[The following is a sermon given by K. Replogle at UUCAS on Feb. 4, 2018.]
Two Centuries of Women Ministers in Athens and Sheshequin
At our General Assembly last year, the Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray was elected President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA). She is the first woman to lead our denomination in its two-hundred-plus-year history.
The 2017 election was not a dramatic “Battle of the Sexes.” The UUA was going to get a woman president, no matter how the vote went, because all three candidates were women. But that doesn’t diminish the historic significance of this election. It is probably even more historically significant that all of the candidates were women.
Women ministers – and our denomination as a whole – have come a long way. Just how far we’ve come is the subject of my talk this morning. I’m going to take you on a whirlwind tour of the last two hundred years in UUism. Along the way you’ll hear the stories of three women ministers who have been part of the history of our congregation: Maria Cook, Myra Kingsbury, and Irene Earll.
The story of this congregation starts in 1793, when, as some of you have probably heard, the Rev. Noah Murray converted the local Baptist minister Moses Park to Universalism. They and their followers organized the Sheshequin Universalist Society in 1808. Sheshequin has remained a Universalist stronghold ever since.
The first woman to preach in Sheshequin was a traveling evangelist named Maria Cook. She came to town in June of 1811 and found a receptive audience. Cook, who was thirty-one years old, was not formally connected with the Universalist denomination. Rather she appeared to have developed her Universalist views through studying the Bible on her own.
After preaching in Sheshequin for several weeks, Cook was escorted to a Universalist meeting in Bainbridge, New York, by two men from the congregation. The Rev. Nathaniel Stacy, a Universalist minister who was present at that meeting, wrote that her two companions introduced her as a person of “irreproachable morals” and a remarkable preacher.
The attendees were divided on the question of allowing a woman to speak at their meeting. But curiosity apparently overcame the objections, and Cook delivered a sermon. I’ll point out here that these meetings generally lasted a couple of days and included multiple sermons. Stacy wrote in his memoir:
“… there was not a sermon delivered with more eloquence, with more… pathos, or one listened to with more devout attention; nor was there another delivered during the session so highly applauded by the whole congregation, as the one she delivered. And so excited and animated were many of the brethren by the novelty, and so highly pleased and edified with her public discourse, that a letter of fellowship for her, as a preacher of the Gospel, was… demanded.”
An informal letter of fellowship, which acknowledged her as a preacher of Universalism, was presented to Cook at the meeting. A few weeks later she tore it up. She apparently felt it was an “insincere token.”
The excitement at the meeting in Bainbridge led to many requests for her preaching. Cook complied as often as her time and health would permit. Initially, her efforts were very successful. Crowds were attracted by the novelty of a woman preacher and by the quality of her sermons.
But plenty of people – both women and men – thought that it was improper or even indecent for a woman to preach and especially to travel as she did. According to Stacy, Cook was sensitive to the constant criticisms she heard. Her sermons soon became less about universal salvation and more about the right of women to preach. Gradually the invitations grew fewer and the crowds smaller.
She continued to preach occasionally in upstate New York for a few years, traveling during the warmer weather and spending the winter with friends. One winter she went to stay with friends near Cooperstown. A mean-spirited resident accused her of being a vagrant and had her arrested. When the constable came to take her to the magistrate’s office, Cook refused to get into his wagon; he had to pick her up and carry her.
Cook would not cooperate with the magistrate either, so he charged her with contempt of court and sent her to jail. She seemed quite content this arrangement; the other inmates were a – literally – captive audience for her preaching. After several weeks, the magistrate gave up trying to get her to respect his authority, and, in Stacy’s words, he “hinted to the jailer to get rid of her the easiest way he could.”
While Maria Cook had some supporters, including Nathaniel Stacy, even they regarded her as eccentric; other people thought she was mentally deranged. Cook gave up preaching shortly after her time in jail. She spent her last years in relative seclusion and died in 1836 at age 56.
Maria Cook may have had some personal weaknesses, but she faced obstacles that few people could have overcome. Had she been born fifty years later, she would have had a better chance of success.
Fast forward to the 1860’s. In 1864, the first directory of Universalist ministers was published. Of the 650 ministers listed, three were women. One of them was Olympia Brown.
Olympia Brown was the first woman of any denomination in the United States to earn a divinity degree and was also the first to be ordained. She graduated from the Universalist Theological School at Canton, N. Y. (later part of St. Lawrence University) in 1863 and was ordained the same year.
