WHO WAS AFRAID OF OLYMPIA BROWN?
“In the work for the admission of women to the Christian ministry, Olympia Brown was a pioneer, her official ordination by the Universalist Church in 1863 antedating that of any other woman in any denomination. The ministry was the first objective in her life. Olympia Brown believed that freedom of religious thought and a liberal church would supply the groundwork for all other freedoms. Her difficulties and disillusionments in this field were numerous. That she could rise superior to such difficulties and disillusionments was the consequence of the hopefulness and courage with which she was richly endowed.”
from: “Olympia Brown: An Autobiography”
Journal of the Universalist Historical Society
1963, Vol. IV, p. 3.
Today Unitarian Universalists point proudly to the Reverend Olympia Brown as an example of the denomination’s forward thinking attitude regarding women in the ministry. However, Olympia had not always been so esteemed by her Universalist colleagues. Today UU’s cite the memorial plaque to her at the Washington D.C. Universalist Church. It states “He who works in harmony with justice is immortal.” Presumably she is, too. According to Gwendolen Willis, this was her mother’s favorite quotation. In her day the Universalist establishment was not always so admiring of the Reverend Olympia Brown.
In working for justice, Olympia was fierce, feisty, and relentless. She had no time for the social niceties with which women were expected to concern themselves. Uncompromising on matters of principle, she had no patience with incompetence.
Olympia Brown had to struggle constantly to make inroads into the male monolith that was the Universalist ministry. Rather than being welcomed as an opportunity to have Universalists “live their soul,” she was discouraged first from enrolling in Divinity School, then from becoming an ordained parish minister and finally from progressing in her ministry.
Although in her autobiography Olympia is circumspect regarding her disillusionment, her daughter indicates that her mother time and again was given struggling parishes in various need of financial, emotional or spiritual sustenance. These parishes were available because few other ministers wanted to take on the problems they presented. Olympia worked with each parish diligently and effectively. Several times she was able to turn the parish around until it would appeal to a male minister. Even after Olympia proved her abilities as a minister, so called desirable parishes failed to come her way.
First of all, there was the matter of money, so often the defining factor in our dealings with one another, whether social, religious, political or familial. It was thought that having too many women enter the ministry would bring down the price of preaching, since they would, of course, accept lesser salaries.
Then there was the age old argument of opening up the floodgates. As one woman opined at the time of Olympia’s ordination, she would no doubt be the precursor to dozens and dozens of women entering the ministry, no doubt to deleterious effect.
Another dangerous precedent was the matter of public speaking. This, as the Grimke sisters and Ernestine Rose learned so painfully, was not considered a woman’s role. Such usurpation of the man’s rightful sphere could have only the most dire consequences.
Indeed, in1837, the Reverend Nehemiah Adams was so appalled at the prospect of a woman on the speaker’s platform, or worse yet in the pulpit, that he felt it incumbent upon his august personage to deliver the following warning to the Congregational Churches of Massachusetts:
“There are dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with widespread and permanent injury.” He then proceed to denounce the behavior of females who “so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers.”
Women, and the Reverend Adams apparently had this on good authority, should “abide by appropriate duties and influence as stated in the New Testament.” He then assures us that a woman’s strength derives from her dependence and weakness.
“But when she assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary…and her character becomes unnatural. If the vine, whose strength and beauty is to lean upon the trellis work and half conceal its clusters, thinks to assume the independent and overshadowing nature of the elm, it will not only cease to bear fruit, but will fall in shame and dishonor into the dust.”
Rev. Nehemiah Adams
Pastoral Letter to the General Association of the Massachusetts Congregational Churches, as quoted in Grimke Sisters of South Carolina, by Gerda Lerner, (p.189).
Here we have it! The decline of civilization in one fell swoop and all because there are women who apparently do not know their place. They are unnatural and will become barren and then where will civilization, as we know it, be? Because of uppity women like Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Susan B. Anthony, Mary Livermore, and Victoria Woodhull, danger was lurking everywhere.
Apparently nobody had ever told these women about the joys of being a vine. They wanted to be an elm, or an oak or a chestnut.
