Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell (May 20, 1825-November 5, 1921), a women’s rights activist and social reformer, was the first American woman to be ordained as minister by a congregation. Always ahead of her time, she with great difficulty broke trails that other women later more easily followed. She wrote prolifically on religion and science, constructing a theoretical foundation for sexual equality.
Antoinette “Nette” Brown was born in Henrietta, New York, the seventh child of Joseph and Abigail Morse Brown. From childhood on Nette preferred writing and men’s farm chores to housework. “Sewing was always my detestation,” she later wrote. Her family encouraged her studies and her father paid her to help with the threshing.
The family’s religious background was Liberal Congregationalist, which stressed God’s mercy and human initiative, and not the terror of future punishment. Antoinette learned about religion from her grandmother, who read and discussed with the children the Bible and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. She learned to think of God as a friendly presence. Seeking solitude by day and night in the nearby woods, she discovered, in contemplation of the sky, “a new heaven and a new earth.”
One Sunday, when Antoinette was eight, a visiting preacher challenged the people of her family’s church to give their lives to God. The next Sunday she told her Sunday School teacher that she wanted to be a minister. The teacher firmly dismissed her desire, saying that girls could not be ministers. With the support of her mother, however, Antoinette held fast to her dream. Her mother pinned a small white ribbon inside her collar—something to hold onto when others criticized her or failed to understand.
After studying at Monroe County Academy, 1838-40, Brown became a schoolteacher. In 1846 she entered a nondegree literature program at Oberlin College in Ohio. Upon completion in 1847, she asked to enter the Theology Department. Although Oberlin espoused women’s education, College officials at first resisted her application. During the three years that she spent studying theology she was constantly reminded by both faculty and fellow students that the Bible did not approve of women speaking in church. She had to get special permission from her professor to speak in class and from the Theological Literary Society to present essays. One of these, an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 14:34, was published in the Oberlin Quarterly Review. She claimed that, in asking women to be silent in church, St. Paul meant only to warn against excesses in public worship. Her article was accompanied by a professor’s rebuttal, defining women’s rights and duties more conservatively.
In 1850, seventeen years after pinning on the white ribbon, Brown completed her theological studies. She was not, however, given a degree. Only decades later did Oberlin award her degrees—an honorary M.A. in 1878, and an honorary D.D. in 1908. The Congregational Church initially denied her a license to preach because she was a woman. A year later they relented and permitted her to preach, although ordination was withheld.
For two years Brown traveled, lecturing on reform issues, including women’s rights. In an 1852 letter to her friend and classmate from Oberlin, Lucy Stone, Brown recounted “speaking 18 times in 19 days, in Wayne Co.” During that lecture tour she missed a stage, walked 7 1/2 miles in a snow storm, “took a cold water wash when I got home, and the next morning got up as well as ever without even a stiff joint.”
Sometimes Brown preached in Unitarian churches, including those of Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing. Charles A. Dana and Horace Greeley offered her a substantial salary if she would hold Sunday services in a New York City hall. Instead, in 1852 she accepted a call from the Congregational Church of South Butler, New York. Because the Congregational clergy were reluctant to ordain a woman, she was ordained there in 1853 by a Methodist minister.
Although later historians would question whether this was the first ordination of a woman, at the time it was recognized as such, and for all her life Brown was known as the first ordained woman. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune reported on the occasion: “it was a new position for woman, and gave promise to her exaltation to that moral and intellectual rank which she was designed to fulfill.”
Brown entered her ministry with enthusiasm. “The pastoral labors at S. Butler suit me even better than I expected,” she wrote, “& my heart is full of hope.” She soon officiated at a marriage ceremony in Rochester, New York, the first wedding done by an American woman minister. Chosen by her church a delegate to the 1853 World’s Temperance Convention, she was several times shouted down when she attempted to speak. Supported by Greeley’s Tribune and members of the Woman’s Rights Convention meeting at the same time, she brought a measure of disgrace to the male clergy in attendance who had treated her, and women in general, with disrespect.
Brown was unprepared, however, for the openly critical attitudes of women in her parish, who had been long conditioned to regard the minister as a father figure. Further, her sisters in the struggle for women’s rights gave her little moral and emotional support. Even her intimate friends in the movement—Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony—did not think it worthwhile for women to expend effort forcing entrance into an institution as corrupt and outdated as the church. It would be ten years before another woman was ordained. In the meantime Brown had no one to counsel her in a deepening emotional crisis.
Exposure to liberal Unitarian theology, particularly regarding salvation and eternal punishment, led Brown to re-examine her beliefs. When two infants died in her parish she could not bring herself to uphold church doctrine by declaring the unbaptized children damned. After just ten months in the parish, she resigned from the South Butler church, citing poor health, but also in doubt about the Congregational creed.
A short period of rest at her family’s farm in Henrietta improved Brown’s health. Anthony encouraged her to help with the campaign for women’s right to own property in New York State. Feeling that she was once again needed, Brown began lecturing again for abolition, temperance, and women’s rights.
Brown spent a year doing volunteer work in the slums and prisons of New York City, 1855-56. She studied causes of mental and social disorder amidst poverty, especially how these affected the lives of women. She wrote a series of articles for the New York Tribune, the first of which focused on the disparity between the “polished, enlightened, civilized Christianized society” and the “shadow of poverty” hovering over the streets and alleys of the city. The collected articles she published as Shadows of Our Social System, 1856.
