Paper initially written for Dr. Suzanne Hiatt, Episcopal Divinity School
Chapter appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, DYN self-published, 2020
This essay draws from research in multiple libraries: Radcliffe University‘s fine Schlesinger (History of Women in America), Harvard Divinity School (early periodicals and Unitarian archival materials), Congregational (denomination focused, Beacon Street, Boston), Harvard’s main Widener Library, and Boston Public in addition to Episcopal Divinity School (Cambridge) where I was enrolled part time for a year. For one who values research as do I, these halls, rich with materials combined with copy machines nearby, made exploring exciting. To find sermons spoken by nineteenth century women caused me joy. Even “tidbits” about a name which had drawn crowds to hear her verified proof. Linked for Independent Study with Episcopal Divinity School’s gentle professor Suzanne Hiatt’s yen for history plus her distinction of being among the first ordained Episcopalian women drew me to useful mentors.
This essay attempts too much—insight into nineteenth century U.S., pro and con views of women in pulpit ministry, glimpses into a few sermons by women, and introduction to foremothers never known. Not intent to draw multiple conclusions, the hope is to glean information. Intent to take advantage of access to the wealth of resources located in the Cambridge, MA area, I gathered notes, admittedly scattered ones, too valuable to destroy on leaving. Future writing could build on such beginnings.
Academic and religious patterns of the past hold hints for what may follow or differ in the future. To know what women had achieved becomes invitation to be serious with one’s present. As Christian women have practiced leadership, pursued disciplined study of scripture, and combined private parenting with public roles in society, mentors address from library shelves. While some denominations expect few sex differences regarding who leads, others resist diversion from traditional men. But women will ever be so compelled and prepared by Divine Spirit to make clear their ‘call’ to minister in diverse ways. As with Mary of Magdala, women will prophesy and counsel in spite of opposition. The following reflects what cannot be denied. Readers are invited to discover.
19th Century U.S. Religious Climate
A few observations about 19th century U.S. religious climate and organization matter. Sydney Ahlstrom in The Shaping of American Religion1 reminds us that people from varied countries came religiously motivated to this ‘young’ land with diverse ideologies. How the influx of immigrants with religious views related to that of native Americans is frequently overlooked by historians.
With Puritanism came a strong emphasis on preaching. The sermon served centrally for teaching about God’s grace. Women assigned to pulpits did not develop philosophical or theological systems such as Jonathan Edwards or William Ellory Channing. Where they broke ground legitimized the involvement of women to proclaim Christ in public. Not another Charles Finney, Maggie Van Cott’s preaching led to 75,000 converts and Phoebe Palmer evangelistically assisted 25,000 more. While numbers do not convey the full story, religious history should not ignore their influence. For fifty-nine years Lucretia Mott preached effectively in Quaker meeting houses around the country. Social gospel for notable Walter Rauschenbusch encountered the inhumanity of industrialism and urban expansion; for women in Home Missions, similar concerns surfaced no less seriously.
Sources reveal perception and facts. In 1865 Margaret Fuller’s book Women in the Nineteenth Century2 defined and credited woman’s place in society. Actively involved in intellectual circles, she for a while edited the Dial, spreading her influence. A prime concern of Fuller’s centered in enabling women’s freedom from being bound to men, in exploring and exposing their own power. Instead of living first for God, women had to avoid weakness through substituting imperfect man as their god. Fuller wished for women’s freedom from compromise and helplessness; she nudged them toward strength and fullness rather than poverty.3 She explained how men stunt their own growth when trying to limit women; she clearly tied liberation for man and woman into one and the same goal. Not all people welcomed hearing her view.
Some mid-19th century men also called for mutual rights and duties.4 Convinced of similarities of intellect and affections, C. Foote saw no reason to doubt that equal abilities could result from similar opportunities. Writing in 1849 he identified the reason why no women were “classed” with musician Beethoven or artist Raphael. With neither sufficient demand or room, their powers or talents had not been developed. “Personal experience is the most important preparation of all.”5 Foote maintained that rights originate from God. Human beings try to limit or divert the God-given. Whether or not women preach illustrated this fact. As experience shows, when acknowledged, women assume the rights and duties of endeavors such as pulpit ministry.