This letter was written when Olympia Brown was only two years old…fortunately for the Reverend Adams. Or he might have been the recipient of one of her memorable missives. The attitude captured in this exhortation, however, characterized the established ministry even in the 1860’s, when Olympia was looking for a parish.
In addition to resistance on the part of some of the male religious establishment, one thing that might have made the ministerial road a bit more difficult for Olympia was her personality.
As described by her daughter, Gwendolen Willis, her mother “was indomitable and uncompromising, traits that do not lend themselves well to politics and leadership. She cared little for society, paid no deference to wealth, represented an unfashionable church, and promoted a cause (woman suffrage) regarded as certain to be unsuccessful. She was troublesome because she asked people to do things, to work, contribute money, go to meetings, think and declare themselves openly as favoring a principle or public measure.” (Olympia Brown: The Battle for Equality, Charlotte Cote, Mother Courage Press, 1988, p. 171)
Her work in the woman suffrage movement gives us a clear idea of the type of woman the Universalist hierarchy had to deal with.
After the Wisconsin Suffrage Association, which Olympia led for many years, became embroiled in an internal personnel struggle and asked Olympia to step down, the powers that came to be had second thoughts. They decided, as a consolation prize, to invite her, in the capacity of elder stateswoman, to their state suffrage convention. Olympia replied in two sentences:
“I do not think I shall be needed at Tower Hill. I never go where I am of no use.” (Cote, p. 154)
Although she greatly admired the early suffragists, she made no attempt to hide the fact that the second generation, led by Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw did not measure up. Olympia was convinced that they were too busy being proper, socially acceptable ladies to lead the movement effectively.
It was her firm opinion that the movement languished between 1890-1910 because of their lackluster leadership. When asked to make a donation to a fund honoring Anna Howard Shaw as she ended her presidency of the National American Suffrage Association in 1916, the reply sent was vintage Olympia. It reads in part:
“We are engaged in carrying forward the greatest reform that has ever been undertaken in behalf of freedom. We have only made a beginning: there is yet much to be done. All the money that can be raised should be applied to the accomplishment of the object for which we have all worked so long. Besides, I do not approve of making such gifts of money to individual workers. It introduces commercialism into the advocacy of a cause which should be sacred and which calls for self-consecration and self-sacrifice.
Hundreds of women have worked longer than Miss Shaw and sacrificed more.
You speak of this as a ‘national tribute.’ This would surely be a misnomer…as there is a great diversity of opinion in regard to Miss Shaw’s character and methods and a great variety of estimates in regard to the value of her work….
You mention as a reason for this contribution ‘that those closest to her know that she has contributed of her capital.’ The inference is that she is in need. This cannot be the case. Miss Shaw is strong, she has a splendid gift of oratory, and she is most thoroughly advertised. She can command, at any time, a fine salary by her own independent effort…Under these circumstances, I do not feel justified in making any such pledge as you request…
Olympia Brown to Cora M. Stearns
January 19, 1916
(Cote, p. 155-6)
It was always so difficult to tell what was on Olympia Brown’s mind!
As this letter demonstrates, she was opinionated, independent and outspoken. Olympia leaves little doubt that she regards Anna Shaw as someone of dubious abilities and unimpressive accomplishments.
One can readily see why the Reverend Olympia Brown might have had a challenging career as a parish minister. Consider her determined, forthright, take no prisoners personality, and remember what a contrast this was to the conventional image of the 19th century middle class woman who was to be predominantly decorative and decorous. It is not hard to see why many in the Universalist establishment were indeed afraid of Olympia Brown.
Her difficulties began when she applied for admission to Divinity School.
John Morgan of Oberlin informed her, in April of 1861, that they had never received a lady as a regular member of the Theology Department. However, “if a lady wishes to avail herself of any facilities which here exist to improve her knowledge of Scriptures or systematic theology, we are glad to give her our help.” (letters quoted are from Olympia Brown Papers at the Schlesinger Library, folder 127). In other words, Miss Brown was welcome to come to study, but she should not think of becoming a minister,
From Meadville Theological School in Pennsylvania, on June 16, 1861, came this interesting response to Olympia Brown’s application. Mr. Stearns questioned the propriety of his “taking a step which will change the whole future policy of the school.” After apologizing for having kept her waiting for a reply he allowed as how “were it my private concern, I should say at once ‘come!’ I have no prejudice against a woman’s studying anything she can or against a woman’s speaking in public. From what I’ve heard of you, I’d be glad to have you for a pupil and more like you. But I have no right to commit the Institution to a new course of action.”
