Little is known of the early life of Rebecca Cox Jackson, an African American woman who became an eldress in the Shaker religion & founded a Shaker community in Philadelphia. Rebecca was born in 1795 to a free family, & lived until the age of 3 or 4 with her grandmother, who died when Rebecca was 7. From the time she was 10, she was responsible for the care of 2 younger siblings; as a result, she was "the only child of my mother that had not learning." Rebecca's mother died when she was 13, & she was taken in by her brother Joseph Cox, a 31-year old AME minister, widower, & father of 6 children.
Pavel Petrovich Svinin, African American Church in Philadelphia (St. Petersberg, 1815),
Sometime during the next 22 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 5 years, her fear of storms had been so great that "In time of thunder & 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," & the lightning that had been "the messenger of death, was now the messenger of peace, joy, & 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" & for her refusal to formally join any church, which several Methodist ministers saw as "chopping up our churches."
Portrait of Reverend Morris Brown was included in James A. Handy's Scraps of
African Methodist Episcopal History, printed in Philadelphia sometime in the
19th century, and reprinted in 1901.
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 & 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 & write for herself, Rebecca listened to the inner voice telling her that God would teach her to read, & suddenly discovered that she could!
Rebecca became an itinerant preacher, inspiring both white & blacks. Her desire to preach, her insistence on absolute obedience to her inner voice, & 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, & 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 & protégé, Rebecca Perot.
After 6 years in Philadelphia, the "colored Rebeccas" ended their estrangement from the Shaker leadership & 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, & financial support of Shaker society.
The Philadelphia family, which combined elements of Shaker theology & black female praying band traditions, consisted of anywhere from 12 to 20 members, mostly but not exclusively black & female, living together in a large house on Erie Street. Other black Shakers in & around Philadelphia also gathered there for services.
When Rebecca Jackson died in 1871, Rebecca Perot took the name "Mother Rebecca Jackson" & assumed leadership of the Philadelphia family, which survived another 40 years. When Perot & 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 7th ward; & in 1908, a Shaker editor noted the discovery of "a colony of Believers there, & zealous, too."
Jackson's journals are preserved in Jean McMahon Humez' "Gifts Of Power" which collects the writings of Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson, whose career as preacher and Shaker leader spanned from 1830 until her death in 1871.
At the beginning of her career Rebecca was a part of the Methodist Episcopal Church in her youth & was involved in "Holiness" prayer meetngs during the 1820s. As a result of the Holiness movement's highly participatory nature, was able to write down detailed visions of the coming of Heaven & the Day Of Judgement. Many of her early visions realted closely to Jesus's miracles, but there were also many dreams of such mundane things as quilts, cakes, rain, and deaths of her relatives. Later, she decribed the strains preaching was having on her married life, as she moved into intense prayer as Methodists criticised her ministry as a black woman preaching a false doctrine. Jackson focused clearly and sincerely on trying to live the life of Jesus, especially after visiting the Shakers in 1836.
As a Shaker, Rebecca Jackson did not cede that mystical, fiery character of her early writings, but her later writings have an epic tone lacking in previous letters. She saw during her residence at Watervliet a desite to do missionary work among blacks, which is seen in visions of herself traveling long distances or of the arrival of Native American seeking help. In Philadelphia, Jackson's dreams became focused on early events in her life, and she would dream of being united with her brother as she went on a long pilgrimate to develop a Shaker community for blacks. Her work during her 2nd residence at Watervliet and with the Philadelphia Shakers was indeed seen by her as "going to Zion." She saw herself as revealing the Kngdom of Heaven in her labors with the people of Philadelphia.
See PBS Africans in America.