Monday, August 28, 2006

Prophetic Sisters in Ministry

© Rev. Marti Keller
( delivered at the emerging UU Congregation of Cookeville, TN, August 27, 2006)

There is a story that is often told among the women in our UU ministry about the prophetic sisterhood. They were what has been described by Cynthia Grant Tucker, the woman among us who researched their lives, as the entering wedge of ordained female ministers.

Sweeping across the heartland of America, founding small but hearty churches, preaching and tending to their brave little flocks, making change, and then like an ancestral tribe, disappearing. Leaving the landscape of our liberal faith movement, followed by nearly three quarters of a century when once again Unitarian and Universalist ministers were almost exclusively both white and male.

When I first was studying to be an ordained UU minister-- like many other women waiting until nearly mid-life-- I read about these forebears, in fact preached about them, and wrote a religious education curriculum about them for the congregation where I interned. I learned their names and the locations and names of the churches they served, even passed around three by five lined note cards to the women in the pews, letting them read these biographies a loud. So that they would also know the stories and remember them.

It has been almost a decade now since I was myself ordained and fellowshipped, and in the meantime the hard drive that held that early, awkwardly constructed sermon of mine has long since crashed, and the hard copy and the smudged references have long since been discarded or buried in the boxes and boxes of papers that still line the walls of my study.

And I am pricked with guilt for failing to honor these women, whose lives made my life, or at least my choice of vocation possible, and whose disappearance is at the very least for me both an inspiration, a reminder to not take my position too lightly, and a cautionary tale.

If my talk this morning sounds at all self-serving, it truly is not meant to be. It is meant to focus on the history and role of professional female ministers, the function and influence they have had, especially in the realm of worship and social justice. So we are all aware. So we do not forget about what they contributed and also the stained glass ceiling they found.

Cynthia Grant Tucker, in an essay she wrote around ten years ago and then presented at an annual CENTER or continuing education, nurture and training conference for UU ministers in l998, said that UU can boast-- as we often do about ourselves, often for good reason-- that for almost 100 years before we became one religious body, our churches of origin led the way in accepting women as clergy with full denominational endorsement.

The first was Olympia Brown, who was extended ministerial fellowship by the Saint Lawrence association of Universalists in l863, then Augusta Chapin, then Phebe Ann Hanford. The Unitarians followed suit in l871.

That we were the among the first, if not the first to ordain, to recognize women as professional religious leaders, would seem logical, a natural extension of our heretical position in the then Christian pantheon. After all we had broken with orthodoxy in so many arenas already, rejecting the Calvinist doctrine that as Cynthia Tucker writes emphasizes human depravity and restricted salvation only to the pre-destined, questioning the literalness of every line of scripture-- that the Bible was indeed fallible-- and arguing against the notion that Jesus was’ death on the cross was the final act of atonement for every sin in perpetuity.

This willingness to take on sacred theological cows also created within Unitarianism and Universalism an aversion to dogmatic rule and ecclesiastical hierarchies, which led to building their societies-- their congregations and denominational bodies-- on simple covenants that made all members equal,-- a priesthood and prophethood of all believers-- and their congregations self-governing.

Therefore it was natural that we were the first among Protestant groups to ordain women, but also disturbing that we did so with, as Tucker says, with so little enthusiasm and with so little support. No matter how bold we were in taking on the huge theological issues of sin and salvation, the supernatural status of Jesus and the premise of blood atonement, we were -- or at least our UU fathers were-- squeamish about tampering with the sexes’ traditional roles and especially the prospect of females entering the churches’ inner sanctum. Like the Temple in Jerusalem ,where women were allowed only on the outer edges and the men given access to the place of the most holy.

Cynthia GrantTucker tells us that seminaries were slow to allow women to enroll and women who did enter the program soon learned that this was no guarantee that churches would call them or they would have access to the tangible and intangible institutional networks that would foster them and help them succeed.

And lest we think it was only the men in our mostly forward looking tradition that were resistant to adding women to the ministerial ranks, it was the women also who were mostly reluctant to leave their lay supporting roles, as active and admirable as they were.

Judith Sargent Murray, whose husband had founded America’s first Universalist church in l779, was often provoked to remind what she called the “haughty sex” that their own theological argument that God had created all people as equals, meant that they were therefore entitled to use their abilities as God meant them to, not as men dictated.

