An American Hero

Matthew 11:16-19,25-30


In our scripture from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus complains to his disciples of the fickleness of faith among the people. Like children the people listening to him swing back and forth as to what they accept and what they don’t accept. Sometimes they condemn John for being an ascetic and not enjoying life, and sometimes they condemn Jesus for enjoying life and not being an ascetic!

Later in our scripture, Jesus thanks God that God has found those who can accept Jesus’ teaching: those who do not over think an idea and are not beholden to some philosophy or institution … they are more willing to accept on faith what Jesus teaches and try it out. Many of the wise of his day and our day, though well-intentioned, cannot get pass popular understanding and expectations. They understand their world, but they don’t understand what might be possible if they broke with that world. They ask why make the changes Jesus asks us to make. They profess that the changes were for an ancient time or won’t work or are foolish. But Jesus replies why not? Why not try them? The current system is broken and stuck. Renewal is needed. Changes are needed. Why not try what Jesus proclaims? And often it is ordinary people, in particularly people not invested as financially and politically in a society that are willing to try the “why nots”.

So why not trust Jesus?

Well, since tomorrow is the Fourth of July, I thought I would tell you the story of an American hero and a hero in the United Church of Christ. She was Antoinette Brown Blackwell, born May 20, 1825 and died November 5, 1921 at the age of 96.

Antoinette was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the United States. She was a knowledgeable public speaker on the critical issues of her time, and unlike her contemporaries she used her religious faith in her efforts to expand women's rights.

Antoinette was born in Henrietta, New York, the daughter of Joseph Brown and Abby Morse. She attended her family's branch of the Congregational Church at the age of nine. Remember that the United Church of Christ is the inheritor of the Congregational Church tradition.

Shortly after becoming a member of the congregation, she began to preach during Sunday services. At the age of sixteen, after graduating from the Monroe County Academy, Antoinette taught school. But she was not satisfied being a teacher. Rather her interests were in religion and theology. She wanted to earn a degree in theology from Oberlin College, one of the most liberal colleges of the day, and then become a minister – even though women were not ordained in her day. Why not? She thought. Why cannot women minister as well as men?

Antoinette saved enough money from her teaching to cover the tuition at Oberlin College in Ohio. Supported by her parents, who believed not only in equal education for men and women, but also for African-Americans, she enrolled at Oberlin College in 1846. Oberlin was unusual that it admitted women. They offered women degrees in literature which Antoinette completed. During her vacations Antoinette taught and studied Hebrew and Greek. In 1847, after graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she wanted to continue on in theology. This was not open to women. So she lobbied the college to be admitted into theology studies with which she wanted to work towards Congregationalist ministry. The administration eventually allowed her into the curriculum but with pre-conditions: In particular she could enroll but she would not receive any formal recognition.

Despite these restrictions, Antoinette wrote for the Oberlin Quarterly Review and began to develop what today would be call feminist theology. She taught that the Bible and its various restrictions on women were for a specific span of time and certainly not applicable to the 19th century.

When Antoinette graduated, this country was only 71 years old. The fight for freedom would have been very fresh in people’s minds, many would have had parents or grandparents who fought in the Revolutionary War. Yet the country was founded incompletely. There were significant groups left out of the victory for freedom. The old traditions about women as the “weaker sex” still prevailed in the U. S.  and many people, even in this land of freedom would have seen women as incapable to do “men’s work”, such as the ministry. For example, up to Antoinette’s time, married women could not own property and if she divorced, her husband retained custody over her children. And women could not vote. But Antoinette was thoroughly tuned to Jesus’ teachings and given her upbringing, she was easily one of the “infants” of our scripture today.

When she graduated from Obelin, Antoinette had to decide what she was going to do. She had no preaching license since she was a woman. So her dream of ministry was at least for now out of reach. So for the time being she wrote for Frederick Douglass' abolitionist paper, The North Star. She also became active in the growing women’s rights movement. [We often think that the women’s liberation movement began in the ‘60s. That movement actually came after the women’s rights movement of the 19th century, where women fought for abolition, temperance and the vote.] She was a speaker at the first National Women's Rights Convention in 1850. Her speech was so well-received that it launched her on a speaking tour. As she toured around the country she would speak on abolition, temperance, and women's rights.

In all of her speaking she drew on her faith as a resource for understanding the righteousness of abolishing slavery and accepting women as full citizens of this country.  She did not require or expect anyone to adopt her religious views, but she would invoke God as the source of righteousness and the arbiter of human rights.

