Let Us Now Praise Universalist Women
Created by the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society
Originally presented at General Assembly, 1993
Call to Worship:
For all who came before,
who founded churches and Sunday schools,
who shared their faith through their preaching and teaching,
For all who fought inequity and cruelty,
often at great personal cost,
For all whose faith fueled their work
for a just world,
May the stories of these few inspire us to find more stories,
and to create our own,
Our paths illuminated by this light of Universalism.
By Jacquelyn O’Sullivan
Processional Hymn “Rise Up! Rise Up! 0 Woman” Text by Ada C. Bowles, adapted
“Remember me!” How swift the tide
Of memory glideth o’er the past;
Those sunny hours so quickly sped,
Perchance a few with clouds o’ercast.
But memory hath more lasting flowers,
Which Time’s rude hand can ne’er efface,
The sweets we cull from friendship’s bowers,
The gems affection’s altar grace.
“Remember me!” In youth’s bright morn
Those simple words so lightly spoken,
Far into future years may reach,
And wake a spell which ne’er is broken.
A star to gleam in Memory’s sky,
A line on Memory’s page to glow,
A smile to offer at her shrine,
Or tears which from her springs shall flow.
From Our Gift, Universalist Sunday School book, 1851
Let us hold in loving remembrance all those who paved the way. May their lives provide us with models for our own empowerment. May their words reach across the years to inspire us with new hope to meet the challenges of our lives. Together may we carry forth the flame of our liberal religious heritage, bringing healing to all the world. Amen. Blessed be.
In the late 1870s, Eliza Rice Hanson was traveling on an Iowa railroad. She fell into conversation with a woman who challenged her to name Universalist women who had distinguished themselves by their faith and philanthropic zeal. She recalls her reaction:
Casting about for an answer to her question, I was astonished as the long and brilliant procession moved across the field of my mind’s vision, and the longer I dwelt on them the greater my astonishment became, and at length I said, “Never did a church include a larger proportion of noble women.” (Our Women Workers, published 1882, p. iii)
We are grateful to the woman on that Iowa train, because Eliza Hanson wrote Our Women Workers in response to her challenge, a book that still stands as one of the most important resources on Universalist women.
Today we offer stories and words from a few of these noble women, trusting that their examples will represent the broad range of interests and accomplishments of our Universalist foremothers. Let us begin with a story for the children in our community and the child in all of us. It is a story about Annie B. Jordan Willis, African American Universalist educator.
Children’s Focus “Annie and Her Children”
Annie B. Jordan Willis was born one hundred years ago, on the 30th of May in 1893 in Suffolk, Virginia. Mary, her mom, was a teacher, and her dad, Joseph, was the third African American to become a Universalist minister. He was interested in Universalist mission activities. Missions were things other than churches, like schools and clinics, which helped people. Universalist women all over the country worked very hard to raise money to support missions, including the one in Annie’s town.
Annie’s father spent most of his time working at the Suffolk Universalist Normal Training School, and he also preached at the local Universalist church. The whole family valued education, and from a young age Annie, along with her mother and sister, worked at the school. Annie helped teach the younger children. As a young woman, Annie attended college in Norfolk, Virginia, where she married Richard Willis and had one daughter. However, after a year of college she came home to help with the school. As her father got older, her work took on a special importance, and when he died in 1929, she was ready to assume his duties.
Soon after her father’s death, Annie realized that she was a teacher, not a preacher. So, she sadly closed the Universalist church that had for so long been connected with the school. Although she began to attend the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she held fast to her Universalist faith, a faith that showed in all her life and work. Her faith was so important to her that after the church closed, she led her students in daily prayer at lunchtime.
There are still many people who speak fondly of Annie, remembering the dignity and discipline which marked the school. One thing Annie had never liked about the school was the name, “Normal” school, so she was happy when it was renamed the Jordan Neighborhood House in 1939. In the morning, Annie or another teacher stood at the door to greet the children as they entered, and in spite of the fact that over 100 children attended the schoo1, each day Annie would make her rounds through the classes, speaking to each child by name.