Universalist Mary Livermore, a minister’s wife and a Sanitary Commission relief worker during the Civil War-- precursor to the Red Cross-- concluded from her experiences on the front that too much of the nation’s business was badly done or not done at all, because women’s talents as leaders were not being utilized.

Unitarian Julia Ward Howe, known to most of you I am sure, for being the composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and creator, or co-creator of Mother’s Day, which was meant originally to be a day to call for peace and justice, was known to lecture the men and the women in her own denomination about the hypocrisy of claiming to be a free and democratic church when they would not open the pulpits to all who were qualified to preach.

And it was not just access to the pulpit that these and other of our UU sisters were demanding. For 20 years before the first women were recognized as full professional ministers, liberal churchwomen had been appearing on platforms as part-time licensed preachers. While still frowned upon, these “daring displays” were becoming frequent enough to embolden others to make themselves more visible.

We are told that some women began to realize that they already were de facto running their own churches and doing what I like to call full service parish ministry, not only managing social events, raising funds for new buildings, and making the rounds of parish calls, but tending the Sunday schools, writing prayers and hymns, and even providing the music for their own worship services.

Mary H. Graves, one of our pioneer women ministers, explained of her own decision to seek ordination, that once a self-respecting, devoted churchwoman realized that she had already been doing a minister’s job, and doing it well without the help of a minister’s wife, it was, as she said, only a matter of time before she would want her work to be recognized by having it called by its proper name and being rewarded monetarily.

Her chance came-- and the chance for dozens of others-- when denominational leaders began to plan for westward and rural expansion, outside the comfort zone and cozy circles of what had been mostly a New England or at least an East Coast tradition.

Few of the men wanted to give up their established congregations, uproot their families and live on frontier wages to carry the good news about our truly saving faith and to literally build new churches.

And so they did, the group of women whom have been called the Prophetic Sisterhood, moving into uncharted liberal religious waters-- or more accurately huge expanses of prairie-- to Illinois and Nebraska and Iowa. And Michigan where for example Rev. Ida B. Hultin , often drove her horse and cart 40 or more miles a day over rough terrain to “tend to a passel of churches there.”

These women, besides getting the toughest, roughest and least coveted assignments, faced various critiques, including accusations from their fellow religious liberals that these pioneer women who took it upon themselves to preach and lead worship and plant churches were working and living ” outside their spheres”, not having the physical and emotional constitution to weather the rigors of church life and politics.

“Can the greater delicacies and sensitiveness of women bear the buffets and frowns, the criticisms often harsh and unfeeling” they asked doubtfully. “ Can a female minister preserve her good nature, her self-possession, her cheerfulness, despite the crosses incident to all public positions, and which are most bitter in a pastoral career? Nature will settle the question.”

Others, men and women, defended against this portrait , calling for the institution within Unitarianism and Universalism of simply a more human ministry, male and female. Less harsh and more balanced.

In reality, the early women in our movement found it difficult in most cases to combine marriage and ministry, and in large part the churches they served were a result of either being married into it-- organize one herself- or accept one that was on such shaky financial grounds that no male would take it.

Once in these congregations, however, membership figures, treasurers’ reports, and personal tributes in archives record abundant support at the grassroots for the women who did persevere.

They not only persevered ,they flourished in many respects, using sermons and liturgy to speak of the values that strengthened family, home and community, making worship and ritual language more gender inclusive. Committed to a ministry that went beyond the traditional focus on Sunday morning pulpit appearances, devoting themselves to Sunday schools, adult study groups, and filling their buildings with activity, making the word “church home” much more meaningful. Creating warm, loving faith communities for people whose more progressive religious beliefs and ethics made them feel isolated in the wilderness.

Partnering with lay women-- and men-- to further the causes of social reform. Prison and “work house” reform, the care of orphans and widows, public education, suffrage, and alcohol abuse. Through their sermons, in their towns , opening their sanctuaries and parish halls for public lectures and service programs.

As our church historian Cynthia Grant Tucker has written, ironically just when it started to seem as if women’s ministry had the momentum to enter the 20th century and flourish, the movement suddenly came to a halt for several reasons. Evangelical competition from many other churches in the communities where our Universalist and Unitarian women worked, the migration of more liberal people from these small towns to more accepting and enriching larger cities, and the development of the social gospel movement within mainstream Protestantism. Giving the option to churchgoers to hear moral and ethical preaching at more “respectable” congregations.

