Olympia Brown and Sara Stoner,
Our Church Mothers
by Paul Britner
One of the downsides to speaking twice a month is that my topics donít necessarily fall on just the right day. Thus, my sermon on the resurrection was the week before Easter, and today, you are getting my motherís day sermon.
In addressing this topic, Iím mindful of the exchange between a couple that had just left the Catholic mass on Motherís day. The husband asked his wife if she appreciated the Priestís comments on motherhood and the wife replied that she did, but that she wished he knew a little more about the topic. When it comes to the particular life experience of parenthood, let alone motherhood, I fear I havenít had any more experience than Priests are supposed to have had, and the odds are getting longer that I ever will. So, my topic today involves two women who, in different ways, are mothers to us all. Women, who were mothers in the biological sense, but who also were mothers to this church, Olympia Brown and Sara Stoner.
When the Universalists organized themselves in 1793 and the Unitarians in 1825, there was no written rule against having women clergy. Yet, for reasons of culture, personality, and tradition, no women was ordained by either denomination until Olympia Brown in 1863.
A point of clarification: individual congregations did ordain women during this period. To be ordained at a denominational level, though, meant having broader recognition and more authority within the denomination itself.
Brown was born in Michigan in 1835 and was raised as a Universalist. She briefly attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. What turned her away from Mt. Holyoke was its emphasis on eternal damnation. She had been raised, of course, with the idea of universal salvation from which the denomination had drawn its name. It was at Mt. Holyoke that she first felt the calling to preach the gospel of Godís love, forgiveness and reconciliation that characterize Universalism. She knew she wasnít going to learn what she needed at Mt. Holyoke, though, and transferred to Antioch College, just a few miles from here at Yellow Springs.
At Antioch, she was instrumental in bringing female speakers to the college, foremost among them was Antoinette Brown, who was no relation to her and who later was known by her married name, Antoinette Blackwell. At the time, Antoinette Brown was a Congregationalist minister, though her denomination never recognized her ordination. Inspired by that Brown, Olympia Brown became determined to become an ordained minister. After graduating from Antioch, she sought admission as a candidate for a traditional master of divinity degree, the same degree I am seeking at Earlham. She applied first to the Unitarian seminary at Meadville, Pa, which turned her down. Then, she applied to the Universalist seminary at St. Lawrence University. The President at the time discouraged her. He wrote to her that he thought women would not make good preachers, but that, if she were determined to come, "I leave that to you and the Great Head of the Church."
So, she entered St. Lawrence in 1860, graduated in 1863, and was ordained that summer. All this was done with some difficulty and opposition. Still, Universalism had more than its share of men and women dedicated to the growing suffragette movement, and there were many lay members and clergy who supported her and encouraged her.
Her first settled ministry was at Weymouth Falls, Mass., which was just as liberal and progressive then as I understand it is today. It was a relatively small congregation, but grew much bigger under her leadership. Her second congregation was in Bridgeport Conn. Unfortunately, a small contingent that opposed her on grounds of gender proved enough to undermine and eventually sabotage that ministry. So, she moved on to Racine, Wisconsin, which welcomed her and prospered under her leadership until she retired from active ministry.
Olympia Brown is most famous for her work on behalf of womenís suffrage. While at her church in Weymouth, she co-founded the New England Woman Suffrage Association and later served for nearly 20 years as the President of the Federal Suffrage Association. Among the leading suffragettes of her day, she was right up there with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she would be just as famous as they are today if she had not chosen for herself to make her Universalist ministry her priority.
One of the more interesting aspects of her suffragette career is her relationship to the Black civil rights movement. The tension between the two respective movements, suffrage for Blacks and suffrage for women, was played out most prominently in Kansas in 1867. Hereís a quick history lesson, just for perspective. The 15th amendment to the U.S. constitution that gave Blacks the right to vote was not adopted until 1868. Of course, it did not extend the right to vote based on sex, and so, for all practical purposes, only gave the right to vote to Black men. Before the 15th amendment became the law of the land, advocates for the right of Blacks to vote were campaigning from state to state wherever they thought they could establish the right of blacks to vote, which is exactly what women suffragettes were doing. As it happened separate ballot measures granting the right to vote appeared on the ballot in Kansas in 1867, and advocates and opponents of both causes swarmed into Kansas. For a time, all of the nationís attention was focused on that state.
At the personal request of Susan B. Anthony, Olympia Brown took a 4-month leave of absence from her congregation in Weymouth to participate in the campaign. Traveling alone and by train from town to town, she gave hundreds of speeches on behalf of womenís suffrage and by all newspaper accounts was regarded as a capable and forceful advocate for the cause.
Officially, the national womenís suffrage organizations supported both ballot measures, as did Olympia Brown herself. Yet, there were speakers in both camps who demagogued the issue. Some advocates for women urged supporters to vote for womenís suffrage so that their women, meaning white women, would not become second-class citizens to Blacks. Some speakers for the Blacksí cause made the opposite arguments. Some leaders, too, indulged another fear.