God is the giver of our freedom. The Exodus is the dramatic reference point for the divine right of freedom. But it wasn’t just men who crossed the Red Sea. So did women. I suspect that among them were Africans who were fed up with Pharaoh too. The freedom that we are so proud of comes from God and with it comes great responsibility … the first and original responsibility is that when God gives us freedom we are expected to strive for the freedom of all of our neighbors no matter our traditions or opinions. And it is this responsibility that Antoinette strived to fulfill.

Antoinette never gave up her dream to be a Congregational minister. She eventually came to the attention of a socially radical Methodist minister named Luther Lee, who was a passionate and vocal advocate of women’s right to theological education and leadership. He took the progressive step of ordaining her and in 1851 she was given a license to preach by the Congregational Church and in 1852 she was offered a position as rector of a Congregationalist church in South Butler, New York. She was the first woman to be ordained a minister. And in our own generation, she has become a heroine of the United Church of Christ as a trail blazer for inclusiveness. Today the UCC offers the Antoinette Brown award to outstanding women clergy.

Antoinette was enthusiastic about her call to South Butler. For example, she was the first American woman minister to officiate at a marriage ceremony. But her ministry was not all positive. When she was chosen by her church as a delegate to the 1853 World's Temperance Convention, she was several times shouted down by male clergy. Antoinette also was unprepared for the criticism she received from women in her parish, who had been long conditioned to regard the minister as a father figure.

Over this period she was exposed to the more liberal Unitarian beliefs.  She began to wrestle with the strict Calvinist believes practiced and promoted by the Congregational ministry of that day. One belief, in particular stood out for her: the belief that we must be baptized before we die or we are condemned to perdition. In her tenure as a minister, she saw unbaptized babies die. She could not accept that God was so dogmatic and cruel as to condemn them to hell. It was this strict unbending sort of belief that turned her away from our historical church. After just ten months in the parish, she resigned from the South Butler church, citing poor health, but actually in doubt about the Congregational creed.

After that Antoinette spent a year doing volunteer work in the slums and prisons of New York City. While in New York City, Antoinette meant Samuel Charles Blackwell, whom she married in 1856. Samuel was an abolitionist. 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.

After Antoinette left the ministry, she became more and more involved with the women's rights movement. Many women's rights activists opposed religion because in their experience, it served to oppress women. But Antoinette felt strongly that it was important that women actively participate in religion so to further their status in society. Remember that religion, particularly Christianity and especially Protestantism were very influential in society at that time. Anyone who wanted to be influential would find that actively belonging to a church increased their influence. Antoinette believed improving women's status in society was important to escape their second-class citizen status.

Antoinette eventually turned to writing books when domestic needs and a falling out with some of the leaders of the women’s rights movement required her to end her touring. Antoinette wrote books on theology and philosophy. She wrote books on religion and science, corresponding with Charles Darwen. She even wrote a novel, The Island Neighbors, in 1871, and a collection of poetry, Sea Drift, in 1902.

In 1878 she returned to organized religion, becoming a Unitarian. She applied to the American Unitarian Association and was recognized as a minister. In 1902 she helped found the Unitarian Society of Elizabeth, New Jersey, serving as its minister.

In 1920, at age 95, she was the only participant of the 1850 Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony, Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott and many others had already died. In the 1920 election, her grandson took her to the polls in Elizabeth, NJ. She voted for Warren G. Harding.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell died at the age of 96 in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Jesus calls us to be strong and determined in our faith. Jesus calls us to be able to get past expectations that are so embedded in our thinking that we claim they come from God. Jesus calls us to be open to possibilities that may conflict with long-standing ideas. Jesus calls us to be faithful to God’s gift of freedom … freedom in all of its aspects: of thought and of action. But Jesus expects us to be responsible bearers of that gift and rejoice that it is a gift for all. We need to take Jesus seriously for he teaches how to exercise our freedom righteously and compassionately.

Freedom can be used for the great good of society, people and Mother Earth. Or it can be used to oppress. It can be used to form shared communities or it can be used for anarchy.   Jesus calls us into a liberated community of grace, love and hope that is open to every human being who will participate with responsibility. It is this freedom that Antoinette help expand and that we are called to continue its unfinished effort.


Think about it …

God’s grace and love be with you …