Lately, I have been slowly making my way through the list of reading I am required to do before meeting with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. This week I started reading Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier 1880-1930, by Cynthia Grant Tucker. The story of Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon transported me to a time when it was unheard of for a woman to be a minister.
Mary and Eleanor grew up on neighboring farms in Hamilton, IL. From an early age, Mary liked to stand on a stump in her front yard and preach to anyone in the family who would listen. Her mother indulged her but also worked hard to instill traditional 19th Century values in her young daughter. Mary’s father, on the other hand, filled the Safford home with talk of abolition, Darwin’s new theories on evolution and questions about the infallibility of the Bible. Although he died when Mary was young, she grew up working her way through her father’s library and developing ideas of her own.
Meanwhile, Eleanor Gordon was growing up not far away in a family filled with radical aunts and uncles who liked to discuss the improbability of the trinity and anything by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. Eleanor admired Theodore Parker for his abolitionist commitment and his religious resolve that faith was about actions that lead to justice rather than salvation alone. Mary and Eleanor became dear friends. Then, one day in the 1870s when both were in their early 20s, they made a pact to work as a team to further the cause of liberal religion. To make a long and wonderful story short, the two women were called to and ordained by the Unitarian congregation in Humboldt, IA. They also founded The Hawthorne Literary Society in their hometown of Hamilton where they organized and hosted guest speakers, plays, book discussions and ethical forums on the issues of the day. They set up a home in Humboldt where they invited promising young woman students to live and be mentored by them. A number of these women went on to join the Unitarian ministry.
Let us reflect on the brave, ambitious and persistent woman ministers who have helped to shape so much of our faith, whether we are aware of their presence in our history or not. I’ll leave you with a quote from an article on Mary Safford by Celeste DeRoche: “Safford believed that ‘true religion must first of all be free religion, free from irrational dogma that discouraged personal growth.’ She held that the human soul would evolve, not in solitude, but through community. People would make their common tasks divine ‘by doing them in the spirit of love and helpfulness.'”
In hopes for the future and with reverence for the past,