Ordination represents official recognition of a minister’s qualifications. In the 1800s, Universalist associations, which were organized groups of congregations that were geographically close, had the authority to ordain ministers. A minister need not have graduated from a seminary in order to be ordained, and, until the mid-1800s, many Universalist ministers had not attended a seminary.
Olympia Brown’s achievement was ground-breaking, but the floodgates did not open right away. Over the next twelve years, only one woman graduated from the St. Lawrence Theological School. I want to point out here that St. Lawrence was not the only Universalist seminary, but I’ll be using it this morning as a reference point.
Progress was slow, but there was progress. By 1878 – 15 years after Olympia Brown – thirteen women had been ordained as Universalist ministers.
The increase in women in the ministry was part of the growing women’s rights movement in the post-Civil War years. That movement focused largely on the right to vote, but also included demands for recognition in male-dominated professions; participation in economic and social reform, … and a push for higher education. [Hitchings]
While it was still common for preachers of both sexes to be ordained without having attended seminary, enrollment of women in seminaries began to increase. Between 1875 and 1914, 22 women ministers graduated from St. Lawrence – about 10% of that school’s total ministry graduates during those years.
Acceptance of women preachers in Universalist churches varied widely. Some churches never called a woman minister. In general, smaller, rural churches – like ours – and churches on the western frontier were more receptive to a woman. Those were churches that many male ministers were reluctant to serve.
Here in Bradford county, the years from 1880 to 1905 were a high point for women ministers: six women served our Universalist churches during that time. The earliest was a native of Sheshequin – the Rev. Myra Kingsbury.
Myra Kingsbury was a granddaughter of Joseph Kingsbury, an outspoken lay leader in the early days of the Sheshequin Universalist Society. Myra was born in 1847 and grew up on the family farm in Sheshequin. She graduated from the State Normal School at Mansfield around 1865. She apparently attended the Universalist church in Towanda, and the minister there encouraged her to preach. She preached her first sermon in that church, probably about 1879.
In the summer of 1880, Kingsbury was licensed as a “Lay Preacher,” which I believe means that she did not attend a seminary. She preached in Sheshequin for several months, then was called to a congregation in Williston, Vermont. Her departure was a great disappointment to the Sheshequin society. Her services had attracted “good audiences,” according to church records. A child born that year to a family in the church was named “Myra Kingsbury Fish,” after her.
A year later, Myra Kingsbury returned to Sheshequin to be ordained. The congregation went all out for the event. A witness to the ceremony wrote
“The ancient church (! It was considered “ancient” in 1880!) was beautifully and profusely decorated with flowers and plants. There were wreaths and festoons of evergreens, and the quaint, high, old-fashioned pulpit was literally smothered in baskets and bouquets of brilliant blossoms.
Kingsbury returned to Williston and spent a total of fifteen years serving congregations in Vermont and Maine. By all accounts, she was well-liked and respected. One man who heard her preach at a convention in Vermont wrote, “It was the most uplifting and spiritual of anything I ever heard.” A history of Belfast, Maine, notes that her time as the minister of the Belfast Universalist church was “marked with prosperity.”
But Kingsbury’s health began to fail. She returned to her parents’ home in 1896. She preached at Sheshequin and Athens for a time and considered taking charge of the church in Mansfield. But her health soon deteriorated to the point that she could not longer work. She died in Sheshequin in 1898 at the age of 50. She is buried in the cemetery behind the church.
During Myra Kingsbury’s relatively short career, she was always employed as a minister. Irene Earll was not as fortunate.
Earll, whose great-grandfather was a Universalist minister, graduated from Cornell University in 1890. Like Myra Kingsbury, she had not attended a seminary before she was ordained in 1891. She was then 26 years old and full of optimism about opportunities for women ministers. She wrote:
“Little churches able to pay a salary of from $300 to $600… are crying for pastors. Educated women must take these places. Single women, unencumbered, capable of making cheap homes for themselves, have a limitless field before them in country towns.”
The Athens congregation called Rev. Earll in April, 1892. She served only about a year. I don’t know why she left, but the Athens congregation around that time was perpetually behind in paying its ministers’ salaries. Maybe she needed a steady income.
After she left Athens, Earll found it difficult to find a position as a minister. She spent most of the 1890’s working as a librarian in Syracuse.
