While researching a book about fruitful women without children, I came across Antoinette Brown Blackwell, sister-in-law of two doctors I was writing about. She was identified as the first woman ordained in the United States, though later research identified her as the second. Regardless of being number one or number two, Antoinette Brown Blackwell’s life shows how important children’s faith formation can be for Christians throughout their spiritual journey. Early seeds nurtured in a community can yield abundant fruit.
Brown, born in upstate New York in 1825, attended a rural Congregational Church. Shortly before her ninth birthday, she responded to a call from the pastor to come forward and join the church. Part of the process for membership included answering questions about her faith. Church members, impressed by the answers of such a young person, unanimously voted to accept her.
Brown’s experience as a full member of the church strengthened her resolve to become not a minister’s wife or a missionary, but an ordained member of the clergy herself. She began teaching at age fifteen, then headed to Oberlin College (which was founded to train clergy) when she was twenty. Oberlin was considered progressive at the time, but female students were “excused” from participating in class discussions as well as public speaking. This, you might imagine, was problematic for Brown since she aspired to preach. So, she and other female students, including Lucy Stone who went on to become a prominent suffragist, founded a “Young Ladies Association” to train themselves in public speaking. Brown taught during school breaks, and during one such break in Michigan was invited to speak in a village church, strengthening her sense of call to ordination.
After graduation, Brown sought to continue studying theology at the graduate level, justifying herself with Joel 2:28b, “your sons and your daughters will prophesy.” Eventually the school allowed her and one other female student (whom they knew would soon marry one of the male students after he received his graduate degree and become a minister’s wife) to enroll, but not for a degree. Facing further restrictions on preaching and teaching, she felt compelled to write about the passage, “Let your women keep silence in church.” Brown developed workarounds on the restriction and even published the paper she wrote on the keeping silence passage.
Brown’s role was lonely. As a student, she lacked support from the school and fellow students, and following graduation, her fellow feminists did not support her. Brown’s desire to work in an institution that had not championed women’s rights baffled them.
Brown’s time in parish ministry was cut short, in particular due to two incidents regarding children. One was the funeral of a child born out of wedlock. She was expected at such a funeral to condemn the mother’s unmarried state and suggest that “sin” caused the death, but Brown refused. In addition, she was asked to visit a young dying man and compel him to be “saved” before death. While she did visit him, she did not pressure him to accept her faith. These two incidents troubled her congregation, and she ended up leaving. Brown never returned to full-time parish ministry. She married, bore seven children (two died), and became an accomplished speaker on topics such as women’s rights, abolition, and the temperance movement.
June is a month full of ordinations in the Episcopal Church. Every weekend social media feeds show newly ordained priests and deacons wearing their red stoles and new white collars. Each photo reminds me of Antoinette Brown Blackwell who was surrounded by a supportive community as a child that helped grow her Christianity. The foundation laid in her earliest years surely motivated Brown to stick to her ideals later in life despite obstacles and loneliness. She extended the same respect shown to her as a young person, when she ministered to children as an ordained minister. She valued them enough not to make them into sinful examples or to scare them into someone else’s idea of salvation.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via Library of Congress Collection, Washington D.C.]