For 45 years, Annie continued to struggle for funding to keep the school open as a constant light for the community she held so dear. Today, 16 years after her death in 1977, she remains in the memories of those whose lives she touched as a friend, teacher and living example of the light of Universalism. By Jacquelyn O’Sullivan, based on research by Will Frank
Candles of Remembrance
As we share the lives and words of our foremothers, let us pause to remember the women who have touched our lives. You are invited to come forward to light a candle in honor of a women who has been a beacon in your life.
Hymn “The Harvest, God, is Great” Text by Mrs. M.A. Adams
Universalist Women’s Lives and Words—Part I
Let us now praise famous [women],
our ancestors in their generations.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and made a name for themselves by their valor;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people’s lore…
those who composed musical tunes,
or put verses in writing…
Some of them have left behind a name,
so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed…
But these were godly [women],
whose righteous deeds [need not be] forgotten;
[We,] their descendants, stand by their covenants…
and their glory will never be blotted out.
[Through us,] their names live on
generation after generation.
[Let] the assembly declare their wisdom,
And the congregation proclaim their praise.
Adapted from Sirach (Eclesiasticus) 44:1-1 5
Today we remember Universalist women, and in doing so we stand by their covenants. Through our attention to their lives and words, we guarantee that their names will live on, generation after generation. Let us now praise Universalist women!
Whenever we mention Universalist women, one woman invariably comes to mind—Clara Barton, the Civil War’s “Angel of the Battlefield” and founder of the American Red Cross. Clara’s Universalist affiliation has been confirmed in a letter held by the Clara Barton Birthplace. She writes:
Your belief that I am a Universalist is as correct as your belief in being one yourself: a belief in which all who are privileged to possess it rejoice. In any case it was a great gift, for, like Saint Paul, I “was born free,” and saved the pain of reaching it through years of struggle and doubt.
Women’s Heritage Society intern, Helene Knox, has written a poem in which she quotes from one of Clara’s letters and then imagines how her Universalist faith might have sustained her on the battlefield and throughout her life.
“Clara Barton at Antietam (1862)”
As I worked so close to the battle,
a bullet tore through my sleeve,
and killed the soldier I was tending.
I had to wring the blood
from the bottom of my clothing,
as I could not move for the weight of it.
I do what I have to.
Nothing but death
can make me cease from my labor,
because I love
Though I walk through the valley
of the shadow,
and through vast fields
of hapless soldiers’ cries,
art always with me,
Thou who wilt restore at last
unto Thy life. by Helene Knox
Another unique glimpse of Clara Barton is found in her 1870 letter to Frances Dana Barker Gage, famous Universalist social reformer best known to us today as the author of the wonderful and ironic hymn, “A Hundred Years Hence.” Hear the words of Clara Barton:
My Dear Fannie:
I can never see a poor mutilated wreck, blown to pieces with powder and lead without wondering if visions of such an end ever flitted before his mother’s mind when she washed and dressed her fair skinned baby. Woman should certainly have some voice in the matter of war, either affirmative or negative and the fact that she has not this should not be made the ground on which to deprive her of other privileges. She shan’t say there shall be no war—and she shan’t take any part in it when there is one, and because she don’t take part in war, she must not vote, and because she can’t vote, she has no voice in her government, and because she has no voice in her government, she isn’t a citizen, and because she isn’t a citizen, she has no rights, and because she has no rights, she must submit to wrongs, and because she submits to wrongs, she isn’t anybody, and “what does she know about war—” and because she don’t know anything about it, she mustn’t say or do anything about it —“Three blind mice[,] cut off their heads with a carving knife—three blind mice.”