She returned briefly to the ministry in 1904, doing supply preaching and missionary work for the New York State Convention of Universalists. One of her tasks as a missionary was to revitalize the church in Rome, N. Y. As a preacher, Earll was apparently not one to mince words. She scolded the parishioners from the pulpit for not doing enough to support their church:
“You think by buying a 15¢ ticket to a church supper, it will admit you to heaven,” she said. “You fool yourselves by thinking that when you go … to a church fair and buy a pin cushion, that you are doing the work of the Lord and giving Him his due; but when you go up before the Great White Throne with… that pin cushion in your hand, it is not what the Lord will think of you, but what will you think of yourself?”
Her approach may have worked. The church in Rome did recover a couple of years later.
In 1906 Earll became an assistant pastor at the Universalist church in Reading. She took a second job at a mission, possibly to supplement her meager income. But her health suffered as a result, and she had to resign. [Hitchings]
After doing library and social work for about twelve years, Earll attended Crane Theological School near Boston, graduating in 1918. She thought that this would help her get back into the ministry, but it did not. She hung around Boston for five months doing library work for ten dollars a week, hoping for a chance to preach as a ministerial candidate. She ended up taking a library job at Cornell in 1919 in order to support herself.
A few years later Earll appealed to the head of the Universalist Association. She wrote:
“I have been thoroughly discouraged over any woman attempting to get a foothold in our church. The theory and practice do not jibe, and yet I cannot bear to give it up. If only some help could be extended to qualify me as a student pastor for the Universalist church, to give me the opportunity to get together and train even ten of our young [college] people for Sunday School… I might have the courage to pull together again and go on…”
The opportunity never came. Earll spent the rest of her life as a librarian. She died in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1938, at the age of 73.
Why couldn’t Irene Earll find work as a minister? Women ministers had made substantial gains in the three decades leading up to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The number of women in the Universalist ministry had risen from 38 in 1890 to 88 in 1920.
But then the pendulum started to swing the other way. The women’s movement lost some of its momentum after suffrage was achieved. The Great Depression of the 1930’s made it difficult for women to find and keep jobs. [Hitchings]
The head of the Universalist Association wrote in 1935 that there was “a tremendous prejudice against women ministers.” “At the present time,” he wrote, “I find it is practically impossible to get any woman minister a hearing at any salary whatever.”
The Universalist theological schools were changing as well. Many of them added courses of study which led to certification as a “Minister’s Assistant” or a “Religious Educator.” Many women chose – or perhaps were strongly encouraged to choose – these alternatives to ministry. St. Lawrence began offering these programs in 1920. Between 1920 and 1965, when the theological school closed, 52 women and three men took those courses. Only seven women were trained as ministers at St. Lawrence during that time, compared to 22 in the previous 45 years.
The combined effect of these social and institutional changes was devastating. By 1957, there were fewer than a dozen ordained women ministers in the Universalist denomination, down from 88 in 1920.
But soon the pendulum began to reverse direction again. By the late 1970’s, there were about 40 female UU clergy – still a small percentage, but a threefold increase since 1957. The Rev. Carolyn Owen-Towle, who entered the ministry during that time, recalled the early days of the women’s revival. “The ministry was still a men’s club in those years,” she wrote, “Calling a woman was an experiment in bravery.”
The UUA took a number of actions to address sexism in the denomination. More and more women began entering the ministry. By the year 2000, there were over 400 UU women ministers – slightly more than the number of men.
The story of women ministers in our area in the 20th century parallels that of the denomination. After the Rev. Cora Eves left the Troy and Springfield churches in 1905, no female Universalist minister was settled in Bradford county for 82 years – until 1987, when the Rev. Susan Van Dreser was called. Some of our long-time members will remember her. For fifteen of the last thirty years, UUCAS has been served by four women: Van Dreser, Janelle Curlin-Taylor, Ann Marie Alderman, and now Darcey Laine.
Yes, we’ve all come a long way in the last two centuries. And we at UUCAS can be proud of our history of support for women ministers. But the struggle for equality in our denomination has not ended. The gains for women of color, for example, have lagged far behind those for white women. It wasn’t until 1981 that the first African-American woman, the Rev. Dr. Yvonne Seon, was ordained as a UU minister.
Two hundred years ago, it was widely accepted that a woman’s place was not in the pulpit. Whose exclusion from leadership roles do we willingly accept today? What will historians say about us fifty years from now? It’s up to us to create a history that we can be proud of.