Jemima Wilkinson and Deborah Sampson Gannett
Biographies from Early America
by James Henretta
1776 was a year of new beginnings: In July the thirteen colonies repudiated 150 years of monarchical rule and declared themselves independent republics of the United States of America. In October Jemima Wilkinson of Cumberland, Rhode Island, became ill with a fever and had a vision in which she died and her body was now by the Spirit of Light; repudiating her birth name, Wilkinson declared herself the founder of a new religion, the Publick Universal Friend. And, beginning in 1776, Deborah Sampson, a tall and strong sixteen- year-old indentured servant in Middleborough, Massachusetts, later asserted that “my mind became agitated with the enquiry-why a nation, separated from us by an ocean . . .[should] enforce on us plans of subjugation.” Sampson’s resolution “to become one of the severest avengers of the wrong” led her in 1782 to join the army as a cross-dressing American soldier.
George Whitefield had a hand in all these new beginnings. Since 1739 the great English evangelist had inspired Americans to turn to God and question established authority. By the 1760s New Light Presbyterians in Philadelphia and elsewhere had declared they had no king but King Jesus and had joined the Patriot movement. At about the same time, around 1768, when she was sixteen, Jemima Wilkinson discovered Whitefield by reading his sermons; two years later she joined the religious revival that followed his final visit to New England. By 1776 she had forsaken Quakerism, the faith of four generations of Rhode Island Wilkinsons, and joined the New Light Baptists.
In 1780 Deborah Sampson also became a Baptist, though she was expelled two years later for behaving in a “verry loose and unchristian” fashion. Accused of “dressing in men’s clothes, and enlisting as a Soldier in the Army,” Sampson had resisted the admonitions of her brethren to give “Christian satisfaction” for her conduct. Nor was this the end of the tale. Compressing her breasts with cotton cloth and enlisting again, Sampson served in the Light Infantry 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental army for seventeen months and, while scouting the enemy in war-torn Westchester County, New York, was wounded in an engagement with the Tory militia. Like Whitefield’s preaching, Sampson’s adventure had turned the world up-side down.
Sampson and Wilkinson were “disorderly women,” as contemporaries put it, examples of what the historian Natalie Zemon Davis has called the “woman-on-top.” Both in Europe and in America, such audacious women challenged the social conventions that bound their sex, sometimes acting in “unwomanly” ways by leading food riots or political protests, sometimes donning the garb of men in symbolic protests against women’s inferior status. “I burst the tyrant bands, which held my sex in awe,” Sampson would proclaim in her public lectures in 1802.
Jemima Wilkinson was no less daring. A tall and graceful woman with dark hair and dark eyes, she had a magnetic personality and a powerful preaching style that created fervent disciples. Judge William Potter of Rhode Island was so moved by the Universal Friend that he gave up a promising political career, freed his slaves, and built a fourteen-room addition to his mansion for Wilkinson to use. Another wealthy farmer provided her with a home in Pennsylvania, and supporters built churches in three New England towns. Wilkinson’s success-and notoriety-stemmed in part from her religious message, which blended the Calvinist warning of a lost and guilty, gossiping, dying World with a Quaker-inspired social gospel that advocated plain dress, pacifism, and the emancipation of slaves. But even more it reflected her revolutionary persona. Like Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, Wilkinson preached celibacy and never married. More controversial still, she dressed like a man, wearing a black robe similar to a clergyman s gown, and, emphasizing the ambiguity of her gender, told her followers to address her not as she or her, but as “the Friend.”
This radicalism of social doctrine and personal identity alienated more people than it attracted. Although she was touted by some of her disciples as a messiah, Wilkinson’s attempts at faith healing and prophesying scandalized even the tolerant Quakers and Baptists of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, where she was attacked by a stone-throwing mob. Forsaking evangelism, she gave up preaching to the wicked world and turned to utopianism, in 1790 establishing the community of Jerusalem in the wilderness of western New York; ten years later the settlement had 260 inhabitants. But few new recruits joined the sect, and its purpose and energy gradually drained away. Within two decades of Wilkinson’s death in 1819 her sect had disappeared. Its only legacy is a short doctrinal pamphlet, The Universal Friend’s Advice to Those of the Same Religious Society (1794).
Deborah Sampson left a slightly deeper imprint on American history, in part because she participated in the nation’s founding war and in part because her personal radicalism was less extreme. Returning to Massachusetts after the war, she married Benjamin Gannett, a poor farmer with whom she bore three children. To alleviate the family’s poverty, Deborah Gannett showed the same “enterprise” that had sent her off to war. She cooperated with the author of her memoir in 1797 and, to win support for her petition for a soldier’s pension, undertook a speaking tour throughout New England and New York in 1802.
In her lecture to curious audiences attracted by her military exploits and cross-dressing, Gannett conveyed a mixed message. On the one hand, she celebrated her decision in 1782 to throw off “the soft habiliment of my sex” and reaffirmed her culturally revolutionary act by performing a military drill, “Equipt in complete uniform.” On the other hand, Gannett confessed her “error and presumption” in swerving “from the accustomed flowery path of female delicacy.” By asking forgiveness from her “respectable” listeners for this “unnatural, unwise and indelicate” behavior, she affirmed women’s traditional roles, which had been redefined as those of the proper “republican wife” and the pious “republican mother.” Her performance was a study in ambiguity, at once dangerously assertive and socially reassuring.
In the broad sweep of history, the contributions of figures such as Deborah Sampson Gannett and Jemima Wilkinson are often ignored. Neither won a major battle or devised an enduring religious doctrine. Yet their lives are important for what they reveal about the age in which they lived. Wilkinson attacked slavery, as did many others in the North, bringing about its gradual demise there. She called for a more enthusiastic religion and, along with other inspired preachers, sparked the Second Great Awakening. She showed that women could take an active part in religious affairs, and thousands of American women followed her example, gradually changing the composition, practice, and outlook of many Protestant churches. First as a soldier and then more prominently a speaker, Deborah Sampson Gannett also claimed a public presence for women. Her long and ultimately successful public campaign for a Revolutionary War pension bridged differences of gender in asserting the sense of entitlement felt by all of the veterans who had fought for their country.
But the most enduring legacy of Gannett and Wilkinson was their remarkable efforts — partly instinctive, partly conscious — to transcend the cultural limits of their time. Their lives challenged the increasingly influential ideology of “separate spheres,” which divided the world into a masculine domain of public affairs and a feminine world of domestic concerns. This challenge was revolutionary even in a age of revolution and remains controversial two centuries later.
Reprinted from James A. Henretta, Elliot Brownlee, David Brody, Susan Ware, and Marilynn Johnson, America’s History, Third Edition, Worth Publishers Inc., 1997
Copyright: Worth Publishers Inc. (Available, Sept., 1996 Call: 1-800-321-9299) For Personal Use of Subscribers of Early American Review; for permission to reprint or duplicate, contact Paul Shensa, Worth Pub. 1-212-475-6000