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“Indescribable Being”: Theological Performances of Genderlessness in the Society of the Publick Universal Friend, 1776–1819

By Scott Larson, 2014

In October 1776 Jemima Wilkinson of Cumberland, Rhode Island, claimed to have died and been resurrected by the Spirit of the Lord as a genderless spirit, renamed the ‘‘Publick Universal Friend.’’ As a resurrected spirit, the Friend defied the line between living and dead, body and spirit, divine and human, and male and female. The Friend performed this spiritual state by mixing worldly category signifiers, dressing in a com- bination of male, female, and priestly clothing. Followers used genderless language for the Friend and in the 1790s founded Jerusalem, New York, on lands purchased from the Iroquois Confederacy. Critics denounced the Friend’s gender ambiguity as a sign of devilry, and they linked it to fraud, licentiousness, and murder. This study draws on the methodological com- mitments of transgender theory to take seriously the Friend’s claim to have transcended gender, and it seeks to investigate religious challenges to gender ‘‘before’’ transgender. For early Americans, radical religious experi- ence could be a site of gender crossing even as it reinforced worldly hierar- chies and drove participation in settler colonialism.

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