On a crisp autumn morning in 1861, Ebenezer Fisher, president of the Theological School of St. Lawrence University, heard an authoritative knock at his door. On opening it, he was surprised to see a diminutive young woman holding a suitcase. What he could not know was that this small, soft-spoken woman would become one of the most formidable forces in the American women’s suffrage movement.
She was Olympia Brown (1835–1926), a Universalist whose ordination we commemorate this year. The first woman in the United States to be ordained by full denominational authority, Brown dedicated herself to assuring that women could take their rightful place in the ministry and in every facet of American life.
The encounter with Fisher tells us a lot about Brown. Every other theological school she applied to rejected her. Only Fisher offered her admission, adding this caveat: “I do not think women are called to the ministry, but I leave that between you and the Great Head of the Church.” And that is exactly where Brown thought it should be left.
She left her home state of Michigan for Canton, New York, announcing to Fisher on her arrival that she would be enrolling at the Universalist divinity school. The president was confused; he thought he had written her a pointedly discouraging letter. “Well,” she told him, according to her autobiography, “your discouragement was my encouragement.”
One of Brown’s first challenges at divinity school was her high, thin voice. For amusement, her classmates, all men, would gather under her window and recite her sermons in high falsetto voices. In class, a seminarian denigrated these sermons as being passably written, but asserted that “they could hardly be called sermons.” But the ridicule simply spurred her on.
Brown not only graduated from divinity school, she convinced the Northern Universalist Association to ordain her at its meeting in Malone, New York, on June 25, 1863.
As for her voice, in 1864 Brown enrolled at the Dio Lewis School of Speech, where the school’s founder developed a series of exercises to help build her lung capacity. Brown did the exercises throughout her life and became a powerful public speaker. Neighbors in Racine, Wisconsin, where she was minister of what is now the Olympia Brown UU Church, often heard her in her garden, reciting her sermons and speeches to the flowers.
While Brown was still in her first ministry in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts, a meeting with Susan B. Anthony persuaded her to work for women’s suffrage. A skilled organizer, for many years she balanced her home life with her duties as a minister and suffragist. She raised a son and a daughter and had a loving and felicitous marriage to Henry Willis. At 52, she left full-time parish ministry to work for getting women the vote. After the 19th Amendment passed she was one of the few “early pioneers” who was still alive to cast her vote. The last years of her life were devoted to working for world peace, and she became a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
On the centennial of Brown’s ordination, a plaque was dedicated in her honor at St. Lawrence University, which reads, in part: Forerunner of the new era. The flame of her spirit still burns today.
Indeed, 150 years after her historic ordination, almost 60 percent of UU ministers are women, says the Rev. Keith Kron, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s director of transitions. Brown continues to inspire, and the flame of her spirit burns on.
This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of UU World (pages 60–61).
- Olympia Brown. Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography entry by Laurie Carter Noble. (Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society)