Thursday, June 20, 2013

“Let your women keep silence in the churches . . . .”

            If Olympia Brown and the St. Lawrence Association of Universalists had interpreted these words from First Corinthians in the Bible as an inspired declaration by the Apostle Paul, Olympia would not have made American history in Malone and Canton 150 years ago this summer.
Olympia Brown

            However, they interpreted the words differently and Olympia became the first woman in the U.S. to become a fully ordained minister with a degree from a regularly established theological school. On June 25, 1863, the St. Lawrence Association of Universalists ordained Olympia in the Universalist Church of Malone, and two weeks later, she was awarded a degree from the St. Lawrence University Theological School in Canton.
            Olympia went on to become an outspoken Universalist minister and a fearless crusader for suffrage and equal rights for women until she died at 91. In her eighties, she could be found protesting President Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to back a woman’s suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution by picketing the White House and burning Wilson’s speeches on democracy and freedom in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House.
            In addition to Olympia, three other women from New York State also broke new ground by becoming ordained preachers. They were: Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Lydia Ann Jenkins and Augusta Jane Chapin.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell

            Born in Henrietta, Antoinette Brown Blackwell was ordained in 1853, ten years before Olympia. However, unlike Olympia, Antoinette’s ordination was conducted by the congregation of her local church, the South Butler Congregational Church, and the ceremony was not recognized by the official body of her church, the Congregational General Conference. Antoinette completed theological studies at Oberlin College in Ohio but was not awarded a degree.
            One of the earliest leaders of the women’s rights movement in the U.S., she inspired Olympia to go to theological school and become a fully ordained preacher. Of the original pioneer crusaders for women’s rights—Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—only Antoinette and Olympia lived long enough to vote after the woman’s suffrage amendment was added to the Constitution in 1920.
            Competing with Olympia for the honor of being the first woman to become a fully ordained minister is Auburn native, Lydia Ann Jenkins. According to a newspaper story, she was ordained by the Ontario Association of Universalists in Geneva in 1860, three years before Olympia. However, questions have been raised about whether the ordination actually took place because official records documenting it have not been found. Lydia did not attend a recognized theological school; however, she did become a leader in the women’s rights movement, and later a homeopathic physician.
Augusta Jane Chapin

            The third woman to become a pioneer preacher in addition to Olympia was Augusta Jane Chapin. Born in Lakeville, Augusta was fully ordained to the Universalist ministry in Lansing, Michigan in December, 1863, six months after Olympia. In 1893, Augusta became the first woman in the U.S. to be awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree. It was conferred on her by Lombard University in Illinois. An activist for women’s rights, Augusta was a prominent educator and writer who strongly advocated higher education for women.

            Olympia, Antoinette, Lydia and Augusta were all courageous women who chose not to “keep silence in the churches” and instead became preachers. Their fight for equal rights for women which began in the mid-nineteenth century, continues today in Albany and Washington, D.C.

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