Religious cult targeted Brant County in 1700s

Around 1793, a petition for land was filed by Abraham Dayton, and his wife. The piece of land was to meet certain specific qualities. Dayton found it at what is now known as Whiteman’s Creek.

He came to Canada from Connecticut with a shopping list from his boss. He was to find that land in Ontario, along what is known as Whiteman’s Creek, between Burford and Brantford.

The land was “be situated on the Indian path to the Mohawk Village on the Grand River, on a creek that empties into the river about 12 miles above the [Mohawk) village which land has no appearance of ever being located (surveyed).”

He requested Lord Simcoe, who handled land transactions at that time, to grant he and his “friends” a township which would include Whiteman’s Creek area, their new promised land. At first, Simcoe agreed until he found out who the Dayton’s patron was and who his “friends” were.

Dayton and his son-in-law Benaijah Mallory, were scouting Canadian land for the cult. Both were acting on behalf of Jemima Wilkinson and her cultish religious order, the Universal Friends. This pseudo-christian cult was spreading across the northwestern New York, Connecticut, Ohio regions. Wilkinson and her followers were looking for a foothold in Canada and sent Dayton and Mallory to scout potential settlements.

But why was being near the Mohawk Village so important to them? To answer that we must trace the history of Jemima Wilkinson and her Universal Friends back to November 29, 1752, Cumberland, Rhode Island where she was born.

By all accounts, Jemima Wilkinson had a rather uneventful upbringing being raised by her strict “Quaker” parents. She took her religion very seriously and studied constantly. Being a curious sort, she began attended meetings at the New Light Baptist church under the flamboyant evangelist, George Whitefield. When this was found out, Jemima was excommunicated from her Quaker community.

Soon after, she was struck down by a debilitating fever, likely typhus, which left her bed-ridden and semi-comatose for nearly two-months. When she came through the ordeal she was a changed woman. She said that she had actually died and her soul went to heaven but her body was reanimated by the Holy Spirit and she was no longer Jemima Wilkinson, but rather, insisted on being called “The Universal Friend.” She said she was no longer a woman or a man and insisted on sexual abstinence and attention to prayer from her followers. She said she was sent by God to warn the world of the wages of sin.

That may sound like an easy cult to stay away from, but Jemima was not only very well read, intelligent and a convincing orator, she was also young, strong, and beautiful.

Although she wore what would be recognized at the time as rather masculine attire, that soon didn’t matter as more women of the cult also began dressing in a similar fashion.

The little cult began to grow during the Civil War years, especially among women fed up with the male dominated and violent world around them. Men joined as well, including some prominent local businessmen and politicians. For them, the threatening war was believed to be the beginning of Armageddon and only prayer and piety would stave off the end of the world.

Records show that some Iroquois settlements were visited by Wilkinson and her evangelists in Ohio and in Seneca County. She was initially welcomed, especially by the women of the villages where Iroquois social structure elevated women as their true leaders. Although she was not driven from them, Wilkinson did not getting anywhere at starting her new religion among them. She thought that proximity to the Mohawk Village would be a safe place to be.

When Dayton appeared before the Executive Council to confirm the sale officially, it was denied him. He was suspected of being an American sympathizer and any holdings he or Mallory may have had, were confiscated.

The Universal Friends church carried on in the US without its Brantford/Burford connection for a few more years until Jemima Wilkinson died July 1, 1819, near present-day Penn Yan, New York, U.S.A. Her Universal Friends cult died out soon after.

Related Posts