This is the day that … Antoinette Louisa Brown was ordained to the Christian ministry in America in 1853 … the first woman minister of a recognised denomination in the United States. The place was the First Congregational Church, Wayne County, New York.
Luther Lee, a Wesleyan Methodist, preached the ordination sermon on Galatians 3:28. The charge was given by Rev. Gerrit Smith, a Presbyterian.
Nicknamed “Nettie”, Antoinette was born the seventh of ten children on May 20, 1825, in a log cabin in Henrietta, New York. Her parents were Joseph, a farmer, and Abby (Morse) Brown. Brown spent her childhood in a fieldstone house near the site of the log cabin where she was born.
Her parents were very religious and, while she was a child, they were inspired by the Rev. Charles G. Finney and many of the revivals sweeping through upstate New York at that time. By the time she was nine she had spoken out publicly to proclaim her faith at the Congregational society and had been accepted by the elders there as a member.
Brown taught for a few years before deciding she wanted to continue her education. Her father financed her “literary course” at Oberlin College – “the first co-educational college in the world” – many of the students being converts of the evangelist, Charles G. Finney.
She graduated in 1847, and then wanted to pursue a theological degree. The faculty at Oberlin (as well as her family) were against this. Brown was adamant and finally, as a compromise, they allowed her to attend lectures and to accept invitations to preach. However, they did not give her a license to preach and she was not allowed to graduate once she had completed the course in 1850. She was later vindicated and in 1878 Oberlin granted her an honorary Master of Arts (A.M.) degree, and in 1908 they awarded her an honorary Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) degree.
While a student at Oberlin, Brown became increasingly involved in the women’s rights, temperance, and anti-slavery movements.
Finney had been her Professor of Theology – “often putting names in a hat, drawing one out and asking that student to extemporise for as long as possible on the subject at hand”! Antoinette Brown found that such teaching methods sharpened her mind and skill as an orator.
After pastoring in Congregational churches for 15 years, she finally joined the Unitarians in 1878 … a ‘church’ that denies the deity of Christ and other fundamental doctrines.
She married Samuel Charles Blackwell and gave birth to seven children, two of whom died in infancy. She withdrew from public life while raising the children, but later returned to public lecturing, following a reversal in her husband’s fortunes.
She spent much of her life as an activist and speaker for women’s rights.
Antoinette Brown died on 5 November, 1921, at the age of 96.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.