“In the Parsonage, In the Parish: Experiences of Nineteenth Century Unitarian Ministers’ Wives

Emily Mace

February 2002

Submission for Publication, Occasional Paper Series

Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society

Just before her marriage to the Unitarian minister Ezra Stiles Gannett in October of 1835, Anna Tilden wrote to her fiancé: “It has never seemed to me so like reality that we were to be married as now, and how can I help having many strange and painful feelings, mixed up with an entire persuasion of future happiness with you. […] I must enter upon new duties to which I do not feel myself equal.”1 Like other early nineteenth century Unitarian women about to marry a minister, Anna Tilden Gannett knew that she was stepping into a well-defined role that brought with it weighty responsibilities. Her life as a minister’s wife, like those of so many other wives of Unitarian clergymen, would be lived out between the worlds of the parsonage and the parish. What were the lives of these women like? What roles did they play in their congregations and in their newly formed denomination? How did their experiences compare to those of their counterparts in other denominations? To answer these questions, I turn to the lives of three Boston Unitarian ministers’ wives living in the first half of the nineteenth century;2 Mary L. Ware (1798-1849), the second wife of Henry Ware Jr.; Anna Tilden Gannett (1811-1846), wife of Ezra Stiles Gannett; and Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley (1793-1867), wife of Waltham’s Samuel Ripley.

In the study of American religions as well as the study of Unitarian Universalism, the topic of ministers’ wives is one that has rarely been studied. One may well wonder why such a group as ministers’ wives has remained so infrequently studied in comparison to other topics such as early women ministers and preachers or the women’s benevolence societies. One hypothesis is that scholars of women’s history find it awkward to assign a woman a place in history based on the identity of her husband rather than on her own identity as an individual. While I sympathize with this sense of awkwardness, a guiding premise of this paper is that marriage to a minister was a defining characteristic of the lives of these women. It is my belief that who they were as individuals cannot be fully understood without a closer examination of their individuality in light of their particular married state. One of the earliest publications on the topic of ministers’ wives appeared in 1981 with Lois A. Boyd’s “nineteenth-century portrait” of Presbyterian ministers’ wives.3 In 1983, Leonard Sweet published The Minister’s Wife, a ground-breaking study of ministers’ wives in America’s evangelical traditions4. Since the publication of this book, however, the attention given to the subject of ministers’ wives has remained scarce. Carolyn De Swarte Gifford added to Sweet’s work in 1988 when she introduced and edited two nineteenth-century documents about and by ministers’ wives in The Nineteenth Century American Methodist Itinerant Preacher’s Wife5.

Scholars of Unitarian Universalism have studied extensively the famous historical women of the denominations – Olympia Brown, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, Julia Ward Howe, and Lydia Maria Child, to name just a few. Dorothy May Emerson has edited Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936, a compilation of writings by many of these women. For a number of years, historians have studied the lives of those less widely known, but no less significant, women who were the first ministers in the two denominations. Cynthia Grant Tucker’s classic work Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 is well known for its documentation of these beginnings6. Finally, the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society publishes a series of “occasional papers,” many of which in recent years have focused on the lives and work of the first Unitarian Universalist female ministers.7

Despite all of this attention given to Unitarian and Universalist “foremothers,” not as much attention has been given to women who led less prolific and quieter, more private lives. Dorothy Boroush, under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society, has edited a series of short biographic descriptions of Notable Universalist and Unitarian Women.8 In this collection, many of the notables were accomplished authors, speakers, or organizers in their own right, as well as ministers’ wives. These brief sketches hint at the breadth of experiences that Unitarian ministers’ wives had, suggesting a largely untapped and fruitful topic of research.

With such a scarcity of material written on the topic of Unitarian ministers’ wives, finding sources that pointed in the right direction at times proved challenging. Each of the women I am considering here left behind letters and/or journals, and each woman has had at least one biography written about her. Soon after Mary Ware’s death in 1849, Edward Brooks Hale wrote a 430-page memoir of the woman he respectfully calls Mrs. Ware; this work cites many of her letters in offering the details of her life. The memoir is not only the chronicle of Mary Ware’s life. It was written at the height of the cult of domesticity’s hold on America’s heart, and it reads like a didactic story of an exemplary Unitarian Christian woman, . English professor Sarah Ann Wider has written about Anna Tilden Gannett in her biography Anna Tilden: Unitarian Culture, and the Problem of Self-Representation9. This work is based Tilden’s personal papers, including 59 letters to her husband, written before and during their marriage, and three journals. These informative and interesting letters offer much information about the duties and doings of a Unitarian minister’s wife. Finally, Joan Goodwin offers us a portrait of Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, wife of Samuel Ripley, in The Remarkable Mrs. Ripley: The Life of Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley.10 Goodwin focuses on Sarah Ripley’s “remarkable” intellectual accomplishments, neatly linking them to her subject’s life and times.

Each of these works uses the journals and letters by and to these women in order to reconstruct and interpret their lives. While each of these books discusses its subject’s life as a minister’s wife to varying degrees, an analysis of their lives as occupants of such a position is not the focus of any of them. However, the general descriptive detail in each of these works provides valuable clues toward the lived experiences of historical Unitarian ministers’ wives. In order to better understand these women, we must first understand some of the duties and responsibilities expected of a minister’s wife in the first half of the 1800s; for this we turn to the role of the Evangelical minister’s wife.

