People & Events
Rebecca Cox Jackson
1795 - 1871
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Little is known of the early life of Rebecca Cox Jackson, a black woman who became an eldress in the Shaker religion and founded a Shaker community in Philadelphia.
Rebecca was born in 1795 to a free family, and lived until the age of three or four with her grandmother, who died when Rebecca was seven. From the time she was ten, she was responsible for the care of two younger siblings; as a result, she was "the only child of my mother that had not learning." Rebecca's mother died when she was thirteen, and she was taken in by her brother Joseph Cox, a thirty-one-year old AME minister, widower, and father of six children.
Sometime during the next twenty-two years, when her autobiography begins, Rebecca married Samuel S. Jackson, who also lived in the Cox house. In addition to managing her brother's home, Rebecca worked as a seamstress, one of the most common occupations for black women during that period.
In July 1830, Rebecca experienced a religious awakening during a severe thunderstorm. For five years, her fear of storms had been so great that "In time of thunder and lightning I would have to go to bed because it made me so sick." On this day, she was unable to contain her fear, convinced that she would die during the storm. In her moment of greatest despair, as she prayed for either death or redemption, she suddenly felt as though "the cloud burst," and the lightning that had been "the messenger of death, was now the messenger of peace, joy, and consolation."
After her conversion, Rebecca began to experience visions in which she discovered the presence of a divine inner voice that instructed her in the use of her spiritual gifts. She soon developed a large following among a neighborhood "Covenant Meeting," typically comprised of women, that in this case also included several men. Rebecca was harshly criticized for "aleading the men" and for her refusal to formally join any church, which several Methodist ministers saw as "chopping up our churches." Morris Brown, who succeeded Richard Allen as Bishop of the AME Church, came to a meeting led by Rebecca with the intention of stopping her; but after listening to her, he declared, "If ever the Holy Ghost was in any place, it was in that meeting. Let her alone now."
Rebecca's religious activism soon led to the dissolution of her marriage, as well as a separation from her brother, who "had always been kind and like a father to me." An incident that led to the rupture in their relationship -- Joseph's failure to teach her to read, as he had promised -- also sparked a remarkable manifestation of Rebecca's "gifts of power." Frustrated with her inability to read and write for herself, Rebecca listened to the inner voice telling her that God would teach her to read, and suddenly discovered that she could!
Rebecca became an itinerant preacher, inspiring both white and blacks. Her desire to preach, her insistence on absolute obedience to her inner voice, and her radical notions of "holy living" (which included celibacy, even within marriage) created controversy within the churches. According to her account, some ministers even threatened to expel church members who opened their homes to her during her travels.
During her travels, Rebecca discovered the Shakers, whose religious views were remarkably similar to her own. Impressed by her spiritual gifts, they embraced her as a prophet, and she remained in the Watervliet, New York community for four years. Although devout in her commitment to Shaker doctrine, Rebecca was not satisfied with Shaker outreach to other blacks. A conflict over authority soon led her to return to Philadelphia with her companion and protégé, Rebecca Perot.
After six years in Philadelphia, the "colored Rebeccas" ended their estrangement from the Shaker leadership and returned to Watervliet for a year. Now reconciled, they once again left, intent on establishing a Philadelphia family of black Shakers, but this time with the moral, legal, and financial support of Shaker society.
The Philadelphia family, which combined elements of Shaker theology and black female praying band traditions, consisted of anywhere from a dozen to twenty members, mostly but not exclusively black and female, living together in a large house on Erie Street. Other black Shakers in and around Philadelphia also gathered there for services.
When Rebecca Jackson died in 1871, Rebecca Perot took the name "Mother Rebecca Jackson" and assumed leadership of the Philadelphia family, which survived another forty years. When Perot and other elderly sisters retired to Watervliet in 1896, it was believed that "Mother Jackson's colony in Philadelphia" had come to an end. However, that same year, in his pioneering study of black Philadelphia, W.E.B. DuBois found two Shaker households in the seventh ward; and in 1908, a Shaker editor noted the discovery of "a colony of Believers there, and zealous, too."
Excerpt from Gifts of Power, Rebecca Cox Jackson
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