Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What We Choose: An Adult Program on Ethics for Unitarian Universalists

Olympia Brown

Part of What We Choose

Universalist Olympia Brown is known as the first woman minister whose ordination was recognized by a denomination. She spent a lifetime working for women's suffrage and was among the few original suffragists still alive to vote, at long last, in 1919.

Olympia Brown was born to a Universalist family who valued education. Determined to seek higher education, she persuaded her father to allow her and a younger sister to go to college, first at Mary Lyons's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts, and then at the better-suited Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Brown felt called to the Universalist ministry, and sought admission to theological school, although this was not an option open to women. She finally persuaded the president of St. Lawrence University to admit her in 1861. In her autobiography she writes, "Mr. Ebenezer Fisher, the President, replied that I would be admitted but he did not think women were called to the ministry." She continues, "President Fisher, in spite of his discomfiture at my entering the school, was just to me as a student, and never discriminated against me until I began to take steps toward ordination." When Brown completed her course of study in 1863, she had to convince the male ministers of the St. Lawrence Universalist Association to vote to ordain her so she could be called to parish ministry. The positive reception she received when she preached at local churches swayed the opinions of many of the ministers in her favor and Brown was ordained. She says, "Mr. Fisher had so far overcome his feelings that he took part in the [ordination] exercises."

After ordination, Brown served the church in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts. With the blessing of her congregation, she spent months in Kansas speaking on behalf of women's suffrage, making her own living and speaking arrangements as she traveled. In 1870, she accepted a call to the Bridgeport, Connecticut, church. She married in 1873, keeping her own name, and gave birth to her first child the next year. In 1874, she decided to resign her ministry, although she continued to live in Bridgeport for two more years, giving birth to a second child in 1876.

After careful consideration of her calling and her options after her resignation from Bridgeport, Brown wrote to Mr. A. C. Fish, the clerk of the Universalist Church in Racine, Wisconsin, to offer her services. He wrote back that the parish was in an unfortunate condition, thanks to "a series of pastors easy-going, unpractical, and some even spiritually unworthy, who had left the church adrift, in debt, hopeless, and doubtful whether any pastor could again rouse them." Brown accepted the challenge, and she and her family moved to Racine in 1878. She worked to rejuvenate the church and establish it as a center of learning and culture and a forum for the discussion of social issues of the time, including women's suffrage. She invited Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to air their views from the pulpit. Under her ministry the women began to vote and hold offices in the church. After nine years of ministry, Brown left a thriving congregation and moved on to a new challenge. She left full-time ministry to become an activist for women's rights. For the next thirty-two years, she labored, spoke, and demonstrated on behalf of this cause.

In the fall of 1920, she returned to the Racine church and spoke about her life's work. She spoke the familiar words we find in Singing the Living Tradition, Reading 569:

Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals, which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty and made the world beautiful. Do not demand immediate results but rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message, that you are strong enough to work for a great true principle without counting the cost. Go on finding ever new applications of these truths and new enjoyments in their contemplation, always trusting in the one God which ever lives and loves.

Looking back on her career as a parish minister, Olympia Brown wrote:

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.