A major argument against womenís suffrage was the fear that, once they got the vote, women would vote for prohibition. In fact, many of the early leaders of the temperance movement were leaders in the suffragette movement. Our politics today is filled with debates about the role of special interest groups, but I assure you it was no different in 1867. The liquor industry spent great sums of money in an organized campaign to defeat womenís suffrage. And, part of that strategy was to support Black suffrage so that there would be more male voters. Some pretty well-known advocates for Blacks played into the hands of these special interests and worked against womenís suffrage, including Charles Langston, William Lloyd Garrison, and even Frederick Douglas. Itís funny, isnít that when we talk about the history of civil rights in this county, and we honor these great heroes of the abolitionist movement during Black history month, we donít talk about that. As it turned out, the measure giving Blacks the right to vote passed, but the measure for women failed by a twoĖto-one margin. After her experience in Kansas, Olympia Brown became convinced that women must speak only for themselves. Though personally a strong advocate for universal suffrage for all, she did not campaign on behalf of Blacks again.
I donít think blacks and women ever have completely healed the wounds from the infancies of their respective movements. Even today, the National Organization for Women is overwhelmingly white. In fact, many female African-American writers have appropriated the name "womanist" for themselves because they feel that writing and scholarship labeled "feminist" does not reflect the experiences of Black women.
The larger point here, though, is how entrenched powers divide and conquer, turning their opponents against each other. As Martin Luther King said, we cannot be free until we are all free. One of many lessons we should learn from Olympia Brown is that, in a democracy, progress on behalf of social justice necessarily will be accomplished through the political process, but that the political process will be turned against social justice if the reforms we seek to enact are not grounded in a common understanding Ė and dare I add, theological understanding-- of human dignity.
Hereís another fact that the history books overlook. Recall that the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote did not pass until 1920, the last year of Woodrow Wilsonís 2nd term. Wilson himself opposed womenís suffrage. In 1918, with the end of WWI, Wilson traveled to Europe to advocate for the creation of a League of Nations and to promote democracy throughout Europe. Olympia Brown was incensed that Wilson could do such a thing while half the people in the United States could not vote. By this time, she was 83 years old and more of a revered founder of the movement than an active leader. Yet, there she was in 1918 protesting in front of the White House. Wilson, by the way, ordered the police to arrest the women, but not any of the men counter-demonstrating against suffrage.
Olympia Brown was one of the only surviving members among the early suffragette leaders to live long enough to cast a vote. She died in Baltimore, Maryland in 1926 at the age of 91. In 1920, by the way, when the 19th amendment finally passed, the Unitarians had ordained 42 women and the Universalists, though the smaller of the two denominations, had ordained 88 women. One of those women was Sara Stoner, who was the first settled minister of this very church. Before I turn to her story, though, I want to say one more thing about Olympia Brown, or, to be more exact, her husband.
She married John Henry Willis in 1873 at the age of 38, and they eventually had two children. She kept her name, which was quite scandalous at the time. Arguably, they had one of the first modern marriages. Both of them had established themselves successfully in their careers before getting married. He was a publisher. Yet it was Henry who kept leaving jobs to follow his wife around. He was part of the congregation of her first church in Weymouth, and moved to Connecticut to be in her congregation. When she took her next church in Racine, he moved there and started over again. Although her mother had discouraged her from getting married at all, Olympia wrote many years after her marriage, "I could not have married a better man. He shared in all my undertakings, and always stood for the right." I hope if every I remarry that my spouse could say that about me.
I have no evidence whether Sara Stoner ever met Olympia Brown, but itís hard to believe their paths did not cross at some point.
Sara was born in 1853, just across the state line in Union county, Indiana. She briefly attended Smithson college and then got both a bachelors degree and a masters degree from Buchtel college in Akron, Ohio. That college, which continues today as part of the University of Akron, was founded as a Universalist college in 1879 and named for a wealthy Universalist benefactor, John R. Buchtel. She was ordained in 1896. She was married to another ordained Universalist, James Stoner. They both were active in this area of Ohio and Indiana throughout their ministries, helping to found many churches and serving as either itinerant or supply-pulpit ministers. Again, this is not rock-solid history, but it appears that Sara was the first settled minister of this congregation, serving as its minister from 1898 to 1903. It was during Sara Stonerís tenure that the cornerstone for this very brick building we now are in was laid. At the time, the church had 250 members. During that time, her husband was active in starting up 8 new churches in the area. It appears that, when she left New Madison in 1903, she took a settled ministry in Conover, Ohio over in Miami county. We do know that she was succeeded at New Madison by her husband, who served as the settled minister in this church until his death in 1913. Sara Stoner died in 1937 at the age of 83. They are buried a few miles down the rode at the cemetery in New Paris.
All Iíve been able to do in this short time today is draw the pictures of two extraordinary lives in very broad strokes. Iím eager to learn more about Sara Stoner, and I promise you that I will. As for Olympia Brown, she is one of the most remarkable historical figures I ever have studied. What I admire most about her is her character. She had a remarkable sense of self, and self-awareness. She was spiritually centered and well grounded by her moral values. She balanced family and career and faith and politics like no other man or woman I know about.
When I think about the tradition that has been passed down to us, I am awestruck. Sometimes, I fear we have no idea how grateful we should be for women like Olympia
Brown and Sara Stoner. I hope that everyone of you here today that has children will go home and tell them about these woman, even if they are grown up and moved away. Call them, and tell them to conduct a web search on the name Olympia Brown.
Meanwhile, let us remember, too, that the best way to honor these women is not to idolize them, but to emulate them. Let us commit ourselves to continue their work, carrying the message of individual dignity and worth and social justice for all.
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