This talk was presented during worship at UUCAS on Mar. 14, 2021.
I want to start this morning with a little bit of background on our congregation. We are now known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Athens and Sheshequin, but we were originally two separate Universalist congregations, one in Athens and one six miles away in Sheshequin. The two congregations merged about 1950.
The seed of the Sheshequin Universalist church was planted in the late 1780s. White people began to make permanent settlements in Bradford county about 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War. One of those early settlers was the Rev. Noah Murray, a Universalist preacher from Connecticut. We cherish the story of a debate which occurred about 1793 between Murray and two representatives of the local Baptist congregation. The Baptists tried to convince Murray of his heresy, but instead they were converted to a belief in universal salvation. The Baptist minister in turn converted most of his congregation, which formed the nucleus of the Sheshequin Universalist Society. The congregation was formally organized around 1808.
Noah Murray preached in Athens as well as in Sheshequin. There certainly were believers in Athens in the early 1800s, some of them Sheshequin members who had moved from the farm to the “big city.” But the Athens congregation wasn’t organized until 1848.
This morning I am going to share two lessons from our history which feature women.
The first is about our two home-grown women ministers. Again, I’ll start with some background to this story.
The residents of Sheshequin first heard a woman preach universal salvation when Maria Cook came to town in 1811. Cook, who was then 33 years old, was self-taught and was not affiliated with any denomination. She traveled from town to town, mostly in upstate New York, speaking to anyone who would listen.
Whether Cook was invited to Sheshequin or just dropped in, I don’t know. But she spent two weeks there and impressed the local Universalists so much that two of the men from the congregation escorted her to the Universalist association meeting in Bainbridge, NY. She preached at that meeting to great acclaim.
Three years later, a daughter was born to one of the Sheshequin families and was named “Maria Cook Wolcott.”
In spite of this auspicious beginning, our two congregations had only one settled woman minister, the Rev. Irene Earll, over the next 175 years. Earll served the Athens church for one year, from 1892 to 1893.
But even without local female ministers as role models, two young women from our congregations were inspired to become ordained Universalist ministers in the late 1800s.
The first was Myra Kingsbury, who was born in Sheshequin in 1847. She was a descendant of some of the earliest members of the Sheshequin Universalist church. She was active in that church, serving as its Sunday School superintendent in 1879.
Myra Kingsbury was encouraged to go into the ministry by the Rev. William Taylor of the Towanda Universalist church. She studied with him privately and was licensed to preach in 1880, when she was 33 years old. She did pulpit supply for the Sheshequin congregation for about six months. The record book noted that “her discourses [were] practical and fine” and attracted “good audiences.”
In December, 1880, she was called to a church in Vermont, much to the disappointment of her friends in Sheshequin.
Myra Kingsbury had a successful fifteen-year career in the ministry in Vermont and Maine that was sadly cut short by illness. She died of cancer in 1898.
Like Maria Cook, Myra was honored with a namesake, Myra Kingsbury Fish, who was born in Sheshequin in 1880, the year that she began preaching.
The second home-grown minister was Alice Kinney Tripp, another descendant of early Sheshequin Universalists. She was born in Sheshequin in 1870 and grew up in both the Sheshequin and Athens churches.
Alice displayed her preaching skills at a very young age. She recalled later:
Mother says that I could hardly talk before I climbed onto a footstool and shouted: “No hell! No hell!”
Alice Tripp attended the Universalist theological school in Canton, NY. She married one of her classmates, and together they co-pastored churches in New York City from 1893 to 1900.
Alice was an outspoken feminist who advocated for woman’s suffrage and wore bloomers when she rode her bicycle. She modified the traditional wedding vows for the couples that she married. She took out the word “obey,” and she replaced “So long as you both shall live,” with “So long as you feel mutual love and respect.” Alice Tripp believed that couples should be entitled to divorce when they no longer loved and respected each other. In 1904, no longer feeling supported by her husband, she divorced him.
Alice Tripp left the Universalist ministry in 1904 but continued to advocate for women’s rights.
Both Myra Kingsbury and Alice Tripp probably attended the Sunday School at the Sheshequin church. Myra was mentored by the minister at the Towanda Church and encouraged by her home congregation. Alice had supportive parents who were not wealthy but who, as she said later, “sacrificed even the ordinary comforts of life” for the education of their only child.
I tell this story to remind us of the importance of engaging and supporting our children and youth in their spiritual journeys.
My second story is about lay women and their role in our congregations’ finances.
While membership and voting rights were always open to both women and men, elected church leaders were overwhelmingly male until the 1950s. Sheshequin had one female trustee in 1876, and Athens had a few in the early 1890s (coincidentally starting at the time of Irene Earll’s pastorate).
Fund-raising, however, was largely turned over to the women early on. In the Athens congregation in 1855, a committee of six women was charged with raising money to carpet the newly constructed church building. Money for the steeple bell that was installed in the Sheshequin building in 1874 was raised by the women of that church through “sociables” and “fairs.”
Emergency fund-raising had become almost routine in Athens in the late 1800s. The congregation had apparently gotten into the habit of hiring ministers before they had raised sufficient funds to pay them. As a result they were frequently behind on the minister’s salary and had to scramble to come up with the money. The task of raising the shortfall usually fell to the women.
In November, 1912, after the Rev. Fred Payson had candidated at Athens, a vote was taken on whether to call him. All but one member were in favor. The lone dissenter was Martha Stulen, who said that she would be glad to have this minister serve the congregation, but wished that the salary was “nearer raised.” (in other words, they didn’t have enough money yet)
Martha Stulen’s concern was justified. A year later, the congregation found itself unable to provide the promised salary. Martha Stulen graciously agreed to serve on a committee to raise additional money. But the congregation continued to struggle financially, and things came to a head at a tumultuous congregational meeting in January, 1915. Both Rev. Payson and the Clerk threatened to resign, and the collection committee rebelled. The record book states:
The two collectors present, Miss… Moreland and Miss Stulen, stated that some of the [pledges] they were not able to collect. And they should not be asked to do so.
Rev. Payson resigned several months later, and the congregation did not have another settled minister for ten years, until they started sharing a minister with the Towanda church in 1925.
I tell this story to remind us to listen to all voices and to be careful stewards of our resources, both human and financial.