History had forgotten the women who struggled to make a home for liberal religion on the American Frontier after the civil war. Until recently their memory had all but disappeared, when a diary turned up hinting at this ministerial sisterhood, and a woman named Cynthia Grant Tucker followed this thread until it lead her to the history she presents in her book Prophetic Sisterhood. In the nineteenth century many Americans were leaving their comfortable homes in cosmopolitan cities like Boston, and moving out west. (This was when Iowa was considered way out west.) While Unitarianism had a very strong presence in New England, and was the religion of the powerful and elite in Boston, the frontier was mostly a conservative area, and the orthodox preachers and congregations had somewhat of a stronghold. One town in Iowa, called Humboldt, was considered a liberal oasis in a cultural desert. The problem was that the main office in Boston was not interested in sending much of their time or resources, and the young men graduating from Harvard didn't want to go where the pay was low and the work was hard, if they could get a prestigious church back east.
Now to contextualize things a bit, 1848 was the year of the now famous Seneca Falls conference, where women who had been speaking up and struggling on behalf of slaves and the cause of their freedom, first met to possibility of fighting for their own freedom. It was in 1866 that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined together to form the American Equal Rights Association to work for women's suffrage, and in 1890 when Wyoming was admitted as a state, it was the first state to permit women to vote. But it was it was not for this generation of women to see the 19th amendment to the U.S. constitution passed, which gave women the right to vote in 1920, after both the civil war and the First World War had been fought. So during the time we are talking of today, beginning in the 1880s, women had begun to look for possibilities beyond their roles as wife and mother, but suffrage was still forty years away, and women were still denied such basic rights as the right of a married woman to own property. While women constituted a majority in most congregations, and did most of the work of the church, most denominations did not allow the ordination of women, and even among liberal denominations such as the Unitarians and the Universalists, there were only a handful of women ministers around the country. In 1870 only five out of 600 liberal clergy in America were women.
Then a woman called Mary Stafford and her friend Eleanor Gordon who began to build a sisterhood that would nurture one other and address the isolation of the frontier churches and build them into thriving and empowered communities. For Mary, who loved to play preacher on the tree stumps on her family farm, it was her father who introduced her to radical ideas like abolition, and Darwinian Theory. Though her mother firmly taught the proper place of a woman, Mary’s father died when she was only 9, and her mother took over managing the farm, providing what must have been a powerful role model for what a woman could do. Eleanor lived on a nearby farm in a religiously diverse family with Baptist parents and Unitarian Uncles, and a home full of religious journals which she read voraciously. Her mother was not well, so running the household fell to Eleanor as the oldest sibling. She gained from her childhood home a sense that through hard work she could accomplish what she set her mind to.
Their childhood friendship grew into their twenties when one summer day sitting in Eleanor’s family orchard they “made a pledge that they would spend their lives together serving the world as a team.” [p. 18]. Mary wanted to become a Unitarian minister, and Eleanor wanted to be a teacher. They determined that marriage was not for them, knowing that marriage in the 1870s limited a woman’s possibilities. The set out to educate themselves, having found significant barriers to a formal college education. The Hawthorne Literary Society started by Mary brought to town a minister who helped them start their first church in Hamilton. Mary and Eleanor grew the Hamilton church to a Sunday attendance of 150, and started a small satellite church in a nearby town.
The Western Secretary for the Unitarians, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, was having great trouble finding male clergy who were willing to settle in these pioneer towns. He was excited to see this sort of initiative, and helped Mary and Eleanor find their way to a new and growing church Humboldt Iowa, which was seeking a parish minister and a Superintendent for their School. Rev. Jones continued to be a support, mentor and participant in this progressive movement of the Western conference, and an invaluable ally to the women who entered the ministry there.
In 1880 the Iowa Unitarian Associate ordained Mary Stafford, despite her lack of higher education saying “The candidate’s proven ability was sufficient ground for credentialing” [p. 24] The ordination overflowed with well-wishers and those wanting to see “the lady preacher.” And so Stafford and Gordon settled in their first parish, Humboldt Iowa. Humboldt really was the frontier- a newly built town where all water and coal had to be carried up a flight of stairs, and ashes and trash carried down. The bitter cold made like harder than Mary and Eleanor had ever known, even growing up as they did on backwoods farms. Yet despite the hardships the parish flourished and grew.
