Olympia Brown Willis
Our Woman Workers
Women Eminent in the Universalist Church for Literary,
Philanthropic and Christian Work.
By [Mrs.] E.R. Hanson
The right of any woman to engage in any work to which she feels called, no one should question, but the compiler of these pages is not prepared to prophesy whether, in the final result, women equally with men will demonstrate their fitness for the ministry. The object of this book is not to advocate or oppose a Woman Ministry, but to chronicle what women have done, and to do the fullest justice to their work, to “naught extenuate nor set aught down in malice.”
In different ages of the Christian Church there have been attempts on the part of women to preach the gospel. Occasionally, one like Dinah Morris, in “Adam Bede,” has exhibited that rare capacity of mind and aptitude of nature that amount to genius for this great calling. Such cases, however, were exceptional. But the sacred rite of ordination had rarely been conferred until the Universalist Church broke the continuity of the old succession by recognizing a Woman Ministry. The first to be ordained was Olympia Brown. She “was the first that ever burst into that unknown sea.”
When Olympia Brown began her work, it required fortitude, persistence and conviction of duty of the highest rank to persevere. Prejudice was encountered which now can scarcely be imagined. Opposition was met that is now almost unknown. Whatever may be the issue, Olympia Brown must be recorded as the “Arnold Van Winkelried” of the pulpit, who first cried to the ranks of the masculine clergy, “Make way for Liberty,” and began a career that has been distinguished by ability and success. She was born in Prairie Rond, Michigan. She is of small stature, dark brown hair, with complexion corresponding; large dark brown eyes, seemingly always on the alert to learn what is going on in the world, active in temperament, and possessed of an unusual amount of vigor. She takes a good deal of pride in referring to her abounding health, whenever she hears reverend gentlemen complain of lassitude or indisposition. She attended school in her native place until she learned every thing the school at that time could give to so active a brain. At fifteen she began to teach in the district school, and continued to do so until the age of eighteen, when she went to South Hadley, Mass., and attended the Mount Holyoke Seminary. Before the year was through, she became interested in theology and began more fully to realize the broader and better views of God’s character, and was willing to make any sacrifice and perform any labor in her power to make her friends see him as she saw him, and bring them into nearer relations with him and with one another. But before taking