Clara Barton stands within a long line of Universalist feminists. Perhaps the earliest is Judith Sargent Murray, who might well be called the First Lady of the Universalist Church. Born in Gloucester in 1751, she was 23-years-old when John Murray first came there to preach. Her family home had already been a gathering place for people to discuss Universalist theology, so they were ready for John when he arrived from England. At a time when only boys were educated, Judith had been given instruction along with her brother and when he entered Harvard, he shared his studies with her. She became the first writer in America to publish essays supporting the complete equality of men and women and was the first native-born woman dramatist to have her plays professionally performed. As the wife of the founder of American Universalism, she collected his letters and sermons, and later completed his memoirs, preserving for posterity the primary source we have today documenting the founding of this religious movement. Now that scholars finally have access to Judith’s journals and letters, thanks to the marvelous discovery of these treasures by Gordon Gibson, we are beginning to realize that Judith herself was instrumental in developing the original theology and vision of Universalism.
Her writings are extensive. This selection, about justice, gives us a preview of one of the major themes in the lives of Universalist women. Hear the words of Judith Sargent Murray:
Were I to personify Justice, instead of presenting her blind I would denominate her the goddess of fire; she should possess a subtle essence, which should… pervade the inmost recesses of the soul; by every insignia of light I would surround… her; while among the ornaments which composed her crest, a broad and never-closing eye should stand conspicuous; she should possess the power to unravel the knotty entanglements of the most sophisticated web; piercing as the forked lightning… she should disclose at a single glance the secret… windings of the most profound labyrinth, while patient and unerring she should listen with calmness to the various disquisitions of the interested claimant… Of unbending integrity, Justice should feel, hear and see, but truth alone should be the polar star by which she should shape her movements, and equity only should constrain her determinations. (Our Women Workers, pp. 7-8.)
In the early days of the Universalist movement, few women were listed as members of churches. Historian Russell Miller speculates on the reasons for this. In some states women were not permitted to sign papers organizing religious societies. In other cases it may not have been considered respectable for women to attend Universalist meetings, given the radical nature of the religious perspective being promoted. However, there is evidence that as early as 1810 a woman, Maria Cook, is known to have preached Universalism in public gatherings in Pennsylvania and New York. In the decades that followed, other women are listed as preachers, including Mary Ann Church in what was then called Upper Canada.
More than preaching, though, women’s early expression of Universalism is more likely to have taken literary form. One of those early authors is Caroline Mehitable Fisher Sawyer. Born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1812, Caroline grew up in an Abolitionist family who enabled her to become one of the best-educated women in America. She became a Universalist when she married the Rev. Thomas Sawyer and moved to New York City.
One of the most prolific writers of Universalist literature, Caroline published poems and stories in the New Yorker, Knickerbocker magazine and other major secular publications of the day. For several years she was editor of the youth department of an important denominational paper, the Christian Messenger Eliza Hanson records that the children who once waited “with impatient delight from week to week” for her “beautiful surprises” benefited greatly from the way her writing brought out “the latent good within them, and the uplifting of their young natures into the light of Universalism.” (Our Women Workers, p.148)
Besides writing for and editing numerous Universalist publications, Caroline Sawyer reared five children and helped organize the work of the Universalist Ladies’ Dorcas Society to aid the poor. Eliza Hanson says of her:
When our church was in its Spring-time, she gave to it the sweetness of her heart and the brilliancy of her mind. A grateful minister said some years since:
“This large-hearted, scholarly woman came to us in our weakness and loneliness, and drew in voice after voice of a shining band, to charm us into graceful speech and eloquent thought; to set bright visions open before us, and lead our young and ardent church on its march up the hills of light.” (Our Women Workers, p. 149)
In a poem called “My Taper,” Caroline Sawyer describes her understanding of her mission as a writer. We debated about altering what we might today consider sexist language in this poem, but which was common usage in the 19th century. However, we decided to leave it as is, thinking she might have meant “men” literally. Hear the words of Caroline Mehitable Fisher Sawyer:
If in some low place, shunned of favored men,
I set my candle-stick and trim the light
And cheer the dismal nook where only night
Reigned hitherto, am I not doing then
God’s works as truly, faithfully, as when
The beacon fire I kindle upon the hill,
To light a thousand upturned brows, and fill
With sudden radiance every glade and glen?