As in general suffrage efforts, women claimed courage. They, as well as men, prepared for and credited their own strengths. Sometimes they spoke forthrightly, even shocking hearers. An interesting expression of the 19th century about which Carroll Smith-Rosenberg writes6 is the emotional ties that women shared. Not only did the mother-daughter tie convey strength and understanding; women depended on women at points of childbirth, crises, and death. Bonds shaped and evolved between women, sometimes at the expense of relationship with men. Smith-Rosenberg credits female ties to four features: 1) explicit gender-role differentiations; men and women being separated emotionally; 2) distinctly different sex worlds that marriage failed to bridge; 3) failure to approve expressions of intimacy between young men and women; 4) “God-ordained” and “natural” labels that separated sex spheres.7
Part of the dynamic at work here emerged as self-satisfaction for a woman. Whereas she had little or no power in the larger male world, at least within her circle of women, she had status, support, power or influence in relation to others, often kin or peers. The break with home, going off to school, resulted in relationships with other women—peers or family friends. Extended visits with women recurred. Smith-Rosenberg researched extensively on those relationships, gathering information from letters written and diaries recorded. Women did not hesitate to write with fondness of each other. Such bonding became instrumental in efforts for which women joined forces—suffrage, temperance, peace, and employment.
Additional sources shifted into higher education for women. According to Olympia Brown,8 instruction, experience, and inspiration all accompanied education or training, the goal of training being to increase usefulness. Women as much as men needed to express what they learned. Both experience and inspiration deserved to be credited in women, as they assumed responsibilities due to them. Emma Hart Willard became a pioneer in efforts for higher education for women. In 1821 she opened a boarding school for girls at Troy, N.Y. Due to slow acceptance of public education for girls, private schools, often called female seminaries, provided high school level work for them. Early education for women fostered that century’s view of women’s role as homemaker. Catherine Beecher especially led such efforts.
Prudence Crandall’s achievements threatened others. When she included capable black daughters, opposition grew. At one point forced to close for the girls’ safely, she later re-opened a school geared toward teacher training for black women. Persecution again followed. Such threat only reinforced the reality that people with advantage choose to limit growth in others. But with development comes new awareness of former limitations, new consciousness that the freedom of responsibility rightfully extends to all. As long as either white or black women assumed for themselves a mentality of inferiority, those with privilege thought themselves to be “safe.” But exposure to a world broader than the home, and new-found confidence in self-expression accompanied more formal education for women.
Mary Lyon, another pioneer, saw the need for women’s education to include more than domestic-oriented learning. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary’s three-year course of study began in 1837. The first year promoted different programs in math, grammar, government-history, botany, and “Watts on the mind.” The second pursued more advanced study of those subjects along with introducing additional sciences plus natural and intellectual philosophy. The third year focused more on religious studies including ecclesiastical history, natural theology, and evidences of Christianity.9
Encouraged, colleges included women. In 1833 Oberlin first offered women a curriculum that only men studied elsewhere. Restrictions still appeared; they could not speak in class, participate in functions like graduation, or be comparably involved in the community. Antioch’s tradition of innovation included its being the first college to grant equal rights to women in the classroom and on faculties.
For a woman to teach theology was most irregular. Jannette Newhall, in “There were Giants in Those Days,”10 describes the first, brief experience of Betsy Dow’s teaching in 1837 at Newbury Seminary in Vermont. The first woman to enter a school of theology, to be given the “privilege of studying the Bible and its themes as scholars do,”11 was Anna Oliver. Anna Howard Shaw soon joined her at Boston University School of Theology. Women tapped other professions too. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first women to be granted a medical degree. While Myra Bradwell did not complete a degree, she paved the way for other women in law.
As the 19th century began, Baptist and Congregationalist women combined in Boston, led by Mary Webb, to organize the Women’s Female Society for Missionary Purposes. Within fifteen years, many denominational women’s groups formed across the country. Similar programs of the Women’s Union Missionary Society of America began in New York city in 1859. These organizations varied in how autonomously from male structures they functioned. However, what became apparent, whenever joint efforts with men transpired, women lost ground in decision-making, productivity, and skill development.
According to Elsie Thomas Culver,12 women saw needs and made concerted efforts to meet them, engaged efforts within church organization, and then countered if they met lack of voice. Too often women accepted judgments regarding lack of religious or organizational understanding which led them to function only at a service level. That pattern deepened an image of female subordination except among Methodist women who were noted for refusing to relinquish control to men.
