Teaching Students About Jemima Wilkinson

Jemima Wilkinson is a fascinating historical figure who can provide students with valuable lessons about identity, purpose, and community. Born in Rhode Island in 1752, Wilkinson began preaching at the age of 20 and gained a following for her ecstatic religious experiences and claims to be a divine messenger. She eventually became known as the Publick Universal Friend and founded the Society of Universal Friends, a communal group that rejected traditional gender roles and embraced equality and simplicity.

Teaching students about Jemima Wilkinson can be a great way to explore themes such as religious freedom, social justice, and gender equality. Here are some ideas for incorporating her story into your curriculum:

1. Analyze primary sources

There are a number of primary sources available that provide insights into Wilkinson’s life and beliefs. These include her own writings, accounts of her followers, and newspapers of the time. Assign students to read and analyze these sources, looking for evidence of Wilkinson’s religious teachings, her impact on her community, and the controversy she generated.

2. Hold a mock trial

Wilkinson’s unconventional beliefs and practices led to her being accused of blasphemy and other crimes. Hold a mock trial in class, with students acting as lawyers, witnesses, and jurors. Have them research the legal and social context of the trial, and explore the tension between religious freedom and social norms.

3. Compare and contrast

Compare and contrast the Society of Universal Friends with other religious or utopian communities of the time. How did Wilkinson’s teachings and practices differ from those of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, or the Mormons? What similarities can be seen in the goals and values of these groups?

4. Engage in literary analysis

Wilkinson’s writings, including her autobiography and her letters to followers, provide a rich source of material for literary analysis. Have students read and analyze these texts, looking for themes such as self-discovery, faith, and social justice. They can also explore how Wilkinson’s writing reflects her particular historical and cultural context.

5. Explore contemporary issues

The themes raised by Wilkinson’s story are still relevant today. Ask students to identify contemporary issues related to religious freedom, gender equality, and community building. They can then research how individuals or groups are working to address these issues, and compare and contrast these efforts with those of the Society of Universal Friends.

In conclusion, teaching students about Jemima Wilkinson can provide a window into a fascinating period of American history, and help them explore important themes of identity, purpose, and community. By combining primary source analysis, literary analysis, and contemporary relevance, educators can help students engage with the complex and multifaceted legacy of this remarkable woman. 

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