Angels appeared to holy men of old
In the dark prison, and none saw their light
Beyond the walls! The heavenly ones who told
The Savior’s birth, shone on no mortal sight
Save Judah’s shepherds’. Let me take heart then
And keep my taper bright, though shining for few men!
(Our Women Workers, p. 154)
Following in Caroline’s footsteps were many other Universalist women poets and writers. Charlotte Ann Fillebrown Jerauld was born in 1820 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although she showed early intellectual promise her short life was filled with hardship, the lot of many working-class Universalists. At age 15 she had to go to work in the book bindery at the publishing house where the noted Universalist periodical, Ladies Repository, was published. At age 25 she died suddenly as the result of a difficult childbirth. Nevertheless, Charlotte managed to write some of Universalism’s most inspirational poems and stories. Her hymn, “Where Shall Thy Kingdom Come?” affirms the Universalist understanding that salvation comes not to some select religious hierarchy but to all people who have faith in the oneness of life. Hear the words of Charlotte Ann Fillebrown Jerauld:
Where shall Thy kingdom come? In halls of state
Or cathedrals old, where the mighty throng,
Where mitred priests in robes of purple wait,
And pealing organs chant the lofty song?
Where shall Thy kingdom come? In cloisters dim
Where each alone in adoration bends,
Where echoes music of the vesper hymn,
Where life’s bright joy into the silence blends?
Or in the dwelling lit by love and care,
Where all life’s hopes and dreams are not alone;
The dove of peace shall find, at last, rest there,
Shelter in the heart that knows all people one.
Where shall Thy kingdom come? In hearts and lives
Made whole; in the one who life freely gives.
(David Johnson’s Unitarian Universalist Women Hymns, p. 15)
Another writer who struggled to survive financially is Elizabeth Emerson Turner Sawyer. Born in Lyme, New Hampshire, in 1822, Elizabeth was 11-years-old when she went to work in the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. She joined the “Improvement Circle” organized by Universalist minister Abel Thomas, where essays, stories and poetry were read aloud by various authors and prepared for publication in the Lowell Offering, the first magazine ever written solely by women. Elizabeth’s poem, “Feed My Sheep,” expresses the Universalist call to do justice. Hear the words of Elizabeth Emerson Turner Sawyer.
Earnest, faithful, thoughtful women,
Listen to our earnest call,
As we plead for those less favored,
Who are still in Error’s thrall,
And direct your close attention
To those words with meaning deep,
Spoken by our loving Savior
To his followers—”Feed my sheep!”
Sisters, let us do our duty!
Help to lift the heavy cloud
Which o’erhangs so many households,
And the highest hopes enshroud!
Heed our blessed Savior’s message,
Let it break our lengthened sleep,
Nerve each heart and hand to labor
At his bidding—”Feed my sheep!”
Never could that earnest pleading
Better be obeyed than now;
Never could a better harvest
Gathered be—then let us bow
With a joyful recognition,
And this precept ever keep,
And, henceforward, strive with gladness
Faithfully to feed his sheep!
(Our Woman Workers, pp. 349-50)
Universalist women stood at the forefront of the major social reform movements of the 19th century. They believed in working to bring the kingdom of heaven to life in a practical way in this world, not just waiting for salvation in the hereafter. In their work for abolition, women’s rights, temperance, prison reform, public hygiene, and peace, they embodied the Universalist injunction to make love manifest for all people.