Involved in both foreign and home mission work, women crossed the additional “hurdle” of acceptance in their own rights, unattached to men. Cynthia Farrar had been the first unmarried woman sent overseas as a missionary in 1827. Prior to her (1822) Betsy Stockton, a freed slave, had traveled and carried responsibilities with her employer family on mission in Hawaii. Missionaries Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Eliza Harmon Spalding, both ordained by the American Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Congregational and Presbyterian), were the first white women to cross the Rockies (1836) to pursue their task.
Major motivations for foreign mission work, according to J. T. Gracey,13 included: 1) low esteem for girls (Indian villages were known to have ratios of 104 boys to 1 girl and 216 boys to 45 girls); 2) illiteracy; 3) damage done to development through an early marriage system; 4) recognition of the impact women had on religious orientation of the family. A most direct way to evangelize was through women who in turn influenced children. That condition being so, and with cultural patterns of sexual relationships being what they often were, having female evangelists seemed imperative. Recalled from China as a missionary because she was reported to have been preaching, Adele Fields was asked if she had ever been ordained. “No,” she replied. Her credentials were grounded in the biblical “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”
Competence in women often threatens men, particularly men who depend on women’s being dependent on them. The Council of Congregational Ministers, for example, could not refrain from attempts to blockade women. Two southern, white sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, came north to make unmistakably clear the abolitionist cause. Equally clearly, the Council responded: “The power of woman is her dependence. . . .But when she assumes place and tone of man as a public reformer . . . she yields the power which God has given her for her protection, and her character becomes unnatural.14 Not to be stifled, Sarah Grimke responded by writing Letters on the Equality of the Sexes.
Another influence on the religious scene in the 1840s was William Miller’s prophecy of the forthcoming Second Coming. One unique response to this prediction was Julia Evelina Smith’s—who went to the scriptures.15 Within seven or eight years, 1847 following, she translated the entire Bible five times: once from Latin, twice from Greek, and twice from Hebrew, a language in which she was self-taught. Hers were very literal, word-for-word translations that “those who wish may apply their judgment to original meanings.” Hers was the first English translation of the entire Bible by a woman. She had it published in 1876 as part of the nation’s centennial, to show “what a woman was capable of doing.” That printing was the first “set up” by type-setting machines (operated by a woman); a woman did the extensive proof reading.16
I wonder if Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her Woman’s Bible crew of writers at the end of the century had access to Julia Smith’s phenomenal work. I wonder if those who translated scripture during the past twenty-five years examined either of those serious efforts by women. Yes, I wonder when women and men together will hear each other at translating tables, will authentically reveal God and the full range of human experience!
Some denominational groups appear to be more prepared than others by past experience to value women’s involvement. For example, Christian Scientists, Shakers, and Pillar of Fire had female founders. In mid-19th century the Shakers called attention to an expression of balance in imagery. For them, the “church being the body of Christ” raised questions. They contended17 that as originally Adam was created of both male and female substance, so with Christ. Christ in the female came in their leader Ann Lee who reflected the anointing Power (Christ), or salvation in woman.
That this view conflicted with developing American attitudes toward women does not surprise. Dorothy Bass Frazer18 describes woman as the “chief priest of domesticated Protestantism.” When the shift from Reformation “father-chief priest” as “God the Father,” took place would be of interest to discuss with her. What Bass describes as a turn-of-the-19th-century phenomenon to elevate women as mother, as crowning glory, as morally superior sounds much like medieval pedestalling of Mary. In both cases, the purpose served well to limit woman. In her “goodness” women could not participate in society. Prominent in the glorification was self-lessness.
Work dynamics distinctly differ, depending on leadership images. Catherine and William Booth together gave leadership to the Salvation Army. Authentic, combined female/male leadership, whether in the state, church, or mini church (family) discourages categories of privileged/subordinate, inferior/superior, priority/secondary, more/less valued. Not wishing for leadership among the masses to make strong demarcation, leadership itself was not to be seen as the ultimate.
Women Explore Formal Congregational Ministry.
We turn now to articles and books written on the subject of women in ministry during the last half of the 19th century. By ministry, I here refer primarily to pulpit ministry. Obviously, it reflects a more Protestant focus. Preaching the Word has been central to Protestant theology, in contrast to Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian, or Orthodox groups where sacraments, particularly the eucharist, becomes prominent. Whatever the focus, it often surfaced as a more questionable role for women.