The Four Models of Evangelical Ministers’ Wives

The minister’s wife was no ordinary woman in the congregation. As the spouse of the minister, she was constantly under the watchful eyes of her husband’s flock, and no matter what she did, no matter how she behaved, or what she wore, or to whom on what topics she spoke, she was sure to upset some church members and please others. Leonard Sweet has described four models of the “images and roles available to ministers’ wives.” These include:

the Companion, a ministering angel who held up her husband’s hands in his sacred calling; the Sacrificer, who clasped her hands in pious resignation, asked little from her husband, financially or emotionally, and ‘hindered him not in his work’ by staying out of his way and raising the family on her own; the Assistant, who became her husband’s right-arm, sharing many pastoral responsibilities and function as an extension of his ministry; and the Partner, who ministered with both her own hands, developed a ministry alongside her husband, and often served as the pastor’s pastor.

In Sweet’s typology, the Companion model applies primarily to wives of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The duties of this type of minister’s wife were largely private in nature – house-keeping, raising the children, managing the finances, visiting the sick, and perhaps performing some behind-the-scenes clerical work for her husband. As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, the two main models for minister’s wives were the Sacrificer and the Assistant. The Partner model did not emerge until later in the nineteenth century, after the time period with which this study is concerned.

Amongst the three women I studied, the description of the Assistant model most nearly fits with their experiences as ministers’ wives. With the opportunity to become the pastor’s assistant, “marrying the minister was more than a blessed alternative to domestic humdrum and the humbug of social formulas, and more than the right to pick up the crumbs and bones of religious opportunity that dropped from the table of a husband’s ministry,” writes Sweet. “It was a passport to influence, deference, and power.”12 It was a rare opportunity for exercising independence of thought, action, and speech. An 1851 guide for the wives of Methodist itinerant preachers lists the “exercise of her powers of mind, as daily to advance in knowledge” as one desirable trait, and it desires that “she should be able to form opinions for herself, and to maintain them by Scriptural authority.”13

Sweet explains that “a minister’s wife was expected to visit the sick, teach the women and children of the parish, energize and direct women’s groups, pray publicly, counsel the afflicted, convict the complacent, and seek the lost.”14 An 1835 “series of letters” to a clergyman’s wife warns of the busy days ahead: “When you married a minister’s wife, you did not calculate upon a life of ease, or upon leisure for gratification of selfish pursuits.”15 The 1851 guide lists several qualities necessary for a good clergyman’s wife: “common-sense,” “sufficient literary culture to fit her to occupy her proper place in society,” and that she be “pious,” in a way that is “ardent, uniform, cheerful, [and] beneficial.”16

“Duties To Which I Do Not Feel Myself Equal”: Three Unitarians on the Eve of Marriage

All three of the women I have studied understood that they were stepping into a well-defined role with definite responsibilities, and all of them feared their ability to fulfill the position adequately. Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley was born in 1793 to a well-off merchant father, the eldest sister of seven other siblings. When Sarah17 attended a school for both boys and girls, her instructor praised her eagerness in learning the basic academic subjects and suggested that she study Latin, giving Sarah a lifelong love of the Greek and Roman classics; she also developed a lasting interest in botany and the sciences18. William Emerson, father of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had been the family’s minister when Sarah was a girl, and her friendship with the Emersons introduced her to Samuel Ripley, half-brother to Mary Moody Emerson. Samuel Ripley proposed to Sarah in 1817, when Sarah was 24, and they were married in October of 1818.

None of Sarah’s letters to her husband survive, so we cannot know what their relationship was like prior to marriage. Joan Goodwin’s treatment of Sarah Ripley’s life shows only some of the angst such a change must have been to a young woman of strong intellectual inclinations. Sarah told her friend Mary Moody Emerson about her engagement: “Your family probably have no idea what trouble they may be entailing on themselves, I make no promises of good behaviour but knowing my tastes and habits they must take the consequences upon themselves,” she wrote19. Goodwin sees in her words “a very real fear of inadequacy and loss of identity,” but one can also read into Sarah’s words considerable spark and liveliness. She “makes no promises of good behavior,” knowing such would be expected in a ministerial family like the Ripley’s. She warns that her new family, not herself, must feel the consequences of having Sarah as one of them.

Our second clergyman’s wife, Mary L. Pickard Ware, married her husband Henry Ware, Jr., at age 29 in 1827. She received a very traditional girl’s education “in that most essential of all accomplishments for a girl, whether in ordinary or exalted station, the use of the needle.”20 Both parents died while she was still unmarried, and she traveled in Europe or lived with friends. The circumstances leading to her engagement to Henry Ware, Jr., one of the most prominent Boston ministers, are not discussed in Edward Hall’s 1853 memoir. However, her sentiments upon being engaged to a minister were expressed in two letters to friends which Hall quotes. The first one, dated January 30, 1827, reads in part:

Know then, dear E., that a change has passed over the spirit of my earthly dreams, and, instead of the self-dependent, self-governed being you have known me, I have learned to look to another for guidance and happiness; and, more than that, have bound myself, by an irrevocable vow, to live for the future in exercise of the great and responsible duties which such a connection inevitably brings with it.21

Mary characterizes her engagement as one self engulfing the other. The new duties to which Mary refers are not only those of a minister’s wife, but also those of a mother. Ware brought with him to the marriage several children by a previous marriage, in which the mother had died. In his new wife, he sought a woman to be “the best mother to her children, and the best I have found. I have desired a pattern and blessing for my parish, and I have found one. I have wished someone to bear my load with me, and to help, confirm, and strengthen my principle by her own high and experienced piety, and such I have found.”22 It is perhaps significant that Ware sought both a “pattern” for his parish and someone to help “bear his load,” indicating that he saw his wife fleshing out the Assistant model as described by Sweet.

