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By Polly Peterson.
Back in 1836, when Augusta Jane Chapin was born, women rarely spoke in public. Most Americans considered it highly improper, especially if men were present. The idea of a woman minister was simply unthinkable to conventional minds of the time. Yet, by the age of seventeen, Augusta Chapin knew that she would preach—and ten years later she became one of America's first ordained women ministers.
Augusta Chapin began life as a precocious child, eager to learn. Her father was proud of her abilities and allowed her to go to school from the time she was three years old. By age fourteen, she was a schoolteacher herself. Very few colleges accepted women at that time, but Augusta's hopes for a college education came true at the age of sixteen. She gained admittance to Olivet College, which was affiliated with the Congregational church.
Augusta had learned bible verses in Sunday school while growing up in Michigan, but she first began learning about religious doctrine in college. The Calvinist notion of eternal punishment troubled her greatly. As she studied and thought, she concluded that a loving God would never choose a few individuals to save, while condemning the rest for eternity. She became convinced that the ideas of Universalism were right and true. That realization set the course of her unusual life's journey. "I have no recollection of ever considering the question of whether I would preach or not," she told a biographer thirty years later. "I never deliberately chose the profession of ministry; from the moment I believed in Universalism, it was a matter of course that I was to preach it. I never questioned as to how I came by this purpose, nor did it ever seem in the least strange that I should preach, nor had I any real conception of how my course must appear to my friends and the world until I had been more than ten years in the active work."
Since there was no clear path for a woman who wanted to preach, Augusta Chapin had to find her own way. After taking courses at Olivet College and at Michigan Female College, she became a school principal and then a teacher of Greek, Latin, French, German, higher mathematics, oil painting, and drawing. Meanwhile, she prepared herself for her true calling—the ministry. In 1859, Chapin preached her first sermon at Portland, Michigan. In December of 1863, after she had been preaching for more than three years, she was ordained to the Universalist ministry. At the time, there were only a handful of women in the ministry, and, of those few, three were Universalists: Lydia Jenkins, Olympia Brown, and Augusta Jane Chapin.
Chapin's work as a Universalist minister took her to many different towns and cities throughout the United States. She actively promoted the cause of women's rights. She was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Women, and she spoke at the first Women's Congress held in New York City in 1873. Her speech was an eloquent defense of women as ministers. Some critics dismissed woman preachers as an experiment—and one that was doomed to fail. In response, Chapin said: "My own experience, extending through fifteen years of uninterrupted pulpit and parish work; years of work in the rural villages and neighborhoods of the West; years of work as a settled pastor in a large and growing parish; personal acquaintance with hundreds of parishes east and west in a dozen different States of the Union; all this, together with years of study in college as a direct preparation for the work, has not led me to feel that it is at all an experiment. When I see as many of the wise, powerful and good, and as many of the poor and needy crowding to hear the glad tidings from the lips of my sister as from those of my brother; when I see as many converts bow at the one altar as at the other; when I see churches reared, debts paid, and all good works going on and prospering through the blessing of God, in her hands as in his, and this through a succession of years in the same parish, it does not seem an experiment, nor do the people blessed by such ministry so regard it."
During her career of more than forty years, Augusta Jane Chapin never regretted responding to the call. She never stopped learning, teaching, and preaching. Her unwavering confidence helped lead the way for dozens of other women who heard the call to become ministers and answered it. Augusta Chapin was living proof that a woman in the role of minister could be as capable as any man. Her successful career shone as a beacon to light the way for others.
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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.
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