Some religious groups have avoided conflicts over preaching: Quakers, Evangelical Free Church, Church of the Nazarene, and groups founded by women. From the beginning their documents state an expectation for women to preach. The ritual of ordination—of men or women—mattered less among them. While ordination often posed as the decisive action for accepting women into ministry, groups vary. Certainty may follow generalization: the degree of church hierarchy affects the significance given to ordination. Emphasis on ordination often affects a group’s understanding of who can interpret scripture.
My exposure to women from the last half of the 19th century does not limit or identify only ordained women. Many functioned as ministers without ordination. For example, Quakers did not ordain, so women like men functioned as leaders to the extent that leadership was designated. Further, not all who preached were listed as ministers. Prior to women’s ordination, they frequently ministered. Like Adele Fields they felt “foreordained.”19
Of surprise to me, when examining the 19th century, was a similarity with current discussion. The same scriptures—I Cor. 14 and II Tim. 2—regarding “women and silence” occur repeatedly. Insinuations of Eve’s prominence in the fall, woman’s “place in the home,” and male superiority recur. A haunting question surfaces: Why was there so little change during the past one hundred years? Have writers and teachers of religious history been so able to ignore the impact of 19th century women? Have women neglected self-definition? Will the fact of more women trained in theology change basic thought? Where are the prophets, those strengthened to attack threat in the threatened? In spite of opposing odds, women have ministered. Rather than lose mentors hidden through androcentric history recording, this essay attempts to rescue 19th century advocates of responsible Christian womanhood.
Phebe Hanaford20 notes Quaker preachers: Mary Ellen Farnum, Mary Macy, Narcissa B. Coffin, Ann Kenworthy, Rachel Townsend, Caroline Talbot, Elizabeth Comstock, Susan Howland, Elizabeth Coggeshall, Rachel Howland, Mary H. Rogers. They “listened to the call from above and faithfully obeyed to the help of many souls.” Frances E. Willard estimates21 that likely 350 Quaker women preached by 1888. Historian Lucille Sider Dayton reports the following:22 Nancy Gore preached to the Oneida Indians in 1812. From 1814-41 Abigail Hoag Roberts pastored. With Clarissa H. Danforth, a New England “sensation preacher” of 1810-20, one revival lasted sixteen months. How different were these women from Anne Hutchinson who was banished from Massachusetts Colony in 1638 because she felt commissioned weekly to preach or interpret for people who gathered after a male preacher’s sermon of previous Sundays? Find her statue on government building grounds near Boston Commons.
Also prior to any group’s ordaining women emerged the ministry of Hannah Pearce Reeves.23 Converted in 1818, within a Wesleyan offshoot group in Devonshire, England, she simultaneously sensed the call to preach. A few years later she and her minister husband arrived in the U.S. They shared many years of effective ministry in Ohio and adjacent states. Around 1831 she delivered two sermons before a Conference of Methodist Protestants.
Almost needless to say, some 19th century writers and speakers opposed women’s ministry. In 1835 A. Chandler responded negatively to “Does the Bible Authorize Females to Speak by Way of Instruction, Exhortation, or Prayer in Public Religious Meetings?”24 Biblical examples of women exceptions could not defeat the rare passage that called for women’s silence either (I Tim. 2:11). Women’s “delicate constitution” has always determined her place “in the shade.” Since no females figured among Jesus’ first twelve disciples, no reliance on female preaching followed; the message was “plainly” taught, Parsons Cooks preached in 1837.25
The Unitarian Ladies Repository (1856-74), always edited by a woman, provided an outlet for women to express their understandings. In writing (1866) about “Women in the Ministry”26 the editor repeatedly insists that all—women and men—have the right to proclaim the gospel in whatever way opens. Since all are called and given gifts, that pattern holds. As with numerous writers responding to the “silence in church” texts, she wonders why the command varies: “If Jenny Lind can sing “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” why can’t Antoinette Brown say (or preach) the same?”
Throughout American history, women actively called for peace among nations. Admittedly, one reads stereotyped thoughts of mother-hearted, tender, and compassionate. Phebe A. Hanaford addressed the 1870 Women’s Peace Convention. She contends that just as surely as women first proclaimed the risen savior, so contemporary women convincingly approach the powers in ways that, as a result, peacemakers can be called blessed. Woman’s “sphere” includes that work.