Born in 1811, Anna Tilden Gannett was also the child of a merchant, but her family was less well-off than Sarah Ripley’s, and in the late 1820s they took in their minister Ezra Stiles Gannett as a boarder to help cover expenses. In 1832, Anna first wrote to her minister expressing her doubts about the “truths of Christianity.” Ten years her elder, Gannett and Anna developed a friendship, and, eventually, a romantic attraction through this correspondence.23 Like Sarah Ripley and Mary Ware, Anna feared the duties she would be forced to perform, and wrote of her fears in her letters to her fiancé. Spending the summer before her marriage in Waltham, recovering her health24, she wrote that “when I think of that [future usefulness], then arises Care and Responsibleness from which I shrink, but I will trust to time, better health, and most of all to my love of you.”25 Because of her frequent illnesses, which affected her disposition, and a love of shunning her work in favor of novels, Anna was particularly wary of the visiting and social aspects of her new position:

I will try to have more social feeling, I know that I ought, and I think if I can only be wholly strong that I shall be a better child, but when I don’t feel well and bright I don’t know how to be glad to see people they only tire me the more. I am better for being here, and as soon as I’m quite strong again, I’ll say “I’m glad to see you madam,” and do it cheerfully26.

In this letter, Sarah depicted the life she anticipated leading once she was married to a minister, offering another image reminiscent of Sweet’s Assistant model. She also hesitated to leave behind her years of being a beloved daughter; she feared the change in social status associated with becoming a wife. She would leave behind “the best and dearest of Mothers, and all my family to whom I am so strongly attached. … I shall never again have that right and place in my home which I now have.”27 Anna Tilden married Ezra Stiles Gannett in October of 1835.

“A Good Minister’s Good Wife” – The Duties and Responsibilities She Faced

We have already explored the duties of a clergyman’s wife through the Methodist examples of Leonard Sweet. What were the duties of a Unitarian clergyman’s wife? Did they differ significantly from those of the evangelical women whose lives Sweet studied? Unfortunately, the sources available to me regarding these three Unitarian women did not provide a clear enumeration of the duties they faced. Greater knowledge would have required not only extensive reading into the correspondence of all three women, as well as visits to the records of the congregations with which they were associated. In place of this mass of material, I use what is available in order to paint a sketch of Unitarian ministers’ wives. These observations will point the way to further research and the question of what made these women Unitarian ministers’ wives.

As Sweet has indicated, the practice of visitation assumed an ever-greater role in the lives of nineteenth-century ministers’ wives, and this observation appears to hold true for all three Unitarian women. Sweet lists four main types of visitation: family, evangelistic, pastoral, and social. The first two were usually performed by the minister, and the latter two were increasingly performed by his wife.28 Anna wrote detailed letters to Gannett while he was in Europe, a year after their marriage, recovering his health. In them she included accounts of parish events, including whom she visited and who visited her. Parish visits took up so much of her time that she had not yet had time to call on her own family, she writes:

Monday AM I received several friends, among others Hannah Lamb, she spoke to me about her baby, saying how earnestly she longed to have you baptize it before you sailed […] In the PM I carried a bunch of flowers to poor little B. Brown, he was quite sick on Sunday, so much so, that the family sent for his parents from church – however, Mrs. B told me that it was probably owing to medicine of a new kind which he tad taken just before they went to church. […] I shall try to go there once a week, probably on Fridays to spend the PM and read to him.29

Visitation could create a busy weekly schedule, Anna’s letter indicates – and what would happen when one’s schedule was full? Many of those visited were ill parishioners, a duty which Mary Ware performed as well. “I shall walk a little every day,” Mary tells her husband, “and call first on those in affliction and the sick30.” By all indications in Anna’s and Mary’s letters, their visits were primarily pastoral (which meant visiting the homes of sick- and deathbeds) and social.

What about the other duties, such as planning or attending meetings, organizing the Sunday school, or working for a benevolent society? My sources mention these activities only briefly. Anna Gannett writes of an evening sermon by “Mr. [James Freeman] Clarke” on the same evening as a Sunday school meeting, but tells her husband that she is “afraid that neither meeting was well attended for we have had another stormy evening, which also prevented my going out.”31 Edward Hall mentions that in Mary Ware’s papers he found a small note referring to a Ladies’ Aid Society that “had been formed in Cambridge, with that special object; and its president, being obliged to leave home, asked Mrs. Ware to look after her ‘patients,’ when she found that Mary had long been doing privately, and by herself, what they we re doing as a society.”32 Despite this small piece of evidence suggesting Mary’s involvement, Hall indicates that Mary was invited to join numerous “benevolent societies and industrial enterprises in Cambridge,” but did not “gain any notoriety in this way” due to her “preference of private to public activity.”33 He seems to belittle her contribution to public societies and associations, favoring the idea that women’s work in the world is best done privately, individually, on a home-to-home basis.