Perhaps the most devastating development was the cultural trend to counter what some saw as an alarming effeminate trend in American society with a full scale crusade to restore what was billed as toughness and virility in church life. This trend did not bypass our own Unitarian and Universalist professional movement, with discussions of how to promote more business-like “masculine” conduct and a tradition of annual exclusively male ministry retreats , an aggressively promoted Unitarian Laymen’s league and the Men and Religion Forward movement urging more muscular sermons. As one of the women ministers at the turn of the 20th century observed, the church evicted its best female talent out of what at least some saw even then as a warped vision of vigorous religion.

These driven out Unitarian and Universalist women, at least some of them, became social workers and reformers, working on getting the vote, starting peace organizations , health centers, schools for black children, and camps for diabetic girls. Certainly they contributed to the liberal religious movement, as did their lay sisters, but their public prophetic voices had largely been silenced, and their style of ministry mostly repealed.

This is the Unitarianism I was brought to as a very small child, one that on one hand was bold and outspoken and rigorously intellectual upstairs where the adults listened to sermons and lectures, and one that downstairs in its Sunday school was creative and nurturing and filled with stories and myths from all kinds of cultures. This upstairs/downstairs was also unfortunately a male/female split. I never saw a female in the pulpit on those mornings when I chose to sit next to my father and be with the grown-ups. I never saw one preach as I became a teenager, who was given some chances to lead youth worship in the smaller chapel or social hall.

I was not even aware that women ministers had ever been a part of the Unitarian liberal faith tradition, let alone that this might be my own path sometime more than 40 years hence.

With the l960’s and the second wave of the feminist movement, there was a renewal finally of women in the UU ministry, with resolutions at our General Assembly calling for recruitment of all able candidates irrespective of sex, a development of an equal pay policy. Passage of resolutions was one thing, but substantive change, as our historians tell us, was quite another. When the UU Women’s Federation published a survey of the status of women in the ministry in 1974, of the 750 clergy in what we call ministerial fellowship, only 40 were women and only 5 of them had pulpits at all.


In the past thirty plus years, the status of professional women within UU has improved enormously, especially in numbers, though like our sisters in other moderate and liberal religious movements, we tend not to be called to the larger congregations or to the highest ranks of our administrative authority. While recently other mainline to liberal denominations have elected women as heads, the Unitarian Universalist Association has yet to have a female in the role of president.

I am aware I was asked to speak today about women in Unitarian Universalism and particularly about women’s issues, and have spoken almost exclusively about women in ministry and what was called in yesterday’s New York Times, on the front page, the continuing stained glass ceiling. Women are entering the professional ministry in large numbers, the article reported, yet after ten years tend to be still in associate roles or in the smallest congregations while their male cohorts find more opportunities and at higher pay.

For me, the matter of women in ministry and women’s rights are not unrelated.


We can be rightfully proud of the stands our religious association has taken, its long history of involvement in women’s issues from Susan B. Anthony and her leadership in the suffrage movement of the 1850’s to work on the unfortunately failed equal rights amendment, to our early and adamant support of reproductive choice, including our current active involvement in the effort to get non-prescription emergency contraception out to women in a climate where many have been denied it, even in hospitals, even when their request comes after a sexual assault.

Our women’s federation has undertaken a major initiative to fund cutting edge bold work in supporting the human rights of women and girls, including grants for running public service announcements on Florida radio stations in Spanish, Haitian-Creole and other languages to warn about human trafficking of young women in the sex trade industry and support of the new Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom organization, with chapters in colleges and universities across the country.

What I am inviting us all to consider is that the fabric of this religious movement and the positions we take should be interconnected. That if we are asking for barriers to be removed in the world at large, that women’s voices be heard, that their lives be honored, that we need to do so in our institutions. Promoting wholeness, nurturance and relationship.


Says Marjorie Leaming:

Feminism is not an issue. It is a whole thing. By that I mean that it is not an issue in the way that the ERA or abortion or energy or the environment is an issue. It is an overall category which includes the positive creative side. The feminist vision is not a fairy tale but a reality based possibility affecting every aspect of thinking, being,& doing.


It is yet again time to leap from our spheres.

May it be so .

This sermon contains references and background materials from two invaluable sources: Leap from Our Spheres: The Impact of Women on Unitarian and Universalist Ministry (UUMA CENTER Committee) and Transforming Thought: Feminist Thought in the Context of Unitarian Universalist Women, vol. 11 (UU Women’s Federation, l989)

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