The 1868 ordination service for Phebe A. Hanaford27 involved both women and men. Rev. John C. Adams’ sermon notes why women may be encouraged to enter ministry: 1) history of women’s service in Christianity; 2) human efforts to instruct need female involvement; 3) other sects that now include women teachers/exhorters have been strengthened; 4) generally, public involvement of women is accepted; 5) success that women ministers have shown. Hanaford, in turn, was the first woman to give a charge to a male minister, Rev. W. G. Haskell. In her conclusion to “Women Preachers,” Hanaford states: “The pulpit will never reach its sublime power until woman takes her place in it as the free and equal interpreter of God.”28
Preaching an 1871 Good Friday sermon, “The End of Transgression,” Hanaford repeatedly identifies the Muse as feminine. In contrast to Puritan or Roman thought, she as a Universalist celebrates on fast days, reminding her of hope. Writings of Hanaford offer an interesting assortment. Chapter one (of twelve) of her book titled The Best of Books29 introduces the Bible. She quotes a number of authors: John Cumming, W. A. Alcott, Mrs. Sigourney, a student manual for young readers, and a poem by her husband. Humanly expressive, the Bible abounds with “Glory to God,” fire flashing from the hoof of a steed, the clang of ocean, and a painted bow over a melted cloud—nature’s imagery as linked with Unitarian thought.
In 1889 Jabez Thomas Sunderland wrote a two-part book, the one part engaged men in ministry, the other women. In the latter30 he lists and supports six objections frequently cited to women’s preaching: 1) contrary to custom; 2) public positions not ladylike; 3) physical weakness; 4) inferior intellectual ability; 5) woman’s sacred office – motherhood; 6) biblical prohibitions. With the last objection he discussed to prophesy and contends that generally preach can be substituted.
An address by Rev. William Rounseville Alger to the Unitarian Club of California 189731 identifies woman’s distinct religious asset as her self-subordination. Since religion involves surrender of the will to God’s will, woman has a “head start.” Because of her human experience, she can more easily forego her will. Alger calls for women to publicly teach men how to “do it.” This scheme builds on two major influences for woman: pedestaled Virgin and glorified Motherhood. Man’s wisdom and woman’s affection, both stereotyped in their separateness, will hardly be improved until both qualities and the total range of human features become fully credited and developed in each, until each fully imitates God the Source of all qualities. So, discussion continues.
Charles Finney influenced rights for women through revivals. When he was professor and the second president of Oberlin College, anti-slavery efforts became more pronounced. Where social justice was advocated, causes overlapped. Wesleyan Methodist leaders took bold steps. For example, Luther Lee preached the ordination sermon32 for Antoinette Brown in 1853, the first woman ordained in the U.S. Lee’s text of Gal. 3:28 explains how Christian equality enables rights, privileges, and responsibilities. For him to have refused to ordain Miss Brown would have meant to deny oneness in Christ. After identifying women prophets, those who teach, foretell, and explain, in Old and New Testament materials, he suggested that women also filled “congregational” offices. One section of his sermon discussed the Greek term diakonos, concluding that Paul could only have meant to identify Phoebe as a minister. Some translators since then have been unable to so credit a woman. His final statements convey that Antoinette Brown already had the God-given right to preach, the personal qualities helpful in preaching, and grace of Spirit for the task. Those gathered testified to these factors in her and accepted her God-given leadership for themselves as a group.
I Cor. 14:34-35 and I Tim. 2:11-12 are the only New Testament texts, according to Lee, that counter the numerous New Testament texts proving female rights to preach. Brown had written about these texts four years before her ordination.
Females were not forbidden to take part in the work of instructing the church, of speaking “either by revelation or by knowledge, or by prophesying or by doctrine,” or of doing anything else which they had the wisdom and ability to do.
Silence then must refer to a quiet, teachable spirit—that state of mind which is attentive, willing to listen and learn, and entirely opposed to the arrogance and self-confidence, which would influence . . . new, inexperienced converts.33
Sermons Preached by 19th Century U.S. Women
During my semester of research for this paper I found copies of thirty sermons written and preached by women during the last half of the 19th century. In 1871 Maggie Van Cott preached 339 times. I found only two of these. No doubt she and others preached extemporaneously. Only six sermons exist, several of these but fragments, by Anna Howard Shaw, one of the most capable of speakers. More of her suffrage speeches appear. While I have examined only seven of Olympia Brown’s sermons, many more from her almost continuous 48 years of preaching are available at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe.