Another reason Mary might have preferred private to public involvement was the necessity for a minister’s wife to choose her associations carefully, so as not to ruffle the feathers of her husband’s congregation. In listing the challenging ways a minister’s wife must display common sense, Herrick Eaton’s manual for The Itinerant’s Wife clearly shows this thin line she must toe. “[Common sense] must dictate her course of conduct whether at home or abroad; in receiving and giving; in buying and selling; in her intercourse with the aged and with the young; with the gay and with the sorrowful; with Christians and irreligious persons.”34 No doubt, the same “common sense” would be required of Mary Ware in choosing which benevolent society to support.

Sarah Ripley’s biography presents an interesting contrast to the lives of Anna Tilden Gannett and Mary Ware. Only very rarely does Goodwin mention Sarah’s visitation duties, giving them equal place among the many other elements of Sarah’s life: “Sarah had boys waiting to recite, dinner to put on the table, parish visits to make, and a full mending basket whenever she found time to sit down. Yet she could interest her transcendental nephew [Ralph Waldo Emerson] with intellectual riches when he chose to drop by.”35; In Goodwin’s portrayal of Sarah’s life, this clergyman’s wife was held captive not so much by the obligation of visitations as by a constant horde of schoolboys. In order to have enough income, her minister husband Samuel Ripley took in students and educated them for Harvard College. Sarah, because of her superior schooling and self-education, joined her husband in teaching the boys, and she seems to have done much of it herself. In a telling description, Harvard’s natural historian Asa Gray described her reputation as “a learned lady […] who hears the boys’ recitations in Greek and geometry at the ironing-board [and] reads German authors while she is stirring her pudding, and has a Hebrew book before her, when knitting.”36

Due to Sarah’s position as the minister’s wife, her “remarkable” intellect was also held in captivity. Goodwin speaks of an episode in which her husband “threatened to burn a report Sarah had written for a women’s meeting simply because she had included a quotation from Virgil.”37 Sarah confessed to her brother, “I would there were any hole to creep out of this most servile of all situations, a country clergyman’s wife. Oh the unsupportable fatigue of affected sympathy with the feelings and occupations of ordinary vulgar minds.”38 She knew well that as a self-described “learned lady,” her appearance in the hearts of her husband’s parishioners would have an affect on their opinions of her husband their minister. Despite this awareness, she also expressed to Mary Moody Emerson that “for my own part, I care not a fig; the fear of tittlish spirits amuses me much more than their admiration would gratify my vanity, but my husband’s foreboding voice […] is continually sounding in my ears.”39

Sarah was involved in parish committees and meetings, but such quotidian details did not frequently interested her biographer. Or, they might not have bothered the woman experiencing them enough for them to feature prominently in her letters. However, based on statements in Sarah’s letters to Mary Moody Emerson and her brother, I doubt this latter conclusion. Joan Goodwin’s interest in Sarah Ripley focuses on her intellect, which would have been amazing by any standards, but in the busy life of a merchant’s daughter and clergyman’s wife, her accomplishments (even if kept private in letters to friends) are all the more astounding. Goodwin is correct to focus on Sarah’s intellectual life; retracing the role of the intellect in women’s lives is an important part of retracing women’s history. But should the balance fall on the life of the mind or the dusty duties of daily life? It is to the life of the mind that I now turn.

Unitarian Is As Unitarian Thinks

Unfortunately, this collection of primary and secondary sources offers relatively scarce information about what the ministers’ wives did on a day-to-day basis as minister’s wives. Anna Tilden Gannett’s letters to her husband offer more quotidian details than the secondary sources. I have only read Tilden’s actual letters, and I have relied on Hall’s memoir of Mary Ware and Goodwin’s biography of Sarah Ripley for my sources information regarding those two. A fuller consideration of this topic would require perusal of the letters of Mary and Sarah themselves. Despite the shortcomings of some sources, however, the hints we have just seen suggest that there is not that much different between the duties of a Unitarian minister’s wife and an evangelical minister’s wife – from visiting and receiving visits from parishioners to maintaining the household and raising the family, attending church meetings, and assisting the husband with his school or the arrangement of his papers.

Because of these similarities, we must ask whether there is anything (beyond their husband’s denominational affiliation) that makes these women Unitarian ministers’ wives, rather than just ministers’ wives. All of these women were theologically Unitarian; all of them struggled with questions of religious belief and could discuss matters of religion and theology. But an ability to think and discuss topics of religion is not particular to Unitarianism – The Itinerant’s Wife manual suggests that the wife should “have a correct, and somewhat extensive knowledge of the doctrines of Christianity. She should be a student of the Bible, in which the religion of the Church is revealed. … She should be able to form opinions for herself, and to maintain them by Scriptural authority.”40 It also suggests that she read denominational periodicals and know the “history of that branch of the Church of God with which her temporal and eternal destiny is so intimately associated, and for whose growth and purity she is engaged to labour.”41

The women whose lives we are looking at fulfilled all of these suggestions and more. Anna Gannett had a crisis in faith which led to her confiding in the man who would become her husband. She took an interest in denominational controversies and wrote to her husband of them while he was abroad. Mary Ware joined the church in her teens, after interviews with ministers to make sure she was on the right path. Although her dislike of harsh debate increased as she aged, Sarah Ripley partook in theological conversations throughout her life. Her scientific studies drew her towards an attitude of skepticism, and she was a strong an ally (as well as relative of some) of the Transcendentalists. Although the fact that these women thought for themselves does not make them Unitarian ministers’ wives, the question of just what a Unitarian minister’s wife knew about theology or denominational affairs is interesting and important.