What a comfort it must have been for Olympia to know that Mr. Stearns was not prejudiced, but………….
Shortly thereafter followed a letter from Ebenezer Fisher, president of the Theological School in Canton advising Olympia to study Greek there and board with a private family. He confirms September 25, 1861 as the beginning of her study. Then he adds: ” It is perhaps proper that I should say you may have some prejudices to encounter in the institution from students and also in the community here. Nothing very mighty or serious, I trust…The faculty will receive and treat you precisely as they would any other student.
My own judgment is that it is not expedient for women to become preachers, but I consider it purely a question of experience and not at all of right–the right I cannot question. The other matter of expedience or duty I cannot decide for you. I am willing to leave it between you and the Great Head of the Church.
If you feel He has called you to preach the everlasting Gospel, you shall receive from me no hindrance but rather every aid in my power.” (June 21, 1861)
In her autobiography, Olympia wrote: “this, I thought, was just where it should be left, and I could not ask anything better. But when I arrived, I was told that I had not been expected, and that Mr. Fisher had said that I would not come as he had written so discouragingly to me.” (Autobiography, p 27)
Ebenezer Fisher, alas, had a poor sense of audience.
Olympia continues: “I had supposed his discouragement was my encouragement, and I went with high hope and great expectation…In spite of the real opposition to my becoming a minister, which I later found existed at St. Lawrence, I was treated fairly by the professors in so far as my work was concerned…some of them, and also their wives, were even cordial and kind. President Fisher…..in spite of his discomfiture at my entering the school, was just to me as a student and never discriminated against me until I began to take steps looking toward ordination.” (Autobiography, p. 27)
Although she makes note of a few men who made derogatory remarks about her sermons and mocked her high pitched voice, she casts most of her divinity school experiences in a positive light. In her letters to Isabella Beecher Hooker, however, she remarks that those students who did everything to demean and discourage her were inevitably Republicans. Many years later, when she is organizing Connecticut for the woman suffrage movement she vividly remembers their slights and is determined to do nothing to aid the Republican cause in Connecticut.
Rather than belabor her difficulties at Divinity School, Olympia sums things up in one sentence: “My second year was less disagreeable than the first.” (Autobiography, p.29)
Already showing signs of her abilities as an organizer and strategist, Olympia found out during her second year at St. Lawrence that the Northern Universalist Association was to hold its meeting in Malone, New York. She resolved to go there and formally ask for ordination. Because members of this ordaining council knew something of Olympia’s work and of her character, she felt that they would look upon her possible ordination more favorably than other bodies elsewhere might. When the day of her application approached, she wrote, “I was told that Mr. Fisher was opposed to my being ordained. In fact he stated that I could ‘go to Malone if I chose,’ speaking in a significant manner which seemed to say that I would be sorry, for he would oppose me.” ( Autobiography, p.29-30) Olympia counted on the fact that one of the council delegates was almost certain to support her candidacy. He was from Heuvelton, New York, where she had preached. So impressed was the Universalist congregation there that they had invited her to become their preacher.
She writes: “So, I went to the presence of that body (the ordaining council) feeling quite confident and although there was much discussion and opposition, I spoke for myself, and when the vote was taken it was in my favor. The ceremony took place. Mr Fisher had so far overcome his feelings that he took part in the exercises….
Afterward Mrs. Fisher, who had been especially opposed to me, had said gloomily to one of my classmates “You will see now the consequence of this. Next year there will be fifteen women in the class, and then women will flock to the ministry.” (Autobiography, p.30)
After graduation, Prof. J. L. Lee of St. Lawrence Univ. helped arrange for Olympia to fill the pulpit of Marshfield, Vermont, being vacated by the Rev. Eli Ballou. After a trial Sunday, Olympia was invited to become their preacher.
