Jenkins, Lydia Ann

Lydia Ann Moulton Jenkins (1824 or 1825-May 7, 1874) was a leader in the women’s rights movement, a Universalist minister, and later a homeopathic physician. It has been claimed that she was the first woman to be granted ministerial fellowship in the United States, and perhaps the first to be ordained with full denominational authority. The effectiveness of her preaching helped to foster acceptance of women ministers within the denomination. Her medical practice and much of her ministry were carried out cooperatively with her husband, Edmund Samuel Jenkins, whom she married sometime between 1846 and 1850.

A native of Auburn, New York, Lydia Jenkins lived in or near the Finger Lakes region throughout her life. As a child she was taught traditional Calvinist beliefs, but she read and thought her way to Universalism as a young adult. She first expressed her religious faith speaking out for women’s rights. Her article, “Woman-Cival Rights,” published in 1850, in The Lily, an early feminist journal, called for women’s right to vote. She pointed out that women’s property is taxed without representation, that their existing rights are only privileges conferred by men, and that the deprivation of civil rights is an inherent source of evil. Later, speaking before a women’s rights convention in Syracuse in 1852, she asked, “Is there any law to prevent women from voting in this state? The constitution says ‘white male citizens’ may vote but does not say that white female citizens may not.” At that time, although not ordained, she was referred to as “Reverend”; evidently she had already become known for her preaching from Universalist pulpits.

Jenkins soon came to the attention of Thomas Whittemore, an outspoken opponent of women’s preaching and editor of the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, the most influential Universalist newspaper. In 1857, having read of her “preaching to good acceptance,” he wrote in an editorial that “[i]t were better for her to remain at home and tend to her domestic duties,” for “St. Paul very pointedly condemned the uprising of preaching women.”

That Jenkins had indeed preached “to good acceptance” is obvious from a report of the meeting of the Cayuga Association in the Christian Freeman which called her style “smooth,” “flowing,” and “chaste” and her sermon “well arranged,” “systematic,” and “touching.” The reporter concluded “that if even the editor of the Trumpet had been present, his soul would have been moved and all opposition to female preaching would have departed.”

Jenkins’ popularity as a preacher continued to grow. Her pulpit appearances in New York City received highly favorable reviews by Horace Greeley and others. In 1858 she was a principal speaker at the annual session of the New York State Convention, preaching in a grove “to a great assemblage of people from all the region round about.” The Christian Freeman reported that Jenkins had received fellowship “as a preacher of the Gospel” from the Ontario Association of the New York State Convention, pointing out that “[t]his is the first instance in our denomination, and we think in the world, where a woman has received a formal license of Letter of Fellowship as a minister of Christ.” Some interpreted this action as constituting ordination, with full denominational authority.

Lydia Ann JenkinsWhittemore voiced his strong objection to this action. Later that year when Jenkins preached in Lowell, Massachusetts, he took pains to be present. By the time the service was over, his mind was completely changed. “We supposed that a woman could not do it, unless she were bold, masculine, and presuming,” he confessed. “We are now sure that a woman can preach, can pray, in the pulpit, without throwing off her womanly dignity and modesty.” Given Whittemore’s influence in the denomination, this change of heart hastened the day when women could freely enter the Universalist ministry.

Two years later, in 1860, a short item appeared in the Christian Ambassador reporting that the Ontario Association had given “the rite of ordination to Br. E. S. Jenkins and sister Lydia Jenkins.” No amplification or substantiation of this statement has been found and the minutes of the Association’s meeting are missing. It seems likely, given the great interest in the subject, that if the ordination had indeed taken place, it would have been widely reported. If the statement is true, however, then the first woman to be ordained to the Universalist ministry was Lydia Jenkins, not Olympia Brown.

That same year, Jenkins and her husband became co-ministers of the Universalist society in Clinton, New York, home of the Clinton Liberal Institute, a coeducational, nonsectarian residential academy that had been founded by Universalists in 1831. Two years later the couple left Clinton to become itinerant preachers in New York and New England. In 1866, while remaining Universalists, they left the ministry to establish a homeopathic medical institute in Binghamton, New York. In 1874, a fire destroyed their home and practice. Lydia Jenkins died soon after. She was buried at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn. Her tombstone bore the following inscription: “Rev. Lydia A. Jenkins, M.D., wife of Rev. E. S. Jenkins, died May 7, 1874, in her 50th year. First woman minister in fellowship with the Universalist denomination in the United States. Preached 20 years.”

The periodicals mentioned in this article—the Lily, the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, the Christian Freeman, and the Christian Ambassador—can be consulted at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts or at other libraries at Harvard University. Charles Semowich’s 1985 article “Lydia Ann Jenkins: Women’s Rights Activist, Physician, and First Recognized Woman Minister in the United States,” in informal Aurora, New York publication, Yesteryears, contains up-to-date research on Jenkins. Some description of the life and career of Lydia Jenkins can also be found in Charles A. Howe, “Under Orders from No Man: Universalist Women Preachers Before the Civil War,” Unitarian Universalism 1989: Selected Essays (1990); Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870 (1979); and David Robinson, The Unitarians and Universalists (1985).

Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted January 5, 2001 – Farmer Church picture added 2013