Anna Gannett offers the best example of what a Unitarian minister’s wife might have known of denominational affairs as expressed in books and journal articles. While her husband was ill in Europe, she wrote to him about the “miracles controversy” which shook the denomination in the fall of 1836. George Ripley, a friend and relative Sarah and Samuel Ripley, wrote a review of British Unitarian James Martineau’s Rationale of Religious Enquiry for the Christian Examiner, the leading Unitarian journal. Ripley argued against Martineau that “a belief in miracles depends on faith and not faith on a belief in miracles,”42 meaning that biblical miracles were not a necessary proof of Christianity.43 Ripley’s criticism of miracles was partially directed towards Andrews Norton, one of his former Divinity School professors, an editor of the Examiner and a supporter of the necessity of the miracles. Norton wrote an angry response to Ripley, which was published in the Boston Daily Advertiser. Anna’s letters to Gannett also reveal how closely aware she was of denominational affairs:

I have been reading Mr. G Ripley’s review of Martineau’s Rational of religion, it has caused much conversation with us, owing to some unpleasant remarks of Mr. Norton’s concerning it which appeared in the Advertiser, Mr R has fully answered him. […] Mr. Martineau denies the inspiration of the writers of the N. Testament, and also attaches so great importance to a belief in miracles as to make them the exclusive ground of a title to the name of Christian. Now Mr. R. does not agree with him in either of these points.44

In her next letter, written almost three weeks later on December 4th, she writes, “I have read Mr. R’s review a second time and like it better than I did at first, there is very very little that I should not quite agree with.”45 She parts company with Ripley on this reading, explaining that “nothing would tempt me to give up the miracles, they are such a beautiful and strong claim of our Saviours [sic] claim as the Son of God.”46

William Furness of Philadelphia also joined the controversy with his 1836 book Remarks on the Four Gospels, in which he sided with Ripley against miracles as proof. In another December letter, Anna tells Gannett about this book:

Last evening I finished reading Mr. Furness’ book: “Remarks on the Four Gospels.” What shall I say of it – as yet I hardly know. Certainly some of it is beautifully true. … But I cannot wholly agree with him. Some expressions startle, offend me. He is really ingenious in his explanations of Scripture, I do not see his authority for all of them. His view of the Miracles is altogether new and strange to me.47

Anna offers her own personal commentary on the controversy, grounded in her lived knowledge of Unitarianism. She is not afraid to speak her opinions; she is confident and engages in differences of opinion without self-degradation. She questions Furness’ authority in his interpretations of the Bible, and yet, at the same time, her words betray and acknowledge a lack of familiarity with her subject. “His view of the miracles is new and strange to me,” she writes, indicating that to one with greater knowledge, his ideas might be quite familiar.

Despite the independence Anna takes on in writing to Gannett about this denominational controversy, she missed Gannett’s presence and guidance in following the controversy. “I wish you had read it with me, you would have helped me so much,” she tells him on December 15th. “The aid of your Scriptural interpreter will help me much.” Gannett was an editor of the religious publication the Scriptural Interpreter48. As Wider has said, in turning to the pages of the Scriptural Interpreter, Anna was coming as close as she could to consulting with Gannett and finding a “sanctioned” Unitarian opinion, backing away from her own thoughts to the safety of her husband’s.

Where Anna Gannett was a reserved and sometimes hesitant religious thinker, Sarah Ripley’s mind fully explored and comprehended most topics which came within her view. When Transcendentalism made its emergence in the 1830s, many of Sarah’s friends and relatives were its chief proponents. Unlike Anna, who knew of the miracles controversy from books and articles, Sarah was closely acquainted with many of the major thinkers of the Transcendentalist movement, displaying yet another type of denominational knowledge.49 Although she was intellectually interested in Transcendentalism, her involvement (according to Goodwin) seems to have been primarily social rather than intellectual. Besides her nephew ‘Waldo Emerson,” Sarah knew and corresponded at length with both George Ripley of Brook Farm and with Henry Hedge. She sympathized with the Transcendentalists, but she found herself unable to fully agree with their sentiments. In Joan Goodwin’s reading of the situation, Sarah was caught in the middle of the generation gap that separated the younger Transcendentalists from their more conservative elders.50 With Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Hoar, she was a participant in the September 1, 1837 “Hedge’s Club” meetings of transcendentalists (these occurred whenever her close friend Frederic Henry Hedge visited Boston from his distant Maine parish). The topics discussed at that all-day event ranged from the specified topic, “Does the species advance beyond the individual” to Emerson’s address “The American Scholar” which he had given the day before. No record remains of the content of Sarah’s participation in this gathering, but Goodwin guesses that “Sarah would have enjoyed simply following the conversation with bright-eyed eagerness, as Hedge had observed her to do, unless some comment or question were directed her way.”51

Despite the extent of Sarah’s personal involvement within the world of Unitarian Transcendentalism, Goodwin hints that Sarah’s role was not limited to friendship, that it was in fact a role of considerable intellectual influence. Phyllis Blum Cole has written of Mary Moody Emerson’s constructive influence on “Waldo’s” Transcendentalist thinking, but in Goodwin’s presentation of the relationships, Mary blamed and criticized Sarah for influencing Emerson’s beliefs and ideas. Goodwin writes, “For all [Mary Moody Emerson’s] misgivings about the philosophical direction Waldo had taken, at least partly under Sarah’s influence, she could not help being pleased with his success.”52 Later, Goodwin writes of Mary’s disapproval of Emerson’s essay ‘Self-reliance’:

