24 February 2013
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
When I read of the vain discussions of the present day about the virgin birth and other old dogmas which belong to the past, I feel how great the need is still of a real interest in the religion which builds up character, teaches (universal) love, and opens up to the seeker such a world of usefulness and the beauty of holiness.
These are complex and troubled times. There are injustices everywhere. And, fortunately, everywhere there are those who seek to cure them, to heal this broken world, to heal broken hearts. In Rhode Island, and within our own congregation, we are particularly focused this year on the possibility of marriage equality for GLBT people within our state. Not as more important than other crying needs, wounds that need healing, but rather, as a presenting strand right now in that web of mutuality out of which we are all woven.
As we seek justice for lesbians and gay men who wish their intimate relations to have the same sanction as anyone else’s we are also showing forth the need for justice for those of African descent who are, despite dramatic improvements in past decades and the wonder of Barack Obama’s two presidential victories, still largely counted as second class citizens, of justice for the immigrant upon whose backs we have come to rely for the food on our tables both from fields and in restaurants and in so many other difficult and usually low paying and necessary tasks, of justice for women, who we know hold up half the sky, but are paid less and given fewer opportunities than men, indeed, as we act for marriage equality, we are acting for all who seek justice in this time, and in our place. It’s all connected.
This is our calling as people of liberal faith – to manifest what we find in this world, knowing intimately that our hearts are joined, our lives are intertwined, and what happens to one of us, happens to all. And there is so much to do it can be hard to see how to start, indeed, how to sustain ourselves for the long haul. Fortunately, we have exemplars on our way, people who show how it can be done, and along that way, revealing why it should be done. Today I want to share the life of one such person, and in describing her life, hinting at ours, and because of her, what our lives might be.
Today I share here the life of our mother Olympia Brown.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Lephia and Asa Brown were farmers living in Prairie Ronde, Michigan. They were both deeply religious and appeared to value education as dearly as their faith. Not, I suggest, unlike many of us here today. Olympia was born in 1835, the eldest of their four children. Seeing the need in that frontier town, her parents provided the land for a school, Asa then built the schoolhouse with his own hands, and after that went the rounds of his neighbors to solicit support for a teacher. Young Olympia often rode with her father as he made these rounds. At home her mother gave the children’s education, for both the boys and girls, her highest priority. As a small aside for those with a genealogical interest, according to Laurie Carter Noble who provided much of the background material I use here, Lephia and Asa would in the fullness of time become Calvin Coolidge’s great great aunt & uncle.
When it came time to attend college Olympia was refused admission to the University of Michigan because of her sex. So she registered at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts. She was quickly dissatisfied with what proved to be a program more designed to produce a proper young lady than an educated person. After one year at Mount Holyoke Olympia transferred to Antioch College, where the radical Unitarian educator Horace Mann was the school’s president. There were still gender inequities, but she was given access to a real education, so long as she was willing to push to the front. She was. And she was so successful her family ended up moving to Yellow Springs to support her siblings who all ended up attending Antioch.
Among young Olympia’s heroes was Antoinette Brown, later Blackwell. She’s so important for Olympia’s story, we need to make a small digression here. Antoinette was not a relative, you may not know this, but Brown is a fairly common name. Antoinette was a Congregationalist, who attended Oberlin and after completing her undergraduate degree continued on with theological studies, completing the coursework but being denied a degree because of her gender and despite her quickly emerging reputation as a theologian.
Leaving school Antoinette went to work for Frederick Douglas, writing for his paper, the North Star. She also was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850. Finally, she was ordained by her congregation, and served a couple of churches, although like with her being denied her theological degree, she was not recognized as a minister by the national denomination. Antoinette was one of the leading intellectual and spiritual figures in the years prior to the Civil War, speaking out on religion, abolition and women’s rights. I want to add with a digression within this digression that in 1878 she crossed over to the Unitarians and her ministry was finally officially acknowledged by a denomination – ours. But, while I find it real real interesting, that’s getting ahead of the story, Olympia’s story.
While an undergraduate at Antioch young Olympia managed to arrange for Antoinette to come and speak. As the chief organizer for the event Olympia got to spend some time with the formidable Antoinette. Formidable meeting formidable. They immediately bonded.
And inspired Olympia decided that ministry was her calling, her destiny. As she came close to graduating from Antioch, Olympia began applying to theological schools. Oberlin offered the same arrangement they gave to Antoinette, she could attend school but would not be given a diploma. Our Unitarian seminary at Meadville responded that, “the trustees thought it would be too great an experiment.” And refused her admission.