Opinions differ on whether a “true” sermon can be social cause or action-oriented. Some limit a sermon to proclaiming the evangelical gospel of God in Jesus Christ. For others, the amount of scriptural references and exegesis determine “quality.” Collections by women may represent denominational focus. Anna Howard Shaw’s are more cause-oriented, often having been preached at Women’s Rights Conventions. My personal purpose for looking at sermons does not distinguish differences with women and men’s delivery or content. At the minimum they prove that women indeed acted as leaders. They modeled a role that many current religious people wish to ignore or deny for women. Sermons and articles reflect competence in thought development and a window into women’s soul, not body.
“Is There not a Shorter Way?” is part of Phoebe Palmer’s book The Way of Holiness published in 1847.34 A woman works to discover the condition of being wholly the Lord’s. This work provides refreshing language and imagery. The simplicity of present faith is commended. No doubt much of her evangelistic effort, stimulating conversation and experience for 25,000 people, presented faith.
I feel fortunate to have found two sermons from Lucretia Mott’s 59 years of Quaker ministry—“Lucretia Mott’s Discourse” and “Sermon to the Medical Students”35 which called for confident belief in God. Obedience meant faithful following. Spreading peace along with honest justice led to testimony against human slavery. Christianity must be measured by regard for humanity. Some medical students, in Philadelphia away from family and stability, walked out when she referred to slavery. Mott joined them to discuss faith dimensions of religion, to caution against other dimensions that the city offered.
In Maggie Van Cott’s 1860 sermon “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering (Hebrews 10:23),”36 she assumes that “wavering” commonly occurs. She declares her own sinfulness and her need to “hang on” to the “blood stained cross.” Hell can be avoided. Those who profess faith in Christ must assume responsibility to influence others. She “talked for Jesus.” If others called it preaching, that expressed their outlook, not hers.37 Van Cott moved among the gathered people asking individuals if they loved Jesus, inviting them to join others at the altar. Isa. 55:6 is the focus of another sermon of hers (294-303) with a similar call to repent—with the time that remained. Both the woman with the lost coin and Daniel appeared as examples. Let the wicked forsake their ways and find the priceless. “Son, recall your mother’s death-bed wish,” she might add.
From the Methodist camp meeting flavor comes Unitarian Marian Murdock.38 Looking at Romans 16:1 and 2, she asks “What Did Phoebe Do?” This sermon asks people to recognize the daughters of God and the extent of their involvements. Paul’s positive relationship with Phoebe counters general anti-women opinions blamed on him for centuries. In spite of custom, she actively worked with Paul, transacting business and influencing people’s cooperation. He genuinely appreciated her efforts, spoke commendably of her. As a result, “people forgot traditional sex in saint-hood.” In a sermon titled “A Miracle” Murdock asks listeners to see with comprehending vision the miraculous in nature; she wonders whether knowledge of laws and order detract that view. The Bible, rich with simile, parable, and wisdom from the common, reflects both miracle and the Divine, as with tree patterns. For Murdock, life and nature lead to “the infinitude of Soul.”
Sermon material late in the 19th century varies as with Anna Howard Shaw and Olympia Brown. Both capable, Shaw is credited by some to have been the greatest woman speaker who ever lived. Wil A. Linkugel’s 1960 dissertation collects and edits speeches by Anna Howard Shaw. Part IV of Vol. 2, Book 1 devotes attention to six sermon texts. Primarily an extemporaneous speaker, she composed only the first of those six before leaving the ministry after seven years. Her attention then centered on reform/suffrage work. Due to her early desire to preach, Shaw often “practiced” to the trees in Michigan forests.
After preparing for six weeks, she preached her first “official” sermon in 1871, when 24 years old, at the Ashton, Michigan school house. She then preached the same sermon in thirty-six district locations. The text was from John 3:14-15: “As Moses lifted up the serpent . . . even so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whosoever believeth. . . might have everlasting life.”39 In spite of limited access to materials, Shaw had done her homework. After discussing background to Hebrew wilderness wanderings, she gave considerable detail to disappointment, delays, and imagery of fiery flame and snakes. She revealed freedom to interpret and speculate on the text. While evil habits receive warning, obedience makes faith possible.