[Mary] blamed Sarah as well as Lydian [Emerson’s wife] for allowing Waldo to publish such things and added her conviction that Sarah was ‘one means of early infecting him with infidelity.’53

Goodwin knew of Cole’s work on Mary Moody Emerson and cited her book Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism in both her notes and her bibliography. In reference to Cole’s work, Goodwin acknowledges that Mary influenced Waldo’s work, and she asserts that Mary might not have been aware of the extent of her influence over Waldo.54 I point out Goodwin’s opinion in opposition to Cole’s – and Mary Moody Emerson’s criticisms of Sarah – only to support the notion that Sarah’s involvement with and influence on Transcendentalism was intellectual as well as personal.

Despite Sarah’s obvious interest in and esteem for the persons behind Transcendentalism, she had an innate dislike of theological bickering, which increased as she aged. “There was a time when the doings and sayings of the theological school at Cambridge would have been enough to fill my horizon,” she wrote to George Frederick Simmons on June 26, 1844. “And now I yawn at the very thought. How well it is that the world is so large, that lichens grow on every tree, that there are toadstools as well as sermons for those that like them.”55 Although questions of religion had been important to her at different times in her life, botany, science, and the Greek and Roman classics had a greater claim her heart and mind than religious or philosophical speculation, making her even more interesting to us in her role as a minister’s wife.

Did the ministers’ wives know more than their more ordinary female counterparts in the pews? Most parishioners, I would hazard, would not have taken the time to follow the miracles controversy as closely as did Anna Gannett; nor would most parishioners likely have been on frequent letter-writing terms with a large number of prominent ministers. It makes sense that a minister’s wife would be knowledgeable about denominational affairs, or even have close friendships with her husband’s colleagues. The economic welfare of the ministers’ wives depended on the welfare of their husbands, and if controversy struck the young Unitarian denomination, it could have had an affect on the ministers’ livelihood. Furthermore, in the close-knit community of Massachusetts-centered 1830s Unitarianism, it is not surprising that the wife of a minister would know her husband’s associates – though it is most likely rare that an ordinary “country clergyman’s wife” had as close and intellectually stimulating relationships as Sarah did.


While Unitarian ministers’ wives were likely somewhat different from their lay sisters in the pews, it seems unlikely that Unitarian ministers’ wives were very different from the wives of their evangelical counterparts. Knowing of and taking an interest in denominational affairs, organizing church functions, and visiting the members of the congregation are themes that run throughout. However, our understanding of the minister’s wife is not completed by an account of what she did and what she knew. We have seen what their own opinions were of their position and how they feared their own supposed inadequacies to perform the tasks at hand. But how were these wives viewed by the men in their lives? In order to answer this question, I turn to the death notices and obituaries which were written by men about these women.

Anna Tilden Gannett died in childbirth on Christmas Day, 1846, at age 35. Her death was reported in brief statements in the Boston Evening Transcript and the Boston Daily Advertiser: “Last evening, suddenly, Anna, wife of Ezra S. Gannett, D.D. 33.”56 The same statement was repeated in the Christian Examiner, the Unitarian journal57. Sarah Wider, Anna’s biographer, is unsure of why Anna did not receive a greater tribute in the journal, suggesting that perhaps it was because of editor Gannett’s closeness to the subject matter, or his “clearly defined sense of separate spheres for men and women.”58 Despite this lack of written acknowledgement, Gannett offered a short eulogy for his wife when he next spoke from a pulpit three weeks after her death. His account was sentimentalized, pointing to her moral character and her feminine piety. Wider points out that he spoke of Anna’s years of religious doubt in a very feminized manner. She notices that he used passive verbs rather than active ones, and the adjectives he used to describe her doubt were also feminized. “[His words confine] her thought to an acceptable realm of ‘womanly’ effort. She made progress through ‘patient,’ not ‘ardent,’ thought. […] Her progress was ‘beautiful.’ Had she been a man and a public figure, it would most likely have been ‘powerful.’”59 He closed with this brief statement about Anna’s private, domestic life: “Of her domestic life I dare not trust myself to speak.”60 Gannett mentioned her home life only by refusing to speak of it.

Mary L. Ware died two years later in 1849, at the age of 51. The author of her memoir, Edward B. Hall, does not record what public notice was made of her death, but the memoir was written four years after she died, and in it we see what might have been her public tribute. Hall’s final words about Mary “draw no character” but refer to “two facts which seem most worthy of note.” He points to “the amount of happiness enjoyed by one whose life was passed in the midst of sickness and trial,” and then offers a paean not to Mary Ware herself, but to the cult of domesticity. His words are so telling that I quote at length:

And, next, the illustration here seen of the large sphere, the vast power, and imperishable work, of a woman who never left the domestic relations, nor aspired to anything that is not possible to every daughter, wife, mother. If this appear, it is enough, — that religion, with or without rank, wealth, beauty, rare endowment, varied accomplishment, or any singularity, can lift WOMAN to the highest distinction and confer the most enduring glory, — that of filling well, not the narrow, but the wide and divine realm of HOME.61

While Gannett’s memorial to his wife paid some tribute to the real events in his wife’s life, such as Anna’s crisis of faith, Hall’s memorialization of Mary Ware erases her individuality and subsumes her into that very nineteenth century trinity of religion, woman, and home.