However, it seemed that progressive thinking among Universalists only extended so far. Although willing to have a woman preacher, a great credit to the congregation at that time, permitting her to live in their homes was another matter entirely for the good Universalists of Marshfield, Vermont. Olympia said she was surprised to realize that “people would be willing to have as a teacher and spiritual guide a woman whom they would not have in their own families.” (Autobiography, p.32)
Realizing that the new minister would not find lodging in town, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, living a mile away in the country, sought her out and asked Olympia to stay with them. Taking such a radical step might be expected of this couple, since they were Democrats, and therefore quite beyond the pale in respectable Vermont.
At this time, she also secured for herself preaching duties at East Montpelier, seven miles way, since Marshfield was a half time ministry.
As the year wore on, family concerns caused Olympia to return home. Her brother, Arthur, had become seriously ill while at the University of Michigan. Olympia went there to help her mother care for him.
By the Spring of 1864 her brother’s condition had stabilized and Olympia went to Boston. She consulted with the Reverend A.A. Milne, then considered the leader of the Universalists (and not of Winnie the Pooh fame). Where, she wondered would it be best to apply for a pastorate and what did he think was the general outlook for women’s preaching?
She tells us that he spoke of the opposition still prevalent toward women and remarked, ‘It is no use opposing them. If they can’t preach they won’t preach. People don’t do what they can’t do.” (Autobiography, p. 33) Milne suggested she try Weymouth Landing.
She preached there one Sunday on trial and stayed for six years. Of this time Olympia writes: “My pastorate in Weymouth was perhaps the most enjoyable part of my ministerial career. The work had all the fascination of a new problem. I had nothing else to divide my attention and my people were thoroughly united and most congenial.” (Autobiography, p.33)
In this felicitous environment, Olympia’s ministerial skills grew.
By every indication, she was a dedicated, capable and inspiring minister. Her sermons reflected the teachings of the merciful and compassionate God of Universalism who loves all Her creatures equally.
Rather than standing behind her pulpit, sermon notes spread out in front of her, Olympia came directly down into the congregation. She worked her sermons over with such care that she needed few notes, by the time Sunday arrived. Thanks to her elocution training at the Dio Lewis School in Boston (which would go on to train the formidable speaking voice of one James Michael Curley), Olympia’s voice carried and she became a commanding presence in church.
Gone were the thin high pitched tones that were such a source of amusement to some of her fellow Divinity students.
In 1871, one year after Olympia decided to leave Weymouth for her star crossed ministry in Bridgeport, George Baker, a grateful parishioner writes to tell her how grateful Weymouth was to her careful guidance of the parish. Tokens of affection for her, made by the Sunday school, were enclosed in the letter. Baker mentioned how the Sunday school is prospering, based on her good work there. Indeed, the entire congregation had benefited from the sound footing she has created for the church. He closed with this wonderful admonition, “Don’t wait for any more women’s rights. We think you can manage Him with what you have.” (Olympia Brown papers)
From the outset, her path at the Bridgeport church seemed to have been one fraught with peril. A letter by Samuel Larkin, dated August 1st (presumed to be 1871) asked to retain Olympia’s services and implored her not to leave, as he felt the church is just starting to prosper under her guidance. He regretted the difficulties she had encountered in the past year, but was optimistic about a brighter future and noted that, “with one exception, all are satisfied with your course.” He feared the church would not be able to go on if she left. (Olympia Brown papers, Schlesinger Library)
Although Olympia felt she was preaching well in Bridgeport, she felt almost at once coldness and covert hostility coming from a small fraction of the congregation that refused to be won over. The faction was led by a Mr. James Staples, whom Olympia described in a letter to Isabella Beecher Hooker, as an evil man. Yet she persisted….and so did he.
In spite of the fact that many church members, including P.T. Barnum, supported their minister, the anti-woman and therefore anti-Olympia faction would not relent.
Having married John Henry Willis in 1873, Olympia gave birth to a son, Henry Parker, the following year. During her absence, she arranged for Dr. Lee of the Canton Theological School to take her place. Upon her return to her parish, she writes: “I saw no cause to be dissatisfied with the condition of my parish so far as I knew. But some ill feeling began to appear, the exact cause of which I never learned. There had always been a small faction in the church which had been opposed to a woman minister. This faction now began to work up its opposition and although (or because) my parish gave me a vote of endorsement passed by a large majority, these enemies continued their underhand work, calling in ministers from neighboring churches to go among the people promulgating this doctrine, “What you need here is a good man.” It is not necessary to recount the results of this, the division of the people and the consequent acts of injustice, nor are these facts incompatible with an actual record of successful work for between six and seven years and an enlarged church and Sunday School. I left this church and we remained in Bridgeport two years longer, during which time my daughter Gwendolen was born.” (Autobiography, p. 40)
Thus, in one short paragraph, Olympia dispatches what was probably the most painful and difficult time of her ministry.