While in New York Brown continued her theological evolution in concert with a new friend, Samuel Charles Blackwell, whom she married in 1856. Samuel, a real estate dealer and hardware salesman, was an abolitionist and the brother of Henry Blackwell, husband of Lucy Stone. Antoinette later wrote, “that [Samuel] was passing through a very similar experience to my own from the orthodoxy of his early training and his earlier years, into a more sanguine religious phase than my own enabled him to become to me a present help in my time of trouble.”
Prior to their marriage Samuel agreed to Antoinette continuing her lecture tours. When their children were born he helped care for them. She wrote to him before they were married: “We will be governed very much by circumstances and what seems best as the years go by, but I think, Sam we can be self sovereigns, we can bend everything within & without to our wills, and our wills to our intellects.”
The Blackwells lived most of their married life in New Jersey. Five of their seven children survived infancy: Florence, Edith, Grace, Ethel and Agnes. Mabel died at 3 months of age, and a male child was stillborn. Florence became a Methodist minister, Edith and Ethel became physicians, and Agnes an artist and art teacher. Grace suffered from depression which prevented her from taking on challenging work.
In 1860, while Olympia Brown (no relation to Antoinette), later ordained as a Universalist minister, was studying at Antioch College, she invited Blackwell to lecture and preach. The women shared their frustrations with the obstacles placed in their paths and became friends. Antoinette pinned a white ribbon like the one she still wore on Olympia’s dress to signify their solidarity.
As early as 1853 Blackwell had written that she was not ready to approve of divorce whenever a couple wanted it, even if the husband was a drunkard. “Let them have legal separation but not the right of second marriage.” She opposed Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on this issue at the 1860 National Woman’s Rights Convention. “All divorce is naturally and morally impossible,” she then argued. Later in life, after her husband died, she wrote, “The family is the basis of civilization” and “must be the most carefully safeguarded.” Based upon her own experience, she thought marriage “a life union” and “the most binding of all human pledges.”
After the Civil War Blackwell lectured on women’s struggle for equality and their right to vote. Even though she had a sympathetic husband she still struggled to combine marriage and her “intellectual work.” She later wrote to Olympia Brown, “Doubtless the mother of a family can attend to professional duties; but she cannot absorb herself wholly in professional life & Women must bend the professions to themselves and their capacities.” In an 1873 paper for the Association for the Advancement of Women she advocated part time work for married women, with their husbands helping out with child care and housework.
During the years when she needed to devote the most time to care for her children, Blackwell turned to writing as an occupation which most “easily coincided with family duties.” She wrote articles for the Woman’s Journal, edited by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. Her book, Studies in General Science, 1869, was a compilation of essays written over a decade. In one of these, “The Struggle for Existence”, she answered Herbert Spencer who had characterized evolution as the “godless cruelty and wastefulness of the natural world.” “The struggle for existence,” she wrote, “is but a perfected system of cooperations in which all sentient and unsentient forces mutually co-work in securing the highest ultimate for good.”
Blackwell pursued the evolutionary topic with The Sexes Throughout Nature, 1875, a corrective to Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. “Mr. Darwin,” she argued, “has failed to hold definitely before the mind the principle that the difference of sex, whatever it may consist in, must itself be subject to natural selection and evolution.” In The Physical Basis of Immortality, 1876, Blackwell tried through “the light of established science” and “admitted facts in nature” to prove “the truth that the ultimate elements of Universal Nature are simple and indestructible.” She reasoned that the “mind-unit” would be as “tenacious of its continuous maintenance” as metals, rocks, and planets, and would be “able to steadily provide itself with allies which shall outlast the perishable form with which it is temporarily associated.” In 1881 Blackwell was one of the few women of her time elected to membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Because of her experience with the South Butler church Blackwell avoided aligning herself with any religious sect until, in early 1878, she and her husband began visiting Unitarian churches in New York City. She applied to the American Unitarian Association and was recognized as a minister later that year. She was, however, discouraged by the lack of opportunities available to her that suited her family situation. By the end of 1879 she had decided to settle for occasional preaching and a resumption of lecture touring.
Despite her unusually favorable financial and personal circumstances, Blackwell found herself unable to seriously pursue a full-time professional occupation. Nevertheless she insisted in her 1870s speeches that “women should not be forced to choose between family life and the work they might do beyond the family.”
In 1893 Blackwell stated at the Parliament of Religions which met during the Columbian Exposition in Chicago: “Women are needed in the pulpit as imperatively and for the same reason that they are needed in the world—because they are women. Women have become—or when the ingrained habit of unconscious imitation has been superseded, they will become—indispensable to the religious evolution of the human race.”
In 1903 Blackwell helped organize a Unitarian Society in Elizabeth, New Jersey and served as its minister for the first year. In 1908 she was elected minister emeritus.
The last surviving delegate to the first national women’s rights convention, which had taken place in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850, in 1920 at the age of ninety-five Blackwell proudly exercised her newly-won right to vote.
There are Blackwell Family Papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The latter collection includes Blackwell’s memoirs. A substantial published correspondence is Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill, Friends and Sisters: Letters between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93 (1987). Blackwell’s works not mentioned above are The Island Neighbors (1871), The Philosophy of Individuality (1893), Sea Drift (1902), The Making of the Universe (1914), The Social Side of Mind and Action (1915), many speeches, papers, and published articles. The principal modern biography is Elizabeth Cazden, Antoinette Brown Blackwell: A Biography (1983). Useful articles include Dorothy May Emerson, “Representative Women,” Occasional Paper #2, Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society (1992), the entry in Catherine F. Hitchings, Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers (1985), and the entry by Carol Lasser in American National Biography (1999).
Article by JoAnn Macdonald
Posted December 17, 2003