Julie Schorr, '08, and Lauren Kleimola, '08, were friends before they enrolled in Doug Winiarski's religion class, Cults, Communes and Utopias in Early America. They remained friends the following semester when they both enrolled in his course on Witchcraft and Its Interpreters. Their friendship was cemented, however, when at Winiarski's suggestion, they spent a summer researching a self-proclaimed religious prophetess, Jemima Wilkinson, and took a weeklong road trip to Wilkinson's hometown of Penn Yan, N.Y.

"Prior to taking Professor Winiarski's religion classes, the only Jemima we'd ever heard of was the one on the syrup bottle," said Julie Schorr, '08, a psychology and religion double major.

The School of Arts & Sciences awards summer research fellowships and travel grants to over 150 undergraduates each summer. Students can pursue independent study projects with the advisement of a professor, and Winiarski encouraged Schorr and Kleimola to apply.

"Jemima Wilkinson never called herself a prophet, but in the early 1800s, she did lead what she called a 'Society of Friends' in upstate New York. Her beliefs were loosely based on those of the Quaker tradition in which she was brought up, and she did come to believe that she was the second coming of Christ," Schorr said.

To complete the research project as a team, both women knew they would have to win funding from the School of Arts & Sciences, so they needed to come up with not one, but two research topics associated with Wilkinson's life and work.

"I had taken a presidential leadership class, so I designed a project that studied Jemima Wilkinson's leadership style and how it applied to her ministry," said Kleimola, a psychology major and religion minor.

"And I was interested in how death was perceived in her Society of Friends. When members of her Society died, Jemima used to write that they'd 'left time.' She insisted on speaking at the funeral of each of her congregants and seemed to fixate on death. In fact, there's a mausoleum on her property in Penn Yan," said Schorr.

The School's undergraduate research program emphasizes the use of primary research documents. Since Jemima Wilkinson's Society was made up of just 250 members at its peak, information about her and her work isn't as easy to find in secondary sources. Most of her papers and those of her congregants are housed in the Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society in the tiny town of Penn Yan where she lived and worshipped.

Schorr and Kleimola realized from the outset that in order to really get to know Jemima Wilkinson, they were going to need to make a road trip. They applied for and received a travel grant to apply toward their expenses, and after spending part of the summer doing research at Richmond, set off for Penn Yan.

"It was really a cultural experience. We drove into this one stoplight town in a car with Texas plates and everyone knew we were there. Once people found out we were there to learn more about Jemima, they opened up with all kinds of personal stories and myths about her. No one may have heard of her in other parts of the country, but in Penn Yan, they're very proud of her. They stand up for her as a person, even though they don't personally follow her beliefs," said Schorr.

Schorr and Kleimola spent most of the week in a research room they'd rented from the Genealogical Society. They were in awe of the access they were given to documents, personal journals and other writings.

"We didn't have time to read through it all. We took photographs, made detailed notes and transcribed documents when necessary. Back at Richmond, we knew we'd have time to look everything over in more detail," Kleimola said.

Throughout the week, Schorr and Kleimola took research breaks and visited the historic sites that were familiar to Jemima, learning more about her each time they ventured out. Along the way, they learned a little something about the research process as well.

"We set out for Penn Yan with different goals based on the kinds of documents we hoped to find. But with primary research, you have to adapt your goals to the kinds of evidence you uncover. That was rewarding," said Schorr.