Anna Howard Shaw frequently delivered the Sunday sermon during women’s gatherings and suffrage campaigns. Using the Acts 26:19 theme of “The Heavenly Vision,” (25-48) she preached in 1888 at the International Council of Women in Washington D. C. For that occasion, Phebe Hanaford, Ada C. Bowles, and Antoinette Brown Blackwell also gave leadership. After illustrating obedience to the vision from biblical accounts, Shaw invited women to similarly respond to needs of humanity. The channels will be diverse—political, social, education—but the goal similar: to lift people out of subjection into Divine liberty. Each reformer becomes the medium between those waiting for light and God’s truth. She cautioned them not to expect popularity: “. . . live without sympathy. . . be content to live and die betrayed and forsaken. . . Apparent failure is often grandest success.” An idea that Shaw often repeated was: “Bid the world come to your truth, never take your truth down to the world’s level.”
At the World’s Congress of Representative Women (during Chicago’s World Fair 1893), Shaw preached on “Lift Your Standards High.” (49-66). On the platform sat eighteen ordained clergywomen. They represented each group that had ordained women. The sermon began with quotes from major world religions. As with other speeches at the Congress, Shaw called people to freedom and truth. Truth alone—not knowledge, laws, and creeds—will make women and men free. The greatest obstacle for women in giving life followed their accepting the false notion of virtue in self-submission. In contrast, the three essentials of strong character, according to Shaw, were moral courage, faith in God, and uncompromising obedience to the higher laws of God alone.
Shaw preached on “Let No Man Take Thy Crown” (Rev. 3:11) and “Strengths of Character” (Joshua 1:9) in Washington D. C. in 1894 and 1900 respectively. (pp 67-71 and 72) Only fragments remain. In the former, the “crown of womanhood” is identified as womanly character and nature. Human obligations belong first to the self; no one should decide for another regarding moral and spiritual aspects. The later sermon repeats the idea: “Men have no right to define for us our limitations.”
In a later, 1914, sermon Shaw spoke from Psalm 68:11: “The Women who Publish the Tidings are a Great Host.” For Shaw, life and growth combine. For too long, women failed to recognize their mission to personally search scripture. Passages from Luke note where women proclaim/preach—Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna. Jesus taught through women’s illustration: as an importunate widow, charged with sin, who washed his feet; importance of life’s spiritual content as with Mary/Martha. Anna Howard Shaw counters ideas of self-abnegation or excessive humility as ideal feminine virtues. Further, she insists that opportunity and responsibility dovetail. Service materializes as the multitude of women publish the Word to a world in need.
In contrast to Shaw’s seventeen years in ministry, Olympia Brown (no relative of Antoinette’s) actively preached for nearly half a century. She delivered an early sermon for the installation of Phebe A. Hanaford (1868). She focused the gospel of Jesus Christ—to preach Christ, to know Christ—as central for a pastor. The final goal leads to reconciling souls with God. The task will have its trials, but confidence in doing the will of God will sustain or bring satisfaction with joy. With so many sermons of Brown’s to read in the Schlesinger archives, having notes of only a few frustrates me. Brown’s daughter reports40 that her mother, having prepared two sermons a week, made good use of background sources. Her themes began with scripture. Archival copies, while more than notes, fail to be fully developed addresses. Olympia Brown early on decided to maintain audience contact. She likely either used her hand-written notes sparingly, adding or deleting as appropriate, or else, having taught herself the main points and illustrative material, she spoke with no notes.
“Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is the focus of an 1881 sermon.41 For Brown, knowledge marks the key to liberty. Those who restrict knowledge—growing in knowing—prove to be most cruel. Brown refers repeatedly to John Wycliffe as “the true minister of Christ.” As more Christians seriously study scripture, truth lives on, new truth builds on prior understandings. Rewards and punishments accent labor. Such content contrasts a bit with previous Universalist thought. For Brown, judgment ever exists. Consequences do follow specific actions. Jesus set a precedent for high standards; God’s purpose prompts actions. Punishment becomes a means for reformation and restoration.