Perhaps her reluctance in writing her autobiography in the first place stemmed from her feeling that useful work was to be done by actions geared toward the future, rather than ruminations about the past. Still, it is most remarkable that she can relate such a shattering experience in such a businesslike fashion. No muss, no fuss, no wringing of hands. Just the facts.
Only in her letters do we get a more detailed account of what went wrong in Bridgeport.
While Olympia was away in Elmira N.Y. to bear her second child and take part in a new method of child delivery called the “water cure,” Mr. Staples and his minions seized the moment to agitate for a change in pastorate.
Olympia’s biographer, Charlotte Cote, gives us a perfect description of his methods: “He pecked away at her ministry like a raucous crow, attacking from any and every direction….In spite of her efforts, Olympia’s flock began to scatter…he was a bitter agitator” whose influence became so invidious that Olympia’s best efforts at conciliation failed. He went so far as to organize meetings which ministers from other churches came to so they could inveigh against women preachers. (Cote, p. 112-113)
Due to the untiring efforts of this man of God, the church split and in 1875 a special meeting was called. At this time the Staples faction requested that “the acting Trustees of said society are not hereafter restrained from employing any Gentleman in good standing as a clergyman.” (cited by Jane Ciarcia in a letter dated Feb. 24, 1979, Brown papers)
The insult to Olympia could not have been more stunning. The resolution, passed by the church she had so devotedly ministered to, stated that any gentleman in good standing, regardless of qualification, could be called to the ministry of this Universalist church. Although she retained the loyalty of the Board of Trustees and some faithful parishioners, it was apparent that the fabric of the church was torn beyond repair.
In March 1876, there was not enough money to hire a preacher, due to an injunction put upon the church by the dissenters. The Board of Trustees resigned in protest.
So ended Olympia Brown’s ministry at the Universalist Church of Bridgeport, Connecticut. It had been an excoriating experience for her.
Ever the unsinkable Olympia Brown, though, she began looking for a new parish shortly after her daughter, Gwendolen, was born. She writes that “after the tempestuous time in Bridgeport, I considered where I should go to continue the work of preaching, to which I had, as I thought, a distinct calling.” (Autobiog. p. 40)
Curiously, A.H. Saxon, writing for the Proceedings of the UU Historical Society in 1988 , concludes that the struggle in Bridgeport put an end to Olympia Brown’s ministerial career.
In his article, ominously titled, “Acts of Injustice or Failed Ministry?,” Mr. Saxon states that “the evidence suggests (and is not cited by the author) that her increasing militancy on behalf of women’s rights-both inside and outside the church led to her undoing. Her staunchest supporters were themselves overwhelmed by a small faction led by Staples” (“Acts of Injustice of Failed Ministry,” by A.H. Saxon, Proceedings of the UU Historical Society, Vol XXI, Part I, 1987-88, p. 63)
This would imply that Olympia neglected her work as a minister to devote her time to suffrage. Her letters, however, do not bear this out, since they show her actively recruiting speakers, tending to the growth of the Sunday school and lavishing enormous amounts of time on her sermons. She felt that she was preaching better than ever before, but that nothing that she seemed to accomplish as a minister dissuaded the Staples faction from their determination to remove her. The sermons from that time, many of which are among her papers at the Schlesinger Library, speak for themselves. Anyone with experience in writing or in sermonizing can readily see that they could not have been written in haste by someone whose mind was elsewhere.
Olympia Brown was much too devoted to the cause of Universalism to take her ministry lightly or neglect it to further another cause. In her letters to Isabella Beecher Hooker there are several that show how deeply committed Olympia was to Universalism. In one letter, she apologizes for espousing her beliefs with such passion and thus overwhelming the gentle Isabella with her religious fervor.