In the five years the women spent in Humboldt they created many innovations. Their emphasis on lay presence in the pulpit, for example, was quite an innovation at the time, but grew out of the necessity that their minister had to share some of her time with even smaller communities without ministers of their own. It created a pulpit apprenticeship that lent self sufficiency to the congregation. Because of their isolation, Stafford also created a group similar to an adult RE program to read and discuss important new ideas, and to bring in speakers to raise the cultural and intellectual awareness of the community. Stafford also was determined to make the church financially self sufficient, and the church was able to build its own building and create financial independence from the AUA in Boston. In her five years with the church they became almost entirely debit free in a community that was anything but affluent. In addition to being a prudent choice this must have created a wonderful sense of empowerment for the community.
At the same time, Stafford and Gordon were mentoring other young women and making connections to the few women already in the pulpits of the mid west. They took in four girls from Illinois: former students of Gordon’s, who served as parish assistants while attending college. Stafford and Gordon passed on this new kind of “women’s work” in the way women had for centuries been trained for more traditional “women’s work” by their mothers and grandmothers. One of these women was Mary Collson who had grown up in the Humboldt parish, and under the mentorship of Stafford and Gordon, became a minister of her own parish, and later served at Hull house, an important institution of social change of the time. The Humboldt parish became somewhat of a magnet to women in ministry. One such woman was Ida Hultin, a lay preacher who had encountered the obstacles of gender and poverty in her attempt to be formally trained for the Unitarian Ministry, and who stepped in to take one of Stafford’s two pastorates when the load had become too burdensome.
Stafford and Hultin worked together in their neighboring parishes and supported each other both emotionally and partially. Ida Hultin herself brought a young woman named Rowena Morse into the ministry who was later called to the first church in Chicago. And in this way the network grew to about twenty women over the same number of years. It’s hub was in Iowa and Humboldt, where Stafford had laid the roots, often was its meeting place. And so when it was time for Mary and Eleanor to move on to a new parish in Sioux City Iowa, where Eleanor was ordained and joined Mary in the pulpit, two of the young women they had mentored stepped in to fill their place in the Humboldt church.
Given their unique circumstances, being both female and isolated from metropolitan society, this cohort of ministers began to create a new model for ministry. Historian Cynthia Grant Tucker described this new model as mothers of their congregations. This new model was perceived as non-threatening by their congregations who were used to men in the pulpit, but it also lead to an important depth in the role of ministry. This did not include the cleaning and cooking of family domesticity, which was largely taken up for these female clergy by parish assistants, but making good homes for their church families with their sympathies, intelligence and business acumen. The maternal role included fighting for financial independence and stability, which was a matriarchal role in both Stafford and Gordon’s families of origin.
These pioneer ministers focused on the institutions of the family itself. They pressed for equality in marriage, even removing the word “obey” from the wedding service. They preached about a “partnership of equals” in which the wife would be fully informed of the family business, a very controversial idea at the time. The ministers modeled devotion to family and kin. They reinvigorated the ritual of child dedication, updated with more liberal language and forms to encourage and honor parental and community devotion. While parish visits were going out of style among male clergy, this group of sisters made these visits regularly, and in response their congregations responded with trust and appreciation.
As many of these women had been teachers before they became ministers, they were not satisfied with leaving teaching for Sunday morning sermons. Many of these ministers also were directly involved in children’s religious education. They transformed the Eastern catechistic question and Answer and memorization, leading instead discussion of myth, legend and scientific method, and world religion. Though this curriculum is very like contemporary UU children’s curricula, it was quite a break with tradition.. In addition, some of the churches opened Pre-school programs during the week to serve both child-care and developmental functions. For some ministers this increased their ability to respond to parents’ needs, and to a mother’s support groups.
They also expanded Adult Religious Education. Being farther from larger Universities and cultural centers than their Eastern counterparts, these congregations found it necessary to take a larger role in the intellectual and cultural lives of the communities. Sunday night forums brought important thinkers from the east, folks like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Adult Study Groups, called “Unity Clubs,” were established in parishes throughout Iowa, and served as adult study groups for a variety of topics, spanning the spiritual, political and scientific, and including modern as well as traditional thought. They made sure these clubs discussed the works of male and female authors, and talked openly presumptions about the roles of women and men in society.
These progressive ministers also changed the nature of the “lady’s groups” questioning the subservient role of women in church who had often been confined to serving and cleaning up church suppers. The Rev. Marie Jenny Howe, said she doubted that “more than one in a hundred women really liked sewing as much as the typical clergyman seemed to think” (p. 95) They pushed their women parishioners to stretch themselves and ask “dangerous questions”. The women began improving their concepts of themselves as individuals, establishing more satisfying relationships with each others, and addressing many of the kinds of issues UU women’s groups in our churches confront today.
