Tweeting the Meeting; Week of March 8-14, 2021
Live Tweets from Ancient Egypt: Part 1

The Publick Universal Friend and the Mennonite

Only one person knows where the Publick Universal Friend is buried, the candy store owner told me. When she is getting up in years, she tells someone from the next generation down. The Yates County assistant wasn’t so sure. Yes, it is a legend, she admitted, and in fact it was two persons, not one, but she is probably just counting differently, including the newly enlightened one with the geezer who will soon pass on. At any rate, if true, that geezer—she knows who it would be—had better attend to her duties, for she is indeed becoming a geezer.

Presumably, the reason the Publick Universal Friend would be so secretive about her burial place is that she knows about the spat Jesus had with the Devil over Moses’ burial. Nobody knows just where that is, and if they did, they would make a shrine to it, or worse, even dig him up for relics, and thus put all the attention on humans whereas it is supposed to be on God. I don’t know this was the Friend’s reasoning for sure, but it makes sense. The Friend’s biographer did speculate that maybe she became a genderless public figure because of the Galatians 3:28 verse that there is “neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Or it might be to get around the shock of a woman preacher, something that was taboo in her long-ago time. That idea is mine, but the assistant did not disagree. Then again, it is not her place to disagree. The Underwood Museum exhibit is set up as for schoolchildren, full of questions as, What do you think of this? and, How do you feel about that? and, How would you feel if you saw such-and-such? It is not set up to tell you what to think. Rather, it hopes that you do.

The museum annex—it’s quite small—included pictures of the Friend’s birthplace home, a ramshackle shed. It had pictures of her second home, and her stalwart huge third one, which still stands. I should have asked the owner about it, for there must have been 30+ rooms to it, judging by outward appearance, but I forgot.

My wife and I had driven to the house before visiting the museum. There is a state historical plaque before it, but also a sign indicating it is now a private residence. A Mennonite man attending to the accompanying barn spotted me photographing the house and gave me a friendly wave. The telltale way to spot a Mennonite house—there are a great many of them in this area, not to mention many local businesses—is to note the lack of motorized vehicles. However, even a non-Mennonite might have parked them out of sight, so the truly foolproof way on spotting is to note the hanging laundry—there is always abundant hanging laundry.


“I’m not quite sure what is the point,” I had said to my wife earlier as we drove by a Mennonite woman peddling a bicycle with trailer behind. I mean, I get it that it is a simple wholesome life, and that is not a bad thing at all, but it is also a life consumed by simply existing. All the time you are doing things that machines could do in one tenth the time, you are not doing something else. On the other hand, there was one on these ridiculous American TV cop shows (which TV-less Mennonites do not watch) in which the homicide detectives, which always include a drop dead gorgeous woman cop, just as in real life, found themselves in an Amish home (Amish and Mennonite are more-or-less interchangeable, with Amish the more conservative) and after looking around, the hero detective observed, “If I had to live like this, I would commit suicide, too.”

Oh, yeah! Tell me about it, you who have moved on to a life of chasing down slimeballs all day. And not just guns, those Amish aren’t packing any STDs like your people are either, are they? And it wasn’t an Amish who was “high as a kite,” the Best Western night fellow told me—turns out he knew something of the community—who plowed into buggy procession, killing some and sending others on mercy flights to the hospital. I mean, it may be I don’t quite see the point, but that doesn’t mean there’s any great honor in “upgrading,” either.

The night man knew about Mennonites because his sister had married a lapsed one, who had a passion for flashy cars. But even among the faithful there are variations. Not all are horse and buggy. Some are moving to cars, which they prefer as Henry Ford said: any color, so long as it is black. And there were some who would buy the car, but then paint the bumpers black, as though the chrome was too worldly. And there was even a small subset of those who would temporarily blacken the bumpers with a tar mixture when the bishop was visiting, but then would clean them up again when he was gone.

Is that so different from our community? Yes, in the main, but also no. “The happiest sight in the world,” our circuit overseer would quote his dad, “are the tail lights of the traveling overseer.” He made those guys work. And then there are mild little quirks in things such as “counting time,” which leads to artificial situations and a vague concept of being “on duty” and “off duty.” My point is that there are idiosyncrasies everywhere, so I’m just not inclined to point a finger of ridicule even at those Mennonites who do blacken the bumpers. Any time you build a structure, which you must do in order to accomplish anything, you get people who immerse themselves into the minutiae of that structure, and you suspect, but cannot prove, that they may be focusing too much attention on the creation, perhaps at the expense of the creator. Humans are not the most rationale beings under the sun and if you ridicule others for their foibles, they will turn around and ridicule you for yours.

“Yeah, what is it about the horse and buggy?” I asked the Mennonite at the Friend home after he had brought up the subject. Is it lifestyle, is it biblical, or just what? He said it was just lifestyle. He reddened slightly when I told him I was a Witness. Did he think I was going to lean into him (a fear that is often justified with Witnesses), or did he think I had ambushed him, and that had he known he was “on duty,” he would have elevated biblical over lifestyle? But there was nothing sneaky on my part, or if so, just barely so. I just wanted to put it on the table that he was of an oddball religion, I was of an oddball religion, and here we were the two of us were talking of a woman two centuries past of another oddball religion. You put something on the table and you pursue it if they show interest, but if they don’t you continue with the thread. Maybe your come back to it and maybe you don’t.

