Ellis, Sallie

Sallie EllisSallie Ellis (March 13, 1835-December 27, 1885), an infirm lay evangelist in Cincinnati, Ohio, created the work of the first Unitarian Post Office Mission which led eventually to organization of the modern Church of the Larger Fellowship. She sent literature to and corresponded with Unitarians and religious seekers who lived far from established Unitarian congregations. Unitarians elsewhere around the world copied the means she invented for her influential ministry.

Sallie’s paternal grandmother, though she had been Baptist, late in her life attended Theodore Parker’s services in Boston. By that time her son, Rowland Ellis, Sallie’s father, had also become Unitarian. In 1830 Rowland Ellis was one of the organizers of First Congregational Church of Cincinnati (Unitarian). He attended and supported the church the rest of his life, except during a brief period when he and his family lived in Chicago. A banker, he was wealthy until his business collapsed in 1854. Sallie’s mother, Mary Caroline Rogers, was from Salem, Massachusetts. She and Rowland married in 1828.

Sallie attended private schools in Cincinnati, one run by Anne Ryland, an English Unitarian, and another by the Rev. William Silsbee. She also regularly attended the Unitarian church’s Sunday School. At 17 she travelled to Lenox, Massachusetts to study at Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick’s school. But after less than a year Sallie was called home to help when her mother became seriously ill. Mary Ellis died soon after Sallie’s return. She later reflected that “through [my mother’s] death I was led to think of a higher life—the true life of the soul.”

For a year, until her father remarried, Sallie took her mother’s place in the Ellis household. When the family became impoverished, she went to work as a dancing teacher and sewing instructor. In August, 1855, Sallie joined the Cincinnati Unitarian church. She and her younger siblings were baptized together by the minister, Abiel Abbot Livermore who, Ellis later said, “formed my religious character.” When the family lived in Chicago, 1857-60, Sallie taught Sunday School at the Unitarian church there and also led another class for newsboys on Sunday evenings.

Late in 1859, while the Ellises were in Chicago, the First Congregational Church of Cincinnati split over Moncure Conway’s sermons decrying belief in Biblical evidences and miracles. About half the members, the more conservative half, withdrew and gathered as the Church of the Redeemer. When the Ellises returned to Cincinnati, they found the new church to their liking and joined it. Sallie taught Sunday School until prevented by the loss of her hearing.

Shortly after their return, the young woman’s health declined drastically. First there was a roaring sound in her ears; then she became almost entirely deaf. She often suffered such inner ear problems as vertigo and nausea. More seriously, she began to show symptoms of tuberculosis. Ellis was an invalid for the rest of her life. Though often depressed, she was comforted by her Unitarian faith and sustained by the hope that she might, through her religion, help others.

Deaf and ill, Ellis continued to attend church. She contributed financially by teaching sewing and donating handicraft items for church fairs. She asked the ministers to lend her their sermon texts so that she might read them. Charles Noyes, minister in Cincinnati, 1872-75, also lent her theological works by William Ellery ChanningJames Freeman ClarkeFrederic Henry Hedge, Andrews Norton and others. Studying under Noyes, Ellis began to think she would like to be a Unitarian missionary. She briefly entertained an idea of preaching or reading sermons in scattered Ohio villages. Her family persuaded her that her health would not permit such activity.

In 1875 both Cincinnati’s Unitarian Churches were without ministers and in debt. Both were courting Charles Wendte who said he would come to Cincinnati, but only if the two churches reunited. They did, and he came in January, 1876, to serve the reconstituted First Congregational Church. Ellis continued her studies under the Rev. Wendte and shortly appealed to him for some kind of helpful occupation. He gave her some copying work, but this was not what she had in mind. “If I have any taste or talent, it is for the study and spread of religion,” she wrote him.

In 1877 Wendte created a Missionary Society “to spread the knowledge and increase the influence of Liberal religious ideas throughout the city and State by publications, correspondence, and other such means.” He made Ellis treasurer. In fact she did most of the work of distributing 1,846 tracts throughout 26 states. Though disabilities prevented her from engaging in ordinary evangelical activity, she now had a way to make her influence felt more widely than if she had been been healthy.

In 1880 Ellis was made chair of the Book and Tract Table at the church. Two months later the Woman’s Auxiliary gave her responsibility for the distribution of liberal publications and canvassing for the Christian Register. In early 1881 Ellis also founded a circulating library at the church, by donating her own books and soliciting others to do so. Soon, though her treasurer’s job involved only financial correspondence about tracts and subscriptions, Ellis was discussing theological and church matters in letters to people across the country.