On November 25, 1872, E.H. Cobb wrote to Olympia from East Boston, to thank for a recent visit with her and with her husband. He recalls fondly being with people who have “the same warm and loving hearts beating in perfect unison with my own. I appreciate such friends and when once possessed, I never give them up. I think, Sister Brown, that we do not need to wait till we shake off this mortal coil to find ‘heaven,’ for we surely can have the kingdom within us here, when we love one another . You and I are blest with large and loving hearts that make us feel the assurance that we ‘have passed from death to life.” After indicating that he has some sermons to discuss with her, he ends with this” “I am delighted, my dear sister, of the high commendations which so often come to me of your great success in the great work of your ministry. I should rejoice to see you in your prosperous and growing parish.” (E.H. Cobb, Nov. 25, 1872, Schlesinger Papers)
This would not be how I would describe a failed ministry.
Mr. Saxon also implies that Olympia’s allying herself with questionable women in the suffrage movement accounted for the upright people of the Bridgeport Universalist congregation needing to distance themselves from her. Of course, Victoria Woodhull’s name is brought forth as a prime example of such misalliances. Oddly enough, the name of the respectable Isabella Beecher Hooker, of the esteemed Beechers of Hartford, is not mentioned here. This in spite of the fact that Isabella and Olympia were the closest of friends and colleagues in the struggle to win the vote for women. Nor is the name of Paulina Wright Davis, a cherished suffrage co-worker from a very prominent family in Newport, Rhode Island cited.
Other errors of fact occur in Mr. Saxon’s article. John Henry Willis, a very successful business owner from Weymouth, is dismissed as a grocer from Bridgeport.
Furthermore, how could Olympia’s struggle in Bridgeport have put an end to her ministry when she went on to become a full time minister in Racine, Wisconsin for almost nine years? After that she helped out smaller churches in Wisconsin who could not afford to hire a full time minister.
Is there no life west of the Hudson?
Mary Livermore had been encouraging Olympia to look to the West, convinced that the attitude toward women in the frontier states was much more enlightened than in the supposedly sophisticated East. As early as March 3, 1869, Livermore had written to her friend: “I would leave the East. Here is the field for the present. We shall have woman suffrage here first…You must come out here–everything is at flood tide.”
Offering to help Olympia in any way, Livermore writes: “I know you do not think this generosity capable of me and that you believe me only to be self-seeking. That has been written of me so often I’m not likely to be ignorant of it. But that is because you do not know me. Not so am I judged here where I have lived a dozen years. Come and I will convince you you are mistaken.” (Livermore to Brown, March 3, 1869, Schlesinger Library).
The idea of a new location intrigued Olympia, particularly since she had grown up and gone to school in Michigan and Ohio.
Olympia hoped that if the West was the land of new beginnings and new opportunities for men, it would be doubly so for women.
Unfettered by the upper middle class dictum to be sweet, simple, and silent, frontierswomen needed to be resilient, resourceful, independent and strong. This was not the place for tight corsets, bustles and fainting couches. These women were expected to work along side their husbands in the fields, keep house and raise families under the most difficult circumstances as well as to endure isolation and often deprivation without complaint. There was no time to have vapors or to spend hours getting ready to take tea.
Life in the West was not without its challenges for women. After a bitter campaign, in which Olympia played a key role, Kansas, in 1867, had refused to pass a suffrage amendment. In Wisconsin, the suffrage struggle, even when later led by the indefatigable Olympia, was fierce, frustrating and often fruitless.
The Church of the Good Shepherd, the Universalist church in Racine, Wisconsin, had been without a minister for some time. Perhaps that was why they would consider a woman minister. No doubt few, if any, male ministers had applied. In any event, Olympia certainly found the congregation in Racine more hospitable to a woman minister than it was in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Unfortunately, her new parish was also in disarray. Its clerk, Mr. A.C. Fish, honorably not wanting Olympia to move her family half way across the country for a dubious ministerial experience, wrote her a candid letter describing the state of the church. It seems that “a series of pastors, easy-going, impractical, some even spiritually unworthy, had left the church adrift, in debt, hopeless and doubtful whether any pastor could again arouse them.” (Autobiography, p.40-41)
Olympia tell us “those who may read this will think it strange that I could only find a field in run-down or comatose churches, but they must remember that the pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men and were looked forward to as the goal of all the young men coming into the ministry with whom I, at first the only woman preacher in the denomination, had to compete. All I could do was to take some place that had been abandoned by others and make something of it, and this I was only too glad to do.” (Autobio. p. 41)
And so, Olympia headed West in February of 1878.