Sarah Ripley’s passing was spoken of quite differently than Mary Ware’s, and received lengthy notice in prestigious papers. Sarah died in 1867, having lived the longest of the three women, reaching the age of 74. At her burial service, lifelong friend Frederic Henry Hedge spoke of her “rare acquirements which might draw the scholar to seek the converse of so learned a woman.”62 Her death was marked in the Evening Transcript, and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an obituary of her for the Boston Daily Advertiser. In this obituary, Emerson paid tribute to her intellect, her wide knowledge, and her teaching ability, calling her “one of the best Greek scholars in the country” whose studies also “took a wide range in mathematics, in natural philosophy, in natural philosophy, in psychology, in theology, as well as in ancient and modern literature.” He also described her in more traditionally female terms: as “entirely domestic in her habit and inclination,” and “the most amiable, tenderest of women” who had “no ambition to propound a theory, or to write her own name on any book, or plant, or opinion. Her delight in books was not tainted by any wish to shine, or any appetite for praise or influence.”63

From Gannett to Hall to Emerson himself, three Unitarian men reflected on the lives of the wives of their colleagues. In each notice, her status as the primary occupant of the domestic sphere was clearly pointed out. Their roles as the wives of ministers – as women with more than an ordinary amount of work to accomplish – was downplayed, if it was mentioned at all. Anna was a “wife” in her brief newspaper death notice, nothing else – not a doubter of religious truth, not a correspondent of denominational controversy. In Gannett’s eulogy for her, he praises her character, that ‘she was a woman in her whole constitution of being.”64 Like Hall, Gannett places a special emphasis on the single word ‘woman.’ For Hall, the ideal of the woman who fulfilled her domestic role had no individuality; the wife of the minister was no different than the wife of any other parishioner, no more deserving of individual tribute. Emerson held up Sarah’s individuality, but he said little in terms of her role as minister’s wife, focusing instead on her life as a woman. While Emerson mentioned Sarah’s “husband, the well known clergyman of Waltham,” he praises her for being “entirely domestic in her habit and inclination.” Even his praise of her extraordinary scholarship was feminized: she was a humble scholar who, befitting of a woman, never sought publication for the fruits of her truly remarkable intellect.

Even as the eulogists of Unitarianism’s first ministers’ wives downplayed their lives and activities as ministers’ wives, contemporary historians studying these women have also downplayed their roles as wives, preferring to look at them on their own independent terms. Yet being a minister’s wife was a defining feature of the lives of these women. Their fears about marrying a minister and taking on the “great and responsible duties which such a connection inevitably brings with it”65 point to the importance of such a choice of husband.

We have only managed to scratch the surface of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister’s wife. Being a Unitarian minister’s wife was not very different from being a Methodist minister’s wife. The duties, responsibilities, and qualifications were largely the same. How each woman – between and within denominations – lived those obligations and worked out the daily trials of life may have differed, but the basic pattern of Sweet’s “Assistant” to the clergyman remains uniform. Finally, these three women have shown themselves to be Unitarian ministers’ wives – Mary L. Ware in her celebrated life as the ideal Unitarian Christian woman, Anna Tilden Gannett in her knowledge about denominational controversies, and Sarah Alden Ripley in her close, personal connections to Transcendentalism. While these hints suffice for the present, only further research can more deeply reveal the breadth and depth of experiences which were those of the nineteenth century Unitarian minister’s wife.