Then the Woman’s Auxiliary, with Ellis as corresponding secretary, began to advertise in newspapers the availability of free Unitarian literature. The volume of her correspondence increased. During her remaining four and a half years, Ellis received 1,672 letters and wrote 2,541 in return. She distributed more than twenty thousand tracts, sold books and subscriptions, and loaned by mail hundreds of books from the church’s circulating library.

Ellis’s letters helped those isolated from others who shared their Liberal religious faith to feel a sense of connection with a large and modern movement. She understood “that people want to get at the first principles–the A B C of Unitarianism.” Her reading in theology helped her “to know where to send perplexed minds.” Some she urged to join others in “Unity clubs” in their local area. Some of these prepared the way for the later organization of churches. She encouraged several young men to go to seminary and to become ministers. She wrote to people religiously alone by their occupation or condition—soldiers, prisoners and a workhouse inmate. She supported, guided, informed, and comforted them. “I try my congregation to see what each requires,” she told her own minister, “and lead them on and up.” So pastoral was her work that some correspondents addressed her as “Rev. Ellis.”

Ellis described herself as a conservative Unitarian, “rather of the E[zra] S[tiles] Gannett type.” Yet she liked and approved the diversity of religious opinion within Unitarianism. She read the radical works of Theodore Parker to “keep pace with young people.” Her own favorite theologian was William Henry Furness, whose naturalist theology lay between the extremes of Gannett and Parker. Ellis thought Jesus “a helper to a better life, though I neither worship him nor think that he redeems us in any other way than by following his example.”

Unitarian religion was for her a work in progress. She looked forward to the time when the new generation would “win the world to a purer, truer worship.” She cautioned, however, that “it will come sooner, deeper, and surer by humoring to some extent the older people’s prejudices, while still preaching your own convictions strongly.”

Word spread of the success of “Miss Ellis’s Mission.” Many ministers contributed to her ministry by sending her sermons for distribution. The most supportive out-of-town minister was William Channing Gannett, who named Ellis’s work the Post Office Mission. “Strange enough should it prove,” he wrote, “that this bit of a lady, almost caged from the world by cripplings, had opened the most effective channel yet made for carrying our liberal faith to the world.”

Her work became well-known throught the country. When in 1883 she participated in the Western Unitarian Conference, Ellis was celebrated as “the belle of the Conference.” But by 1885 her health had declined greatly. She worked only very slowly. Later that year, she ended her last letter, “Too sick to write.” She died just after Christmas.

Ellis had answered requests for information on how others could use her methods. The Post Office Mission was quickly copied by other Unitarian congregations, and by Universalists as well. Through the Post Office Mission of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, for example, Ellen Morse wrote to four hundred people all over the world. In 1886 Robert Spears told some of his parishioners in London, England of the success of the American Post Office Mission. The London (later Central) Postal Mission was immediately organized. One of the founders, Florence Hill, ran the Postal Mission for many years and extended it throughout the British Empire. Other postal missions were created by the Brahmo-Somaj in India and the liberal Dutch Reformed Church in Europe.

In 1903 William Channing Brown founded the Unitarian Church of All Souls as a successor to the Post Office Mission. Brown mailed out sermons and circulated his pastoral letter for more than a quarter century. A new organization, the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), was created in 1944. The initial CLF membership, formally structured as a regular congregation, was partly drawn from Brown’s mailing list. In 1921 the first minister of the CLF, Albert C. Dieffenbach, wrote that Sallie Ellis “was the virtual beginning of a great line of missioners . . . It is not only the Post-Office Mission as such, of course, but every one of our organizations which now sends upon the wings of the morning, in the example of Miss Ellis, the words which are light and life.”

Samples of Sallie Ellis’s correspondence are preserved in Mary P. Wells Smith, Miss Ellis’s Mission (1886). This volume also contains the most detailed biography of Ellis. For details of the history of her church, see the records of the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati. Ellis and the Post Office Mission were featured in articles by Mary P. Wells Smith, Charles W. Wendte, Albert C. Dieffenbach and others in the Christian Register, May 5, 1921. Wendte also remembered Ellis in his memoir, The Wider Fellowship: Memories, Friendships, and Endeavors for Religious Unity, 1844-1927, volume 1 (1927). Information on the British Postal Mission, the Unitarian Church of All Souls, and the Church of the Larger Fellowship can be found in H. G. Chancellor, Florence Hill and the Postal Mission, (n.d., 1936); Albert C. Dieffenbach, “The Church of the Larger Fellowship,” Christian Register (October 1944); and George N. Marshall, “A Patriarch of CLF Passes—Forerunner Minister nearly 100 Years Old,” CLF News Bulletin (June 9, 1967).

Article by Walter Herz and Peter Hughes
Posted August 30, 2001