At this point, we must pay tribute to supportive and feminist husbands. Olympia described her life partner as “one of the truest, and best men that ever lived, firm in his religious convictions, loyal to every right principle, strictly honest and upright all his life…He shared in all my undertakings. I could have married no better man.” (Autobiography, p. 41)
Having sold his business, John Henry Willis had first followed Olympia from Weymouth to Bridgeport, hoping to win her hand. This, as it turned out, was not a task for the faint of heart and he patiently continued his courtship until success was his. In Bridgeport he again went into business and willingly closed it when the time came to move to Racine. There he invested in a newspaper publishing and job printing business. His newspaper, The Racine Times Call, flourished. It would later become part of the The Journal Times, which is still the Racine daily newspaper.
How the move to Racine was undertaken says a great deal about the partnership that was the marriage of these two remarkable people. Undaunted by the thought of moving such a great distance with two very young children, no job awaiting him in Racine and only Olympia’s small salary from a precarious parish as security, John Henry Willis set out for Wisconsin ahead of his family. His goal was to find a comfortable home and get everything in readiness for the arrival of his strong willed mother-in-law, his goal oriented wife and his children.
We can assume that both husband and wife knew how to manage their finances well and had some savings to draw upon at this point. John Henry bought a spacious two story house overlooking Lake Michigan. With rolling lawns and handsome trees, it would be the perfect home for his little band. There was also room for a garden, which turned out to be one of the joys of Olympia’s life. She was to live in the house on Lake Avenue (then called Chatham Street) until her later years. Perhaps it was John Henry’s goal to help Olympia look forward to a bright new beginning in a new land after her disappointment in Bridgeport.
Having house hunted on his own most successfully, he then returned to Bridgeport to help with the move.
From all accounts, John Henry was an astute businessman and his help in keeping the family on a sound financial footing was invaluable. In addition, once in their new home, he became active in community affairs, served as vestryman at Olympia’s church, joined the music committee and taught in the Sunday School. He often helped with child care and was unfailingly supportive of Olympia’s work, whether with the church or in the suffrage movement. When travel was necessary for Olympia, he and Lephia, Olympia’s mother, capably managed the home front.
To Mr. Fish’s discouraging assessment of the Church of the Good Shepherd Olympia had replied in February of 1878 that “I am sent to just such churches. Let me come and see what I can do. (Cote p. 117). Now she set about doing it. A building campaign was undertaken. Pastoral calls were made conscientiously. The Sunday School was nurtured and contrary to Mr. Fish’s gloomy predictions, Olympia was able to resurrect her parish.
Understanding how important it was for the church in a small frontier town to be more than a spiritual home, Olympia set out to make her church a social center as well as a place of learning. She writes: “I felt it my duty, as well as a pleasure, to bring to the town as many important speakers as I could command and our church became know for its lecture courses and entertainments. Some of those who had come to Bridgeport at my invitation now came to Racine to speak. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Mary A. Livermore, Phoebe Hanaford, and others of less distinction but great merit occupied our platform.” (Autobiog. p. 43)
Of her time at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a ministry that was to last almost nine years, Olympia writes that we “proved to be a very happy company of believers, bound together by our regard for the great principles of Universalism.”
Susan B. Anthony, who knew talent when she saw it and was relentless in her pursuit of it for the woman suffrage movement, had been campaigning for years to have Olympia devote herself full time to suffrage. After Olympia’s resourcefulness, endurance and courage during the campaign in Kansas, Anthony knew her woman and worked tirelessly to win her over as a full time suffrage worker. In Olympia, however, even the formidable Susan met her match. Her heart belonged to the ministry and it would be there that she would focus her energies.
Finally, though, Susan’s Olympia campaign bore fruit. In 1887 Olympia Brown resigned her ministry in Racine. She would never again be a full time minister. Although she continued to preach in the small parishes of Mukwonago, Columbus and Neenah, between 1893-1898, her days as a full time resident minister were over.