1Letter from Anna Tilden Gannett to Ezra Stiles Gannett, Autumn, 1835. (Letter number 28.) Letters cited simply by date, without other identifying information, are from Anna Tilden Gannett to Ezra Stiles Gannett. These letters are kept in nine folders in the Houghton Library at Harvard University, call number bMS Am 1888.4 26.
2While a more complete treatment would look at the wives of Universalist as well as Unitarian ministers, I have chosen to focus only on early Unitarian ministers’ wives in Boston, making the study both temporally and geographically uniform. Boston was the hub of Unitarianism’s early development, and in its early days, the seat of its most prominent ministers. Universalism in the early nineteenth century was seen as a distinct religious movement, separate from the Unitarians. The lower to middle class socio-economic and educational profile of early Universalists was at the root of significant controversy between Unitarians and Universalists for many years, and many Unitarians of the time would not have liked to be associated with Universalists.
3Lois A. Boyd, “Presbyterian Ministers’ Wives: A Nineteenth-century Portrait,” Journal of Presbyterian History No. 59 (Spring 1981): 3-17.
4Leonard I. Sweet, The Minister’s Wife: Her Role in Nineteenth-Century American Evangelicalism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983).
5Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, editor, The Nineteenth-Century American Methodist Itinerant Preacher’s Wife (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1987). The texts which she edited include Herrick M. Eaton’s The Itinerant’s Wife: Her Qualifications, Duties, and Rewards, and Mary Orne Tuckers’ Itinerant Preaching in the Early Days of Methodism, By a Pioneer Preacher’s Wife.
6Cynthia Grant Tucker, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994).
7Sarah Ann Wider’s 1999 occasional paper “Anna Tilden Gannett: Authority Beside the Pulpit” offered an overview of Anna Tilden Gannett’s life.
8Dorothy Boroush, ed., Notable Universalist and Unitarian Women (Malden, MA: Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society, 2000).
9Sarah Ann Wider, Anna Tilden: Unitarian Culture, and the Problem of Self-Representation (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
10Joan Goodwin, The Remarkable Mrs. Ripley: The Life of Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998).
11Sweet, 3.
12Sweet, 8.
13Gifford, 16.
14Sweet, 77.
15Catherine L. Adams, Daily Duties Inculcated in a Series of Letters, Addressed to the Wife of a Clergyman (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1835) 127.
16Gifford, 7-30.
17In order to avoid confusion with their husbands, I have chosen to refer to the women by their first names. This practice is not meant to perpetuate attitudes of inferiority, but only to clarify identity in a readable manner.
18Goodwin, 14.
19Goodwin, 66. The letter is dated June 12, 1817.
20Hall, 8.
21Hall, 184.
22Hall, 186.
23This brief sketch is drawn from Wider, 15-18.
24Anna, like Sarah and Mary, suffered frequently from various illnesses. Anna’s eyesight bothered her and she often felt weak; Sarah often collapsed from what she called “sick-headaches.” In search of respite or a cure, all of them traveled out of the city to the countryside at one time or another.
25April 29, 1835.
26May 30, 1835.
27Autumn, 1835. (Letter numbered 28).
28Sweet, 99.
29November 11, 1836.
30Hall, 207. The letter is dated September 25, 1828.
31October 21, 1836. “Mr. Clarke” with his sermons on “Unitarian missions to the west” is almost certainly James Freeman Clarke, longtime minister in Louisville and editor of the Unitarian periodical the Western Messenger.
32Hall, 282-3. The fragment of a note is undated.
33Hall, 280-281.
34Gifford, 9.
35Goodwin, 138.
36Goodwin, 206.
37Goodwin, 96. 38Goodwin, 100. The letter is from 1819.
39Goodwin, 96.
40Gifford, 16.
41Gifford, 17.
42David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1985), 77.
43Robinson, 314.
44November 11, 1836.
45December 4, 1836.
46December 4, 1836.
47December 15, 1836.
48Wider, 188.
49Although Transcendentalism is frequently considered more of a literary movement than a religious one, many of the movement’s leaders were Unitarians, and Transcendentalist thinking has left an indelible impact on Unitarianism. Based on these observations, I consider knowledge of the Transcendentalist movement to be Unitarian denominational knowledge.
50Goodwin, 149-150.
51Goodwin, 151.
52Goodwin, 154-5.
53Goodwin, 181. Goodwin cites the quotation as coming from The Selected letters of Mary Moody Emerson, pages 426-7. See Goodwin, p. 360, n. 64. Goodwin does not give a date for the selection.
54Goodwin writes that “whether Mary recognized her own influence in some of [Waldo’s] passages, she did not say” (Goodwin, 160. See also p. 359, n. 86).
55Goodwin, 227.
56Wider, 236.
57Unlike some other mothers or ministers’ wives, she did not get a full obituary in the Christian Examiner, the only publication in which it was likely that she, a woman, would have received more than her brief death notice.
58Wider, 238-9, 240.
59Wider, 242.
60Wider, 241.
61Hall, 434. Capitalization is from the original.
62Goodwin, 340.
63Goodwin, 2-3.
64Wider, 240.
65Hall, 184.


Primary Sources

Adams, Catherine L. Daily Duties Inculcated in a Series of Letters, Addressed to the Wife of a Clergyman. Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1835.

Emerson, Dorothy May, editor. Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2000.

Gifford, Carolyn De Swarte, editor. The Nineteenth-Century American Methodist Itinerant Preacher’s Wife. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1987.

Tilden, Anna Linzee. Journal, 1827-8. bMS Am 1888.4 186. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

—. Journal, 1843-5. bMS Am 1888.4 187. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

—. Journal, 1837. bMS Am 1888.4 188. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

—. Letters, 1832-41. bMS Am 1888.4 26. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Ware, Jr., Henry. On the Formation of the Christian Character. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, & Co., 1832.

Secondary Sources

Boroush, Dorothy, ed. Notable Universalist and Unitarian Women. Malden, MA: Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society, 2000.

Boyd, Lois A. “Presbyterian Ministers’ Wives: A Nineteenth-century Portrait.” Journal of Presbyterian History, no. 59 (Spring 1981), p. 3-17.

Cole, Phyllis Blum. “The Divinity School Address of Mary Moody Emerson.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, no. 5. (December 1985-January 1986).

—. Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cooke, George Willis. Unitarianism in America. Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1910.

Gannett, William C. Ezra Stiles Gannett: Unitarian Minister in Boston, 1824-1871 – A Memoir by His Son William C. Gannett. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1971.

Goodwin, Joan. The Remarkable Mrs. Ripley: The Life of Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Hall, Edward Brooks. Memoir of Mary L. Ware, Wife of Henry Ware, Jr. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 1853.

Parke, David B., ed. The Epic of Unitarianism: Original Writings from the History of Liberal Religion. Boston: Starr King Press, 1957.

Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Sweet, Leonard I. The Minister’s Wife: Her Role in Nineteenth-Century American Evangelicalism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press,

Tucker, Cynthia Grant. Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Wider, Sarah Ann. Anna Tilden: Unitarian Culture, and the Problem of Self-Representation. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

—. Anna Tilden Gannett: Authority Beside the Pulpit. Malden, MA: Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society, 1999.

Wright, Conrad. Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, Parker. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.