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PBS's History Detectives Leads to College Gift


“I’m hoping that I can give this document to an organization that will take good care of it and allow other people to study and appreciate it.” These words, spoken by Jean Waite on an episode of PBS’s History Detective in 2012, prompted Hamilton’s Director of Special Collections Christian Goodwillie to place a call that, three years later, led to a donation to the college’s Communal Societies collection

The document in question is The Universal Friends Society Act of Incorporation, the legal document establishing this communal society founded in 1791 in Penn Yan, New York, then called Jerusalem.  Jemima Wilkinson, with whom Waite’s ancestors were closely associated, founded the group in an area that was considered the “Wild West” and was primarily covered by mosquito-infested forests.

Tipped off by his friend Peter Hoehnle (an important contributor to Hamilton's Communal Societies Collection), Goodwillie searched for a contact number for Waite and called her.  He reached her husband who promised to give her the information about Hamilton's collection. Goodwillie heard nothing for three years until he received a call last summer from Waite who decided to donate the document to the college. Her reasons, Goodwillie reported, were based on Hamilton’s demonstrated support of communal studies, its Couper Press and the availability of the digital collections to the public. “Thanks so much for providing a good home, so close to the point of origin, for something that has travelled so widely in its 211 year history,” Waite wrote in an email as she prepared to send the document to Hamilton.

According to History Detectives, “This [Universal Friends Society] communal existence represented Jemima’s belief that everyone was equal — women and men, and people of all races. Basically she was rejecting the old New England idea of pre-destination, that some were saved and some were lost. She believed that there was an inner light in every human being that was the Spirit of God. It was a combination of most of the beliefs of the Quakers and those beliefs of the Baptists that had been influenced by the enthusiasm that went along with the preaching of the Great Awakening.”

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