But, the Universalist seminary at St Lawrence University accepted her, if reluctantly. Dr Ebenezer Fisher, the president wrote her saying “It is perhaps proper that I should say, you may have some prejudices to encounter in the institution from students and also in the community here… (However, t)he faculty will receive and treat you precisely as they would any other student. “ In this rather long letter he admitted he personally “did not think women were called to the ministry.” But then concluded, “…I leave that between you and the Great Head of the Church.” Olympia thought that was where the decision should be made, ignored the warnings, and in 1861, as the American Civil War was beginning, she entered divinity school. Three years later she graduated, awarded her degree, and, most importantly, was ordained to the Universalist ministry, becoming the first woman regularly ordained in a national denomination.
In 1864, as the Civil War was winding down, Olympia was called to her first parish in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts. While serving there and once abolition had been won, she threw herself fully into the struggle for women’s suffrage, working closely with Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and others. She also began to speak around the country. In 1870 she accepted a call to the pulpit of the Universalist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Three years later she married John Henry Willis, shocking the sensibilities of the day by retaining her family name. This appears to have been a perfect love match. John actively supported her dual callings as a parish minister and increasingly as a social justice activist. They had two children, Henry & Gwendolyn.
During her first pregnancy a faction in the Bridgeport church found the pregnancy unseemly and moved to have a vote of dismissal. While it failed, Olympia felt her ministry compromised and resigned after her son’s birth. From there she entered into a conversation with the leadership of the Unitarian church in Racine, Wisconsin, where she was warned “a series of pastors easy-going, unpractical and some even spiritually unworthy… had left the church adrift, in debt, hopeless and doubtful whether any pastor could again rouse them.”
Olympia would later write, “Those who may read this will think it strange that I could only find a field in run-down or comatose churches, but they must remember that the pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men, and were looked forward to as the goal of all the young men coming into the ministry with whom I, at first the only woman preacher in the denomination, had to compete. All I could do was to take some place that had been abandoned by others and make something of it, and this I was only too glad to do.”
With her call, John closed his business, and traveled ahead to Racine, where he purchased a part ownership of the Racine Times Call. Olympia settled into her new ministry, bringing healing and competence to the work. She also began to make the Racine church a center for progressive social thought, bringing in as speakers her old friends and colleagues Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Julia Ward Howe. Like our community here, today, that parish flourished.
After nine years serving the congregation, and not long after her father’s death, Olympia decided to leave the parish and full time ministry in order to devote all her energies to the suffrage movement. She was fifty-three. Olympia became the leader of the Wisconsin Suffrage Association and served as vice-president of the National Woman Suffrage Association.
John died, unexpectedly, in 1893. Olympia wrote of this, how “Endless sorrow has fallen upon my heart. He was one of the truest and best men that ever lived, firm in his religious convictions, loyal to every right principle, strictly honest and upright in his life… with an absolute sincerity of character such as I have never seen in any other person.”
Still, she burned for the right to vote, and gradually moved toward more confrontational engagements. As such in 1913 she became a central leader of the Woman’s Party. When President Wilson failed in his promises to support suffrage, Olympia lead a protest where she burned his speeches in front of the White House. I tried to find an archive photograph from that event. I couldn’t, but I can imagine it. The time was right, justice was in the air.
Indeed, finally, finally the tied had turned. Women won the right to vote nationally in 1919. Olympia and her old mentor Antoinette were among the few original leaders of the movement who had lived long enough to cast their own votes. In 1920 at the age of 85, Olympia cast her first presidential vote for Warren Harding. In 1924, her second and last vote for president she supported the radical Robert La Follette, who somehow seemed more appropriate for winning her vote to me, than Mr Harding. But, that’s how it works with self-determination. We make our choices, and we live with the consequences. In a sense, kind of like marriage, I think…
In those years following winning universal suffrage at least on paper, people of color were still waiting for their full access to the ballot; Olympia turned her attention to matters of peace and justice. Finally, she retired, spending her summers in Racine and wintering with her daughter who taught Latin and Greek at Bryn Mawr Prep School in Baltimore. She died in Baltimore in 1926, at the age of ninety-one. According to the obituary in the Baltimore Sun, “Perhaps no phase of her life better exemplified her vitality and intellectual independence than the mental discomfort she succeeded in arousing, between her eightieth and ninetieth birthdays, among the conservatively minded Baltimorans.”
She was buried in Racine next to her husband, John.
So, briefly, what’s the take away? For us, here, today?
Well, she saw the connections, she knew the mysteries of universal love, and she acted upon those principles with dignity and tenacity.
Today, we have our own struggles.
May we invoke the same principles, understood anew for ourselves in our own times and in our own way, and from those principles, to act.
That’s what Olympia did.
And, that’s what we are called to do.
Nothing more. And, nothing less.