where they lived until dying in 1819. (Photo from the National Park Service).


More information about the Friend

The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America, by Paul B. Moyer (Cornell University Press, 2015).
"'Indescribable Being': Theological Performances of Genderlessness in the Society of the Publick Universal Friend, 1776–1819," by Scott Larson, Early American Studies 12:3 (2014) 576-600. (Special issue: Beyond the Boundaries: Critical Approaches to Sex and Gender in Early America). 

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