“She hath done what she could” (no date) focuses on the writer George Eliot. Reflecting God’s pattern, she had developed characters who knew reward for goodness. This led Brown to an analysis of justice. Like the kingdom of God, it works inwardly. Judgment on wrong could best be tempered by tenderness and generosity. With considerable conviction Olympia Brown speaks to the I Cor. 8:6 passage: “But to us there is one God, the Father of whom are all things and we in him,”42 denouncing the idea of the Trinity. Universalists knew “but one God the Father.” Not three or two, God is absolutely one. This scheme, however, blessed masculine comparison with human father love. Brief notes appear (pp. 108-11) for “Man does not live by bread only.” Wisdom, education and words that flow (Prov. 18:4) prove to be essential. What is necessary changes with time, related to sight, hearing, and feeling to “faith, admiration, and sympathy.”
After many years of preaching, Olympia Brown knew that women and ministry do blend. On being admitted to theological school, she heard this admission from the president: “although he did not think that women were called to the ministry, he left it between her and the great Head of the Church.”43
Worthy 19th Century Women Ministers to Name
I have prepared a listing of sixty women ministers from the late 19th century America; space does not permit my including it here.44 A valuable resource is the three-volume Notable American Women, a biographical dictionary of women from 1607-1950.45 Of particular help with each entry is information regarding where her collected materials are located if in a particular library. Those in my list that appear there are identified by page in Notable American Women.
I first utilized a listing of 38 women from Elizabeth Dexter’s collection.46 Although considerable research has been done since her presentation to a Radcliffe University seminar, one value of her chronological work remains: consistency in information gathered about each woman. She notes that many women actively preached prior to official “recognition.” Knowing that such people existed and engaged in ministry matters. Donald Dayton prepared a listing of preaching women in evangelical circles; my listing includes some non-ordained, evangelical, occasional preachers and a few Quaker women in leadership. The Methodist History periodical included recent articles about Anna Oliver and Anna Howard Shaw.47 Late 19th century Church of the Brethren groups had a few women pastors; into the 20th century, that practice discontinued until later it revived.
A shift in my data collecting came through realizing the helpful work of Catherine F. Hitchings.48 Prior to discovering hers, I had gathered information about a few Universalist-Unitarian women: Olympia Brown, Augusta J. Chapin, Caroline Bartlett Crane, Phebe Coffin Hanaford, A. M. O’Daniels, Fannie U. Robert, and Mary Safford; Dexter includes 17 UU women. UU archivists at both Harvard Divinity School and 25 Beacon St., Boston, encouraged my exploring materials in file folders and boxes. But I highly recommend additional sources in Hitching’s work. That 106 UU women were ordained by 1900 (over sixty within the 1890s) indicates that once women became established in this profession, once both women and men sensed the rightness of their ministry, more expected to find their gifts to be so expressed.
As a Mennonite I value further study of women’s involvement in ministry in groups from Anabaptist heritage. I am fortunate to have a listing of Mennonite women ministers from the Netherlands. The first Mennonite woman ordained in the U.S. was Ann J. Allebach. Born in 1874, her years of ministry occurred in the 20th century.49 Indicative of the extent to which her ministry was hardly “claimed” by Mennonites is scant information about where she practiced. She gave considerable effort and leadership to vigorous programs at one of the chapels associated with New York City’s Wall Street Episcopal Church. Her brief, dynamic pastorate before death was with a Long Island Reformed Church. Allebach’s local (Pennsylvania) Mennonite acquaintance did not know what to “make” of Ann, one of them, yet unlike “her kind.” Her name was only penciled in to a Mennonite “Who’s Who” list of ordained men. Then the people but “shook their heads and marveled and in several years, they forgot.”50
No doubt, many women ministers have been forgotten from U.S. church history. This essay has
been my attempt to reinstate a few, to acknowledge models within our broader Christian heritage, to be convinced that our present century has roots. Considerable gratitude toward vision from these pioneers remains due to them.
This essay has attempted to expose the reader to women actively in ministry (primarily pastoral) during 19th century U.S. including some resources about them. All four sections could well be expanded. Striking in absence is mainline Presbyterian involvement of women. Another intent of mine had been to identify specific library holdings related to the topic. Library holdings in the greater Boston area are extensive in this field and are available to seminary students, people pursuing continuing education, and women eager to discover a heritage rich with determined, purposeful models.