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Her story, though, like those of other women I have commemorated in this "Forgotten Women" series, shows a woman of great intelligence, leadership ability and devotion; and it's hard not to wonder, if God really never intended women to be pastors, why He made a woman like Antoinette Brown.
According to American National Biography Online, Brown was:
born in Henrietta, New York, the daughter of Joseph Brown, a farmer and justice of the peace, and Abigail Morse. Antoinette proved a precocious child, following her older siblings to school at the age of three. The preaching of evangelist Charles Grandison Finney in nearby Rochester during the Second Great Awakening deeply affected the family, and before she reached her ninth birthday, Antoinette Brown joined the Congregational church. The associated reform movements of the era--antislavery, temperance, and moral reform--also drew support from the Browns, who upheld the educational aspirations of both their sons and daughters. Antoinette attended local schools and the Monroe Academy before becoming a teacher in 1841.Brown then enrolled in the only college at the time which would admit women: Oberlin College in Ohio. It was there that she met Lucy Stone, the now-famous Abolitionist and Suffragette. The two women became lifelong friends, and in time, sisters-in-law as well-- each marrying one of the Blackwell brothers whose sisters Elizabeth Blackwell and Emily Blackwell became the first and second woman medical doctors in America. Brown felt called into ministry and Stone desired a lecturing circuit-- but as women at the time were expected to stay out of the public sphere, the college refused to train them in rhetoric or debate. Stone and Brown therefore formed their own women's debating society:
The young men had to hold debates as part of their work in rhetoric, and the young women were required to be present, for an hour and a half every week, in order to help form an audience for the boys, but were not allowed to take part. Lucy was intending to lecture and Antoinette [Brown Blackwell] to preach. Both wished for practice in public speaking. They asked Professor Thome, the head of that department, to let them debate. He was a man of liberal views -- a Southerner who had freed his slaves -- and he consented. Tradition says that the debate was exceptionally brilliant. More persons than usual came in to listen, attracted by curiosity. But the Ladies' Board immediately got busy, St. Paul was invoked, and the college authorities forbade any repetition of the experiment.
A few of the young women, led by Lucy, organized the first debating society ever formed among college girls. At first they held their meetings secretly in the woods, with sentinels on the watch to give warming of intruders. When the weather grew colder, Lucy asked an old colored woman who owned a small house, the mother of one of her colored pupils, to let them have the use of her parlor.Though Oberlin College was willing to give Brown the kind of education it thought suitable for a woman, its response to her desire to study theology was less accommodating. As Distinguished Women of Past and Present puts it:
Oberlin was the first coeducational school to grant college degrees to women and to accept students of all races. Women, however, were expected to clean rooms, wash clothes and serve food for the male students. . . In 1847 Brown finished the literary course taken by most women. She encountered serious objections from the faculty when she then decided to study theology. They did not think it an appropriate field of study for a woman. However, the school charter decreed that no student could be excluded on the basis of sex, so Brown prevailed and finished the theological course in 1850. The Oberlin College faculty, however, refused to award her a college degree and she did not receive a license to preach. The degree was eventually awarded to her twenty-eight years later.After college Brown began to accept invitations to speak against slavery and on women's rights. Her work in support of women's rights and her attendance at the first National Women's Rights Convention caused her to lose a position she had obtained lecturing to raise funds for charitable work. She then became an independent lecturer, attracting the notice of Horace Greeley, the Abolitionist New York newspaper editor. He offered to support Brown's preaching ministry in New York City, but instead she accepted an invitation from a Congregational church in rural New York state to become its licensed minister. She was ordained on September 15, 1853.
Attending the 1853 World's Temperance Convention, Brown became what American National Biography Online calls "the center of controversy" because of being an ordained minister. She was shouted off the speaking platform by her fellow delegates. About a year later she cited theological differences with the Congregationalists (mostly over eternal damnation and predestination) and left her pulpit, eventually becoming a Unitarian.
Back in New York City, Brown began ministering in the slums and prisons, contributing pieces to Horace Greeley's New York Tribune on the plight of the poor, and also writing her first book. In 1856 she married Samuel Blackwell. While raising five daughters, she continued her writing career, publishing on a variety of different topics, including egalitarian marriage (a very novel concept!).
According to the German website "FemBio":
The couple consciously tried to live out a model of equality within their marriage: “We will be governed very much by circumstances and what seems best as the years go by, but I think, Sam we can be self sovereigns, we can bend everything within and without to our wills, and our wills to our intellects.” A businessman, Samuel shared household chores and childcare, and Antoinette continued to lecture after having given birth to seven children. The couple raised five daughters to adulthood, two of whom became medical doctors, another an artist.After her husband's death in 1901, Brown returned to ministry, this time as a Unitarian in New Jersey, where she remained until her death at the age of 96.
I believe Antoinette Brown Blackwell should be an inspiration to all women who seek ordination and/or pastoral ministry, or who believe in full equality in Christian marriage.** Even though 150 years ago it was much harder than it still is today, she showed that a woman in church leadership and in egalitarian marriage could succeed in both her church and her home.
The then-rampant opposition to a woman simply learning theology or speaking in public would be disagreed with now even by most complementarians. It's important to question whether, if those issues ultimately were judged as being without scriptural support, how much of the opposition to women as pastors or as full partners in their homes, is based on tradition more than on careful reading of scripture.
I might also point out that attempts to prevent Antoinette Brown from becoming a minister ultimately failed. The words of Rabbi Gamaliel about the new Christian sect in Acts 5:38-39 should perhaps be taken note of here:
Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.Or, in this case, "leave these women alone." Perhaps its time for the church to stop fighting against women's equality, and leave it in God's hands.
As Gamaliel said, if it is of human origin, it will fail.
But if not. . . .
*I never heard of her, that is, until reading Daughters of the Church by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld. Her story appears on pages 279-281.
**Some might claim that Antoinette Brown Blackwell's move into Unitarianism, reflecting as it does a departure from Christian orthodoxy, disqualifies her as an example for Christian women or as evidence for women's ordination or egalitarian marriage. However, no one would ever claim that a man becoming a Unitarian proves that men should not be ministers or leaders in their homes. And in the early 1900s Unitarians were still a Christian sect, if an unorthodox one. We don't have to agree with everything Brown came to believe, to honor her integrity and her contributions to American religion. As she herself said, “One thing is certain. I am not afraid to act as my conscience dictates, no matter what the world may think ….”