Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers

Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, English missionaries from the Society of Friends (colloquially called Quakers), were gaoled by the Roman Inquisition on Malta from 1558-1662/3. Like many of the early modern people I come across in my research, no images survive of these women, so I must look elsewhere for traces of their hotness. Let’s start with gender.

For those not familiar with the Society of Friends, one of its primary tenets is equality–between the sexes, between races–and this was the case even in the seventeenth century. While many Christians had long subscribed to the notion that all Christians were equal at a soul level, the Friends considered this true in the earthly realm as well. Although some English women in radical dissenting (non-Anglican) Protestant sects took to preaching in the seventeenth century, to leave England without the company of one’s father, husband or other male guardian was in itself a radical act. To do so with the express intention of missionising for one of the most radical sects of the day was nothing short of brazen. Evans and Cheevers, neither spinsters, nor widows (the two groups of non-elite women with the most social flexibility) left their husbands at home to care for their children while they went abroad to spread their message, thereby inverting the gender norms of the period that generally tasked women with domestic management. Moreover, contemporaries also considered religious direction of the family/household the purview of the husband and/or father, so these women (and their spouses) were really pushing the envelope on multiple levels and in various ways.

Several accounts that claim to document Cheevers and Evans’s time as prisoners of the Roman Inquisition survive today, and they make very interesting reading. While Cheevers, Evans and their Quaker supporters were by no means without their own prejudices (virulent anti-Catholicism pervades these relations), their unwavering commitment to their radical religious beliefs is powerful. Indeed, their interrogations by the inquisitors, who constantly try in vain to get them to recant their beliefs, read like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. For subverting, inverting and outright challenging contemporary social norms and religious authority, Cheevers and Evans are historical hotties.

~Spirit

For those unfamiliar with early modern print sources, enjoy these long and phonetically-spelled titles!

Evans, Katharine. A brief discovery of God’s eternal truth and a way opened to the simple hearted whereby they may come to know Christ and his ministers, from Antichrist and his ministers: with a warning from the Lord to all people that do name the name of Christ, to depart from iniquity / written in the Inquisition of Malta. London, 1663. Early English Books Online.

Evans, Katharine and Sarah Cheevers. This Is a Short Relation of Some of the Cruel Sufferings (for the Truths Sake) of Katharine Evans & Sarah Chevers in the Inquisition of the Isle of Malta Who Have Suffered There above Three Years by the Pope’s Authority, There to Be Deteined until They Dye: Which Relation of Their Sufferings Is Come Form Their Own Hands and Mouths as Doth Appear in the Following Treatise… Edited by D. B. London, 1662. Early English Books Online.

———. A True Account of the Great Tryals and Cruel Sufferings Undergone by Those Two Faithful Servants of God, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers in the Time of Their above Three Years and a Halfs Confinement in the Island Malta. Also, How God at Last by His Almighty Power Effected Their Deliverance, and Brought Them Back into the Land of Their Nativity. To Which Is Added, a Short Relation from George Robinson, of the Sufferings That Befel Him in His Journey to Jerusalem; and How God Saved Him from the Hands of Cruelty When the Sentence of Death Was Passed against Him. Edited by D. B. London, 1663. Early English Books Online.

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Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers

The Publick Universal Friend

This image is in the public domain.
This image is in the public domain.

Think challenging social conventions surrounding sex and gender is the province of twentieth and twenty-first-century people? Allow me to introduce you to Jemima Wilkinson/the Publick Universal Friend.

In 1752 Wilkinson was born in the colony of Rhode Island, the traditional land of the Narragansett, Niantic and Wampanoag peoples* (listed alphabetically), into a family of strict Quakers (the colloquial name for the Society of Friends). In 1776, Wilkinson took ill and apparently succumbed to some mystery sickness. While Jemima Wilkinson was no more, her body remained alive, but it was become host to a new spirit sent by God. The Publick Universal Friend emerged from her sick/death bed.**

Despite occupying Wilkinson’s body, the Friend did not affiliate with any sex or gender. To enforce this, the Friend eschewed the use of gendered pronouns and wore voluminous, black, gender-neutralising clothing, garments which also suited the Friend’s vocation as a preacher. Indeed, the Friend had not entered Wilkinson’s vacated body simply to upset conventions around sex and gender. The Friend’s mission was a religious one: to preach adherence to a very strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments, apocalypticism, perfect friendship among all human beings and complete sexual abstinence. This last message challenged the traditional Protestant view that marriage and procreation were highly important, since celibacy was the precursor to sins of the flesh wrought by repression of human carnality.

It is worthwhile here to note that the Friend enjoyed a position of relative privilege when it came to self-comportment and to spreading God’s message. In essence, the Friend used Jemima’s body and her social standing among New England’s more radical Christians (i.e., colonisers) to espouse a religious message that was not indigenous to the continent’s original peoples. Indeed, the Friend effectively preached equality to audiences whose very presence in New England came at the expense of the territory’s indigenous peoples. This is not to suggest that The Friend’s message was disingenuous, nor that it was wholeheartedly welcomed.

Predictably, the notion of a “woman” preaching and directing the religious lives of others ruffled the feathers of many contemporaries. However, the Publick Universal Friend did not become persona non grata; the Friend remained in the embrace of Wilkinson’s family (despite regarding them no more as relations than any other human beings) and quickly developed a considerable following. Many attended The Friend’s public sermons and sought out the Friend for religious direction. Pamphlets that contained print-versions of the Friend’s sermons were also very popular, though, it should be noted, these pamphlets also highlighted the Friend’s unconventional genderlessness. The Friend, rich in followers, ultimately founded a religious settlement in the state of New York (originally home to the Abenaki, Cayuga, Erie, Laurentian, Mohawk, Mohican, Mohegan, Munsee Delaware, Oneida, Onondaga, Poospatuck/Unkechaug and Seneca peoples*).

The Publick Universal Friend openly flouted—indeed, transcended—late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century conceptions of gender. For this, and for preaching ceaselessly the message of perfect friendship among all human beings, the Publick Universal Friend definitely qualifies as a historical hottie.

~ Spirit

*According to native-languages.org

**There is controversy around Wilkinson’s illness and death (spiritual and physically), but this piece adheres to the Friend’s version of events.

Bibliography

Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.

Wisbey Jr., Herbert A. Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965.

The Publick Universal Friend