Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Religion and Psychology: The Case of Jemima Wilkinson, Founder of the Society of Universal Friends

Jemima Wilkinson (1752-1819) pivoted from a secular, rather wild youth to being a charismatic preacher and the first woman to found and head a religious denomination. The circumstances of her unusual transformation, including her return to the land of the living from a typhoid coma as a genderless spirit, raise fundamental questions about the nature of the relation of religion to psychology (and, moreover, to secularity).

According to Chuck Mitchell, a curator in western New York, Wilkinson fell deathly ill with typhoid in 1776. Waking from a coma that had lasted for days, she claimed that “she had died and been resurrected as a genderless spirit sent by God.”[1] 

Jemima Wilkinson did not shy away from manifesting outwardly her androgynous identity.

She vowed to remain celibate in order to keep her body pure for God, and rejected her birth name, going from that point on as “the Public Universal Friend.” Whereas she had been “a bit of a wild child” and not at all religious, her sickness transformed her self-identity. She began preaching with charisma and an impeccable knowledge of the Scriptures. “The spirit of life from God has descended to earth,” she preached, “to warn a lost and guilty, perishing, dying world, to flee from the wrath that is to come.”[2] At the time, the evangelical Second Great Awakening was in full bloom in her area of the country. With her ensuing popularity in hand, she founded the Society of Universal Friends, thus becoming the first woman in the U.S. to found a religious group.

Consisting of former Quakers, the Society was naturally controversial at Quaker meetings. Critics trounced on Wilkinson’s post-coma identity as a genderless, resurrected-spirit, which they viewed as a particularly strange aspect of the religious pioneer’s personality.[3] That religious critics would resort to psychology must have felt like a thorn in the side of the androgynous spirit so opposed to the prospect of the rising secularity eclipsing religion amid the Second Great Awakening. 

Is it unfair, therefore, to analyze her from a psychological standpoint? Furthermore, would doing so invalidate her religious transformation, or had she suffered a massive psychological (and perhaps neurological) change while in the coma? The implications for religion itself are huge. If Jemima’s religious awakening was actually a result of neurological/psychological damage from a very high fever, then any religious experience or identity—especially if strange from a secular point of view—would be on the proverbial chopping block.  

[1] “History Detectives,” PBS.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jemima’s dismissiveness of her physical body is in line with Platonism and the South Asian religion of Jainism.