Perhaps the most famous of these reform women was Mary Livermore, known as the Queen of the Platform for her magnificent speeches which she gave all over the country and in Europe. It was said that the mere announcement that she would speak was enough to fill any lecture hall. Here is an excerpt from her speech called “The Battle of Life.” Hear the words of Mary Ashton Rice Livermore:
We are approaching the era when war shall be no more. The world is ready for it. Unconsciously, and unintentionally, the powers that be have been preparing for it. For they have increased the destructive power of the enginery of war so marvelously that the nations employing it against each other will both suffer almost irreparable injury. When a handful of men can blow up a navy, and another handful can annihilate an army, war ceases to be war and becomes assassination. If we should wake up tomorrow to find that all civilized nations had agreed to arbitrate their quarrels, that all armies were to be disbanded, all fortifications to be dismantled, and the giant battle-ships trans-formed into vessels for peaceful uses, how much the world would
gain by the change! (Story of My Life, published 1889, p. 692)
Mary also wrote hymns. In this hymn she expresses the Universalist conviction that love is the true instrument of reform, and can even reform “. . . our brother, man.” Let us now sing “Reclaiming Power of Love.”
Hymn “Reclaiming Power of Love” Text by Mary Livermore
Universalist Women’s Lives and Words—Part II
No story of Universalist women and their commitment to service would be complete without the Women’s Centenary Association. In 1869 the Universalist General Convention met in Buffalo, New York. While the men sat upstairs discussing the feasibility of creating a fund in honor of John Murray, the women gathered in the basement to decide how they could help in this effort. Now at this time women were accustomed to gather in groups for religious study, sewing, and social purposes. Fund-raising, however, was not part of their usual agenda.
Most of the women who met that day had never spoken in public, nor had they been responsible for forming or maintaining organizational structures. Nevertheless, in that basement in 1869, Universalist women formed what is said to be the first major women’s organization in any religious tradition. They did manage to raise $35,100.53 toward a goal of $200,000 for the John Murray Fund. And their organization continues today in the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation.
One woman who was instrumental in the founding of the Women’s Centenary Association was Caroline Augusta White Soule. Born into a Universalist family in Albany, New York, in 1824, Caroline was forced to support her family of five young children on her own, when her minister husband died suddenly of smallpox when she was but 27 years old. She became a popular and prolific writer of books, stories, and poems for women and children, filled with her faith in the comforting power of Universalism. At the time of the gathering in Buffalo in 1869, she was 45 years old and had never before spoken in public. A few months earlier, in fact, she had run away when asked to speak. That she finally found her voice and became one of the leading spokespeople for Universalism is indicative of the potential for empowerment that lies within this religious tradition we share. Hear the words of Caroline Augusta White Soule:
I can honestly say, I was led by God’s hand into speaking of our faith in public. It was something I never sought… While I was never decidedly against women preaching, I was not for it. I waited to see how it would result, only astonished that women had the courage to speak in pulpits! It never occurred to me that I could. I was so diffident naturally, had such a fear of the sound of my own voice, had such a weak voice… [I]n April, 1869, I actually ran away when I heard the Conference was determined I should speak! … Very silly, it seems to me now, this fear of uttering a few words in the presence of those brothers and sisters…
After our WCA began its work, I was necessarily obliged to speak… but my sufferings were intense always, and only my love for the cause carried me through.
(Our Women Workers, p. 445)
Caroline’s love for the cause of Universalism not only carried her through but led her eventually to Scotland, where she was sent by the Women’s Centenary Association as its first foreign missionary. In 1880, at age 55, Caroline Soule became the first woman ordained to the ministry in Scotland.
In the years that followed, the Women’s Centenary Association became a permanent part of the Universalist movement, one largely responsible for spreading Universalism to new audiences across this country and abroad. Within their first 12 years, they published and distributed over five million pages of tracts, small booklets extolling the importance of Universalism. A few of their many accomplishments include: sending missionaries to Japan and building a home for girls and a kindergarten; purchasing the birthplace of Clara Barton and establishing camps for children with diabetes; sponsoring the work of Annie Willis with African American children in Virginia; and establishing and supporting churches in the South. Without the contributions of this vital women’s organization, Universalism would have had much less impact. At the same time, Universalist women were empowered by their work, learning that they could indeed make a difference in the world.