One of the sisterhoods greatest contributions was in housing these communities. Between 1880 and 1913 the western sisterhood put up and paid for over twenty new houses of worship, an impressive record, particularly in light of the financial restrictions of the area. They moved towards a model of church as home, participating in design to ensure a feeling of comfort and attending to details of functionality in all aspects of church life. Almost all of these churches had fireplaces, enhancing the metaphor of the home, “a place that fostered warm feelings of human kinship.” said Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones (p. 102)
They were also aware of the impact of a building’s structure on its community. One woman pointed out that “what a congregation believed and how it behaved were ‘unconsciously molded’ by a sanctuary’s physical properties” (p. 107). Not only could the structure enhance and encourage relationships and community, but that aesthetic beauty fostered inspiration. They also proposed that a less orthodox structure would encourage creativity, that a more traditional structure encouraged complacency (as they felt Eastern churches were victim to)
I imagine the churches where these women served were not too different than our own. Most of them were family size congregations, many of them could not afford full time ministry, and all of them were surrounded by conservative neighbors. I think many of us have had the experience of being the only liberal at school or at work, feeling a sense of loneliness or isolation when our own beliefs were so different from our friends and neighbors. Perhaps we too felt like we were coming home when we found a faith community that welcomed us just as we are, which challenged us with progressive thought. In many ways we are not unlike those early Unitarians in the Western Conference who needed to build an oasis out of their friendships and their community.
Perhaps it can be an inspiration to us that these congregations of the last century turned their situation to their advantage. Their need to reach out spurred a strong and vital network through pulpit exchange, cooperative missionary field work, and through the supportive relationships of the churches and their ministers to their neighbors. They would work together, for example, to bring distant liberals, often abolitionists, into their community to speak and share their ideas. They took as their motto a verse from Isaiah “Enlarge the place of your tent… hold not back, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.” [Isaiah 54:2.6] Could we too enlarge the place of our tent? Could we too lengthen our cords of connection to other congregations?”
The isolation of these frontier congregations also created a need for greater unity and commitment within each religious community. Their relationship to the churches and to one another took on greater importance. The church and its volunteers filled a variety of roles in the larger community as its sole liberal organization, and reached out to one another to help meet their own needs and push each other to individual and community growth.
Because these religious communities were geographically far a field from the center of Unitarianism, they began to reinterpret what it meant to be religious liberals without the pull of inertia that was creating complacence in the older more conservative Boston Unitarian churches. Perhaps the lack of seminary training helped these women raised on the frontier speak to ther community in a way those who trained in Boston seminiarys could not. The Souix Falls church, for example, found that the young men fresh from the East Coast seminaries were “too academic and failed to understand that, to build and sustain congregations, a minister had to speak plainly and be concrete” [9. 45]. Said Eliza Tupper Wilkes, who herself became a voice of liberal religion on the western frontier “You cannot plant eastern Unitarian Churches’ in this soil.” For preachers like Stafford and Wilkes, the faith that their parishioners needed was one that was reconcilable with the birth of modern science, and with reason. A faith where the human soul would grow not in isolation, but in community, in an acting out of love. They integrated study of theology with current affairs and community service. This faith based in humanism and ethics, was very different from the Eastern Unitarian faith based in Christ, but this was a faith that served the religious community of the frontier, and the "Come-outers" searching for something more tenable than their orthodox roots.
Sadly, the sisterhood lost much ground after 1910, when more conservative leadership blocked their initiative. Some of the great denominational leaders like Samuel Elliot were unsympathetic to the cause of women, and of the western region. The first Unitarian GA was not held outside of Boston until the 1960s. As for the cause of women, we know that women had to wait another generation until the constitution was changed to allow their vote (1920). It wasn’t until 1962 that the first woman Violet Kochendoerfer graduate from my alma mater, Starr King school for the ministry. It was only in 1990 that the women ministers of the frontier made it into our UU history books, and that we began to honor their contribution to the denomination.
We see from their example that the work of your heart is not always realized in our own life time. Things we take for granted about our church community- that a woman can preach, that women can serve on the board, that science and reason are part of religious thought, that religious education social justice are crucial to our work together, that warm and caring relationships are part of what it means to be a congregation. These ideas which were so radical a century ago are almost taken for granted in our congregations today. These ideas are still radical to many of our neighbors.
We call on the pioneering spirit of our foremothers as we seek to expand the frontier for all those who need our special kind of message, our special kind of community. Let us Enlarge the pace of our tent. Let us not hold back. Let us lengthen our cords and strengthen our stakes. We are still pioneers today as we settle a new frontier for future generations.
Cynthia Grant Tucker Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.