“19th-Century Women in Liberal Ministry: Symbols of Progress, or Marks of Institutional Conflict?”

“I am researching the life of Lydia Ann Jenkins (1824-74). M y book will announce Lydia’s ordination to Universalist ministry three years before Olympia Brown’s in 1863. More important than this single accomplishment or even Lydia’s five years of active ministry (1857-62), hers is a fascinating story of a creative woman in and beyond liberal religion.

Modern readers proudly claim as a mark of our historical progressiveness how Universalists first ordained women with national denominational authority. Alas, the realities of daily life for these women pioneers was not nearly as rosy as modern perspective suggests. Most met gender challenges and some ministerial tenures were short, as Cynthia Grant Tucker tells of Unitarian mid-western women in Prophetic Sisterhood. The context for Universalist women was equally challenging.

Steeped in Calvinism in her youth, Lydia converted to Universalism through her birthright Universalist husband and ordained minister, Edmund. Both Jenkins worked in social reform: temperance, abolition, women’s rights, alternative medicine, etc. I propose that Lydia entered ministry not primarily because of Universalism’s welcome of women but from her desire to modernize habits of this denomination whose theology had transformed her life. As the first ordained woman, Lydia received far more pushback from minister colleagues and Universalist press than did Olympia. Certainly, many Universalists also supported her.

Women ministers experienced conflict because expectations for their liberal religion did not match actual practice, even in progressive up-state New York where the Jenkins lived. Sociologist Mark Chaves describes such disconnects between symbolic acts such as having no ‘official’ rules against women’s ordination and actual institutional habits needed to implement these symbols as ‘loose coupling.’ The precipitous decline in liberal women ministers after 1920 suggests that they had not influenced deep denominational change during their initial access to ordination.

Women ministry reformers brought to Universalism and Unitarianism expectations for gender equity learned in other reform contexts. Here I will suggest two influences on Lydia’s expectations, one secular, one religious, that spurred her commitment to expand Universalism’s practice of ministry: 1) the reform tools she acquired in the budding Women’s Rights movement, alongside Anthony, Cady Stanton, and others; and 2) her participation in a group of progressive Quakers known as Congregational Friends, break-away from Hicksite Quakers in 1848 whose meetings were open to persons of any religious persuasion. Prominent Unitarians and Universalists numbered among their participants through the 1870s. In associating with Quakers, Lydia advocated social reform and experienced a denomination with women preachers. Unitarians and Universalists might have done well to pay more attention to the methods of the Progressive Friends.

After five years, Lydia was exhausted from the challenges of ministry. In mid-1860s the Jenkins became doctors of watercure, opening their own practice in Binghamton. A housefire in 1874 apparently claimed most of Lydia’s personal papers and her health: she died six weeks later. Her story of Universalist ministry is one of hopeful expectations and frustrated realities, a story that can encourage modern UUs to move from symbols to realities in reform efforts extending much beyond gender.”