That Universalist women were capable of leadership in all fields was affirmed early on by the ordination of women as ministers. In 1863, Olympia Brown became the first woman in America, and probably in the world, to be ordained by full denominational authority. By the time the women’s suffrage amendment was ratified in 1920, 88 Universalist women had been ordained.
As ministers, these women expressed the best that is represented by our Universalist faith. One of them, Athalia Irwin, a traveling minister who served churches in Florida, Arkansas, and California, wrote of her conversion from traditional Christianity to Universalism. Her poem, “From Gethsemane to Heaven,” lifis up the hope that Universalism still offers—for such a time as this. Hear the words of Athalia Lizzie Johnson Irwin:
[Written in 1898 between twelve and one o’clock at night on the day of the author’s self-ordered release from membership in the Baptist church, because of her desire to be honest to herself and the church.]
I once was happy in the faith I this day yield,
But nothing have I now my drifting life to shield.
The God whom I once loved I scorn as cruel, cold,—
I’d rather have no God than him I loved of old…
Misdeed, was it, to tear myself away
From faith no longer mine? How could I stay?
What care you now for heaven or for hell,
so long as conscience tells you all is well?
[Nearly five years later, on the day of her ordination to the Universalist ministry.]
Oh, send me out to tell the nations of a love
That bars no soul outside that heavenly home above.
Oh, let me tell the sorrowing and the slave
That these are they whom Jesus came to save…
Upon thy holy altar consecrated now,
In meekness and in love, I humbly bow…
Interpreter of life I fain would be,
And all things are possible to Thee.
(Bouquet of Verses, published 1905, pp. 9-14)
Today we have had time to explore only a few of the women for whom Universalism represented a significant source of empowerment. We have learned a few of the ways Universalist women shared their vision of the religion of love by transforming the world in which they lived. We have sung the praises of Universalist women and have felt their spirit come alive in our lives. Let us remember their wisdom and their names, that they may not perish and their righteous deeds need not be forgotten.
One of the most popular Universalist hymns was written by Phebe Hanaford, Universalist minister, feminist activist, and author. As the hymn tune is played, we would be happy to receive your offering to support the continued celebration of the lives and words of our founding mothers, through the work of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society. Help the flame of our heritage light the way to our future.
Offeratory: “Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters” Text by Phebe Hanaford
As we remember women of the past, we join with those who have kept alive these memories by preserving books and memorabilia and recording stories of the lives of those who have gone before us. Even as they recorded the past, these women looked forward to greater accomplishments in the future. As Cordelia Quinby put it, “Not that we shall know about it, but remember that there are those who will.”
In response some 40 years later, Laura Hersey wrote these words, which are still true for us today and which describe the mission of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society, indeed, for all of us who stand committed to the liberal faith:
We are those of whom [Cordelia Quinby] spoke; some of those, rather, for there are those who will come after us and create new things on the foundation of the work that we, in our turn, do. As our lives span the years, so do they intercept and interlock with one another that the generations seem not to be separate, but one. In their deeds and actions, their interests and motivations, the women of [the past] are as much a part of us today as they were in the beginning…
Because these things are true, a grave responsibility rests upon each… of us—the responsibility of cherishing the trust which is ours, of fashioning it to serve the purpose of our day and of transmitting it in wholeness to those who
follow us. (Souvenir, published c. 1960, p. 30)
Many people contributed to the development of this worship service. Dorothy Emerson wrote the text in dialog with Helene Knox, who edited the selections written by historical Universalist women. Russell Tripp arranged two of the hymns, one based on a suggestion from David Johnson in Unitarian Universalist Women’s Hymns, another discovered by Helene Knox in an old hymnbook. Eugene Navias and David Johnson gave permission for the inclusion of hymns from Singing, Shouting, Celebrating Universalism. Jacquelyn O’Sullivan wrote the Children’s Focus using research by Will Frank. Jacquelyn O’Sullivan and Dorothy
Emersion edited the final version as it appears here.
Most of all we acknowledge the Universalist women, named and unnamed, who inspired this service and who continue, through their example, to empower our lives today.