Founder of a Black Shaker Community
Little is known of the early life of Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871), a free black woman who became an elder in the Shaker religion, which was founded by Mother Ann Lee just before the Revolutionary War. At age 35 Jackson underwent a religious conversion during a thunderstorm, after which she became an itinerant preacher and established a black Shaker community in Philadelphia in 1859. There are no known images of Rebecca Cox Jackson.
Image: African American Church in Philadelphia by Pavel Petrovich Svinin, 1815
Rebecca Cox was born on February 15, 1795 to a free family in Hornstown, Pennsylvania 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. Rebecca’s mother died when she was thirteen, and she was taken in by her brother Joseph Cox, a thirty-one-year old African Methodist Episcopal minister, a widower and father of six children.
In 1830, she married Samuel S. Jackson, who also lived in the Cox house, and they continued living with her brother and his children. They had no children. 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, even after getting married.
In July 1830, at age 35, Rebecca experienced a religious awakening during a severe thunderstorm. For 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 this revelation, Rebecca began to experience visions in which she discovered the presence of a divine inner voice that instructed 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 neighborhood “Covenant Meetings.” She 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.”
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.