The Publick Universal Friend was born Jemima Wilkinson in 1752, the eighth of twelve children, into a Quaker family. She fell seriously ill in her early twenties, and upon recovering, said she’d experienced visions. She was to preach to the “dying and sinful world.” Because she billed herself as genderless, the museum assistant told me the transgendered people today regard her as a hero of sorts, a forerunner. However, she was not one who would close prayer with “Amen and awoman” as some politician recently did, prompting a snide friend to declare it the dumbest thing he had ever heard. She knew that “Amen” had nothing to do with men, but was simply a word that meant “truly.” She certainly would never have extended the prayer—today’s wise ones have identified dozens of genders, and one wonders how wise they can be—into ainter, apoly, atrans, anon, apersonal, aeunich, arobot, and asoforth.

It hadn’t been my intention, but the friendly wave had encouraged me to press my luck. My wife stayed in the car, but I trekked up the football field length driveway, made friends with his old dog, and peered into the barn. He spotted me, and I told him he could tell me to go away. I get it that this is a private residence and he probably gets lots of nosy people and is tired of it. But he proved very friendly, more than willing to take a time out. As a cow took a dump behind us, I told him my dad had been raised on a dairy farm. He knew his house had historical significance, and even that the State would not allow modifications to it, but he expressed no great interest in it. He had just come up from Pennsylvania, where land was prohibitively priced, and picked it up as a divorce made it available. The barn was his own construction.

He knew a Witness whom I did not know, but he did not know Bob the architect, one of the few Witnesses I did know from the area. Bob is older than me. When he first began collecting social security, he told me that he was now “on welfare” and that it felt funny. He never tells clients he’s not been to college, Bob told me, they just assume it. Several public and commercial buildings of his origin dot the community, and a bevy of residences. “When you get to drawing up plans for the Kingdom Hall build,” Davey told me back when that was our goal, see if you can get Bob. He mentioned a few other possibilities—they’re all capable draftsmen, he said, but “Bob is inspired.” They homeschooled their younger kids from their combination of two step-families, as did we did our two kids. That’s how we got to know them. They were two or three years in advance of us. The local school authorities were always threatening to shut them down. He said later that his homeschooled children interacted far easier with all ages than did his non-homeschooled children. He had looked for community activities to involve them in, also as we did ours.

Bob’s example on my mind, I asked the Mennonite if he did social security. The answer was no. His people have an arrangement with the government that they do not pay in and do not take out. He mentioned his Covid relief check. He sent it back, though he’s perfectly entitled to keep it as it has nothing to do with social security. Most Mennonites do that , he told me, though there are some who keep them.

“How well do you hold on to your young people,” I asked him, and so he did not suspect a holier-than-thou trap I added that we lose quite a few of ours. Pretty much the same here, he said, and then we had one more thing in common. There are things outside that you can’t do inside. There are things done inside that you don’t have to do outside. It’s pretty much like one of those laws of thermodynamics of order reverting to disorder, though I spared the Mennonite the science terminology.

I learned more about the Mennonites than I did about the Friend, whose group petered out as a sect soon after her death. Their descendants are faithful to preserving her memory, however, the museum assistant said as I bought a book from her—The Public Universal Friend, by Paul Moyer, a nearby college professor. (She also carried two other titles.) They continue to bring in factoids and artifacts for the museum. In this way they are like the ones who donate to the Keuka Candy Emporium, mentioned in the first paragraph. The owner collects all sort of bygone oddities, including an ancient pulley contraption mounted overhead to collect and dispense change for purchases—for historical interest, he doesn’t use it. The only other one, the owner told me, is in the Smithsonian, and that is only there because they had donated it from the candy store. Once you reach a critical mass in anything, people begin donating items to you so it does not go to the four winds when they die. That’s why, I told the candy man, Shultz is donating his ancient Watchtower tracts to Warwick, though I did not mention him by name. He doesn’t want them dispersed to the four winds and a dozen Goodwill stores.

I owe Shultz the mention, since I might never had discovered the Publick Universal Friend but for a local history book written nearly 150 years ago that he alerted me to. Shultz himself is a writer of religious history, centering his search around contemporaries of C.T. Russell. His book, co-authored with a niece, A Separate Identity, is considered the definitive guide of the time period. He hadn’t known about the Publick Universal Friend. It isn’t really his time period. Besides, there were so many preachers who “had the calling” that this part of New York used to be known as the burnt over district. I had driven through the Friend’s old territory many times without awareness, most often to visit Bob and his family. You don’t think the “Town of Jerusalem” sign shouldn’t have been a tip-off? But it wasn’t. I just drove through and said, “Huh! Where have I heard that name before?”

It was a fine couple of days for my wife and I. Covid keeps us cooped up and we just had to bust out. The weather was 10 degrees above average and the sun was mostly shining—nothing to take for granted in our neck of the woods this time of year. The Penn Yan Best Western let us bring out dog. More and more hotels do that, for an added fee. And—important for a Jehovah’s Witness—I got to speak to four actual flesh and blood real people, not digital ones, about the faith—the museum person, the candy man, the hotel night man, and the Mennonite. It is a little funny, I told the Mennonite, searching for common cause, “that religious people should poach from one another, but that’s what religious people do. It’s in the DNA.”


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