History Vignette 4: Helen Grace Putnam
A Dynamo in the Dakotas
A woman played piano nightly in a saloon in Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1890. She was a minister and drew some of her repertoire from the Unitarian hymnal.
The same woman visited remote communities and families on the Dakota plains. She brought spiritual comfort, tended the sick, and if a piano was available she might play a Beethoven sonata.
She was Helen Grace Putnam (1840-1895), the third child and only daughter of progressive Boston-area parents who gave her a good education. A capable and diligent student, she mastered several languages and became a skilled pianist. In Boston she taught music, edited a liberal Christian magazine, and helped poor children by placing them in farm homes.
She had to give up her editorship to a soldier returning from the Civil War. Greater losses followed: one brother returned from battle only to die of his injuries; the surviving brother and her parents all died within a few years. Bereft of family, she had to clean houses for a living for three years in Dedham. She joined the Unitarian church there. The parish women she worked for noticed her talents and invited her to join the Women’s Auxiliary. She soon became president.
At this point, somewhat regaining her place in society, she might have sought security in marriage. Instead she continued to support herself. After meeting Mary Augusta Safford in Dedham, she decided to become a Unitarian minister. Turned down by Harvard Divinity, she was admitted in 1886 to the theological school in Meadville, Pennsylvania. School officials warned that she was not likely to get a church.
They were wrong. In 1887 Putnam joined the Iowa Sisterhood and in the summer of that year served as supply preacher in Rock Rapids, Iowa. The following summer she organized a congregation in Vermont. She spent most of 1889 filling in for Eliza Tupper Wilkes in Huron, South Dakota. Late that year she was ordained in Luverne, Minnesota, by that state’s Unitarian conference. Wilkes presided at the ceremony. Marion Murdoch of the Iowa Sisterhood and Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, also took part.
Jones, unable to get a male minister for North Dakota, yielded to Putnam’s repeated requests to be assigned there. He unleashed a dynamo. In 1890 Putnam launched her mission in Jamestown, and local lore has it that she played piano in the saloon in exchange for the use of an upstairs hall for Sunday services. During this period she also organized a congregation in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, over 140 miles away. Catherine Hitchings describes Putnam’s career:
Living in a hotel in Jamestown until it burned . . . , she traveled as much as possible giving lectures and services wherever she could find the space. . . . Travel conditions were poor and uncomfortable, waits in railroad stations long and roads muddy or dusty depending on the weather. . . . She would often give services several days in a row before moving on to another community. . . . Preaching, handing out religious literature, caring and cooking for the sick if needed, she was deeply appreciated by many who, even if not Unitarian, would ask her to preach at their funerals when the time came.
During these treks on the Plains she sometimes performed musically for small groups. Clergy of other denominations received her warmly; a Congregationalist minister once offered her his pulpit.Gains made by the Iowa Sisterhood prompted the American Unitarian Association to invest in the region, and the yearned-for minister in trousers, a Universalist, was finally recruited for North Dakota. In 1892 Putnam became William Ballou’s associate minister at the First Unitarian Society of Fargo.
We do not know how Putnam, a suffragist, felt about being second in command to a male in territory that women had largely developed. The Minnesota Unitarian Conference respected her more: she opened its 1889 convention in Minneapolis and served as secretary of its 1894 convention in St. Paul.
Newspapers generally treated her well. A Bangor, Maine, paper praised a talk she gave about her work in the Dakotas. Even in a brief, snidely written item on the 1894 convention that was headlined “Unitarian Dominies” and that treated Putnam as a curiosity, the St. Paul Globe acknowledged that she possessed “that peculiar quality called magnetism to a considerable extent.”
In 1895 her health began to fail and she died in November. The notice of her death in The Daily Argus of Fargo reveals the affection and respect given Helen Grace Putnam: “. . . She has given her strength unsparingly to every noble cause of reform and human betterment that needed her help. [. . .] The loss that has been sustained in this gifted and sympathetic woman will be increasingly realized by the lovers of humanity as time goes on.”
May it be so.