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September 23rd, 2010

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04:16 am - Similar People in Other Days
Tonight, teaotter and I were watching the PBS show the History Detectives, and they had a segment about a faith and an individual I did not know about, the Society of Universal Friends, a late 18th and early 19th century Quaker splinter group founded and run by a very unusual individual, born Jemima Wilkinson:
In the summer of 1776, then being eighteen years old, she fell sick…she wasted in bodily strength…Jemima constantly told them of her strange visions…in October she appeared to fall into a trance state and appeared almost lifeless for a space of about thirty-six hours…To the great surprise of her family she suddenly aroused herself, called for her garments, dressed, and walked among the assembled members of the household…she disclaimed being Jemima Wilkinson, but asserted that the former individuality had passed away and that she was another being, a minister of the Almighty sent to preach his gospel and to minister to the spiritual necessities of mankind. She took to herself the name of the Public Universal Friend.
The show went on to show a portrait of this person and mention that the spirit that inhabited her claimed to be genderless and from that day forward dressed and referred to themself in an androgynous fashion, while preaching equality of the sexes and races. Both Becca and I listened to this and nodded – there is a significant overlay of a different era and a different faith, but there are also a number of elements that remind me of several people I know in the otherkin community. This individual sounds very much like someone dealing with being in a similar state, which is not to say that The Public Universal Friend was otherkin in any modern sense, but it sounds like their psychological and spiritual state had features in common.

I'm reminded of Ronald Hutton's excellent book Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination [[1]], where he spends most of the book systematically demolishing the image of Siberian Shamanism as largely being a construct of colonialist "othering" and official oppression, and then briefly looks at the phenomena behind it in a more general sense, especially in the following passage:
"I myself have a woman friend who is now in middle life and has settled in the suburbs of an English city. In her youth she was contact by disembodied voices whom she identified as spirits and whose promptings she ignored and resisted for many years. One day, weary of the struggle, she acknowledged their presence and asked them what they wanted, whereupon 'they all cheered'. She then began to work with them, and their advice and companionship helped to steer her into a successful career as a therapist and healer, specializing in mysterious illnesses and emotional problems…

Piers Vitebsky seems to be correct, therefore, in suggesting that the traits which underpin Siberian shamanism occur naturally in individuals throughout humanity, although they are given different cultural expression at particular times and places. In Siberia, during recorded history, they were expressed in an unusually spectacular and socially esteemed manner. In early modern Europe, they could be given a public role only with some difficulty and danger, and in the modern world they can hardly be expressed at all. The fact that western scholars have had to go to the far end of Eurasia to find a term for something apparently inherent in humanity may be directly relation to this lack of recognition, as is the confusing breadth of phenomena to which it is now applied."
It seems to me that very little about us is new, and it's fascinating and (to me at least) pleasing to see other eccentrics of the sort that I know and am in other times. In this case, The Public Universal Friend founded a church of several hundred people that lasted a number of decades, which is fairly impressive.

[[1]] I'm reminded of that book, not because the Public Universal Friend seems like a shaman of any sort, but simply because Hutton's book discusses another unusual spiritual capability that seems to be found throughout our species.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: Stones in the Road - Mary Chapin Carpenter

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 23rd, 2010 01:10 pm (UTC)
That is fascinating. I am forever delighted by the interesting capabilities of the population of this planet. :D
[User Picture]
Date:September 23rd, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
Wow, this is so cool...

Without any stretch of definition, the Public Universal Friend would be considered a "walk-in," showing that examples of "walk-ins" predated the coining of the word itself in the 1970s by at least two centuries. The concept is there, even if the nomenclature isn't. The differing nomenclature makes it more difficult to unearth the history, but it's reassuring to hear that the history does indeed exist. I might have expected that examples of "walk-ins" could be traced back to, say, Victorian spiritualists, but it's a pleasant surprise to learn of one who was from quite a bit earlier.

Thank you for sharing this.
[User Picture]
Date:September 23rd, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC)
PUF!!! I love the PUF. She's fabulous. I adore the stories about her being carried by her followers in a fancy sedan chair when they were induced to move from their original settlement in Connecticut, and settling in Jerusalem, NY, but being induced to change the name of the town by the US Post Office to the less religiously-charged Penn Yan.

There were a number of charismatic women who founded religious sects around that time (such as Mother Ann Lee, who founded the Shakers and was slightly earlier than PUF, and Mary Baker Eddy, who was somewhat later, and the Fox sisters, who were influential in the foundation of Spiritualism and were somewhat contemporary with Eddy). The PUF was one that had quite colorful stories told about her, and some of those stories have been told about other charismatic women leaders, so it's hard to tell at this distance which ones were true-ish and which ones were complete fabrication.

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