Her letters show a fervent dedication to Universalist principles. She was a gifted sermonizer, a compassionate pastor and a competent church administrator. She had struggled and sacrificed to become one of the first women ministers in America. Why, then did she give it up?
Was it because, as her daughter had said, she had only been given struggling parishes that were not attractive to male ministers? Was it because, at the age of 52, she was ready for a new challenge? Was it because she felt torn between her work as a minister and her work in the suffrage movement? Did she see victory at hand for suffrage, a cause she cared deeply about, if more women such as she would devote themselves to winning the vote?
Her autobiography is not very revealing on this point. She mentions the difficulty of passing some suffrage legislation in Wisconsin, which required a canvass of the entire state to instruct women about their rights. This involved tremendous town to town organizing and tireless discussions with women to enlist them in the suffrage cause. Olympia concludes that “at length the consequence of this was the resignation of my ministerial work in Racine, which occurred in 1887.” (Autobiog. p 43) That’s it.
Tellingly, however, this fifth chapter of her autobiography, entitled “Ministry,” ends with this: “There is certainly room for women in the ministry. It is often said of a preacher ‘he is a good preacher but no pastor. He does not call upon his people.’ This is because one man cannot do everything, and the same person is not usually suited to both pastoral work and pulpit service. One of these should be a woman.
But women are not urged to enter the ministry.
At a convention a few years ago at La Crosse, Wisconsin, the audience being composed largely of women, a minister addressed himself wholly to young men, showing them the great advantages of Lombard University (a co-educational institution, by the way). I called out, “What about young women, Doctor?” He replied that no church had ever asked that a woman pastor be sent so far as he knew. He then described the difficulties which a woman would encounter; but, said he, “if a woman accepts these difficulties Lombard is hers. (Lombard had refused admission to Olympia Brown). I afterwards showed him that such talk as he had given created a public sentiment against women’s preaching. Ministers are themselves largely responsible for the limited number of women who enter the ministry. The churches are prepared by such talk not to want a woman as pastor. Yet, not withstanding this discouragement and small remuneration, a number of women are doing good work as ministers, chiefly in the Universalist and Unitarian denominations.” (Autobiography, p.44)
How proud Olympia would be today that her spiritual daughters are taking their places in Universalist and Unitarian congregations throughout the world. And today, women predominate in the UU ministry.
One hundred years after her ordination, the theological school that was so reluctant to let her enter their hallowed halls had an impressive ceremony to honor its first woman graduate. It was a fitting, if somewhat overdue tribute.
However, the pomp and circumstance of academic processions and high flown tributes never really impressed the no fuss, no frills Rev. Brown.
More than this I think she would have been touched by the efforts of a group of smart and tireless women at the Church of the Good Shepherd almost 100 years after she had been a minister there. It seems there was an elementary school in Racine that was to be re-named. Ever alert to singing their foremother’s praises, a committee from the church submitted Olympia Brown’s name, with all attendant support material. The School Board winnowed the list to three possible choices. Olympia’s name was not among them.
This would not do. The women, led by Marcia Alexander, Jane Beauregard and Margaret Wernecke, went to work. Other church members were mobilized in a campaign that would be the envy of any presidential candidate. Everyone connected to the church was prevailed upon to canvass, buttonhole, exhort and cajole any friend, acquaintance, co-worker, neighbor or casual passer by. Calls were made, letters were written, debts were called in, meetings were held, petitions were circulated–in short, the monolithic public school bureaucracy was no match for these daughters of Olympia. Finally the School Board relented and allowed her name in what was now to become “the final four” choices.
In Racine, Wisconsin there is now an Olympia Brown Elementary School. The final vote of the school board to name the school in her honor was unanimous. Wonder how that happened?
The Church of the Good Shepherd in Racine has been re-named the Olympia Brown Church.
The plaque honoring her as the first woman to be graduated by the Theological School at St. Lawrence University reads:
“Her Universalist ordination in 1863 made her the first woman in our country to achieve full ministerial standing recognized by a denomination.
|Preacher of Universalism
Pioneer and Champion of Women’s Citizenship Rights
Forerunner of the New Era
And the Reverend Olympia Brown stands before us still, fiery and fearless.