DATE OF BIRTH: February 15, 1795
PLACE OF BIRTH: Hornstown, Pennsylvania
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Rebecca Cox was born to Jane Wisson (or Wilson), a free black woman who married at least twice before dying in 1808. Rebecca never knew her father. She lived with her grandmother until the age of three or four. The grandmother died when Rebecca was seven years old. From the age of ten, she became responsible for two younger siblings. Her mother died when she was 13 years old, so she lived with her 31-year-old brother Joseph Cox, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister, widower and father of six children. In 1830, she married Samuel S. Jackson and they continued living with her brother and his children. They had no children.
EDUCATION: Later in life, Rebecca wrote that, because she had to care for her younger siblings, she was “the only child of my mother that had not learning.”
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Rebecca took care of the house and her brother’s children, and earned a living as a seamstress, even after getting married. Life continued this way for over 20 years.
In July 1830, at the age of 35, Rebecca experienced a religious awakening during a severe thunderstorm. She had been afraid of such storms for years, and had written that “in time of thunder and lightening I would have to go to bed because it made me so sick.” This time, she was so scared and convinced she was going to die, she began praying for either death or redemption. Suddenly she felt like “the cloud burst” and the lightening that had been “the messenger of death, was now the messenger of peace, joy and consolation.”
After this revelation, Rebecca began having visions, in which she said the presence of a divine inner voice instructed her to use her spiritual gifts. She claimed that in these dreams she could heal the sick, make the sinful holy, speak with angels, and even fly. She left her husband’s bed to live a life of “Christian perfection.” Her inner voice instructed her “to travel some and speak to the people.”
At first, Rebecca recounted her visionary experiences and held prayer meetings in people’s homes. She soon developed a large following – inspiring both blacks and whites, mostly women – through “Covenant Meetings.” She was harshly criticized for “aleading the men” and for refusing to formally join a church; which several Methodist ministers felt was “chopping up” the churches. Morris Brown, Bishop of the AME Church, attended one of Rebecca’s meetings, intending to stop her, but instead declared, “If ever the Holy Ghost was in any place, it was in that meeting. Let her alone now.”
Yet Rebecca was still frustrated by her inability to read and write. Her brother had promised to teach her, but had not been able to do so, being tired every night. She resolved to “not think hard of my brother, … [who] had always been kind and like a father to me.” She continued to rely on him to read and write for her. Until she realized he had made substantial changes in letters she had dictated. She said, “I don’t want thee to word my letter. I only want thee to write it.” Joseph said, “Sister, thee is the hardest one I ever wrote for!” Rebecca took this to heart; thinking there wasn’t much that was too hard for her to do for his or his children’s comfort. But she took solace in her inner voice when it said “the time shall come when you can write.” So she continued praying, and one day the inner voice spoke to her about learning to read. She later wrote:
Now Rebecca had access to the Bible, and she used it to defend her practice of “holy living.” She had intense criticism from her husband, her brother and the AME clergy who objected to women preaching and her radical notion of celibacy even in marriage. With a revelation that celibacy was necessary for a holy life, Rebecca had criticized churches for “carnality.” Some ministers threatened to expel their church members who let Rebecca into their homes during her travels.
By 1837, at the height of accusations against her, Rebecca requested that Methodist and Presbyterian ministers formally try her for heresy. The request was refused and she cut off all ties to her husband, family and the church. For the next 10 years, she traveled and preached around Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, New Jersey, southern New England, and New York. During this time, she discovered the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (known primarily as the Shakers), whose religious views were surprisingly similar to hers.
In 1847, Rebecca and her friend and disciple Rebecca Perot joined a Shaker community at Watervliet, near Albany, New York. Impressed by Rebecca’s spiritual gifts, the Shakers welcomed her as a prophet. Both Rebeccas were attracted to the sect’s practice of celibacy and recognition of the feminine, as well as the masculine, aspects of God. They lived there for four years.
But Rebecca was not satisfied with the Shakers’ outreach to blacks. In 1851, this disappointment led to a conflict with authority in which she and Perot returned to Philadelphia on an unauthorized mission, experimenting with seance-style spiritualism. There, she established a small, predominantly black and female, Shaker family. After six years, she ended her estrangement from the Shaker leadership and returned to Watervliet for a year. After the reconciliation, Rebecca returned to Philadelphia again – this time with the moral, legal and financial support of Shaker society.
Rebecca’s Shaker family in Philadelphia combined elements of Shaker theology and black female praying band traditions. Members consisted of anywhere from 12 to 20 members, living in a large house on Erie Street. Other black Shakers who lived in or around Philadelphia also gathered there for services.
Rebecca’s diary entries end in 1864 and she passed away in 1871. She was buried in a Shaker community in New Lebanon, New York. Perot assumed the name “Mother Rebecca Jackson” and leadership of the Philadelphia family, which survived another 40 years. In 1896, Perot and several elderly sisters retired to Watervliet, and many believed Rebecca’s colony had come to an end. But, that same year, in his study of black Philadelphia, W.E.B. DuBois found two Shaker households in the seventh ward, and in 1908, a Shaker editor noted discovery of “a colony of Believers there, and zealous, too.”
In 1980, Rebecca’s writings were published in a single volume, called “Gifts of Power.” After her death, Alonzo G. Hollister, a Shaker leader, collected her writings (including an incomplete narrative of her life) and interviewed Philadelphia family members. For some reason, he was never able to produce a complete, edited manuscript. And Rebecca remained virtually unknown until her manuscripts were rediscovered and published in 1980. In her writings, Rebecca focused on her spiritual experiences more so than her secular life before her revelation.
DATE OF DEATH: 1871
PLACE OF DEATH: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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The Dream of Washing Quilts by Rebecca Cox Jackson
Our Philadelphia Story: Today's Active African American Literary Scene in the City of Brotherly Love Has Deep Roots in a Proud Legacy. Black Issues Book Review: Jan.-Feb. 2002.
“Oh how thankful I feel for this unspeakable gift of Almighty God to me! Oh may I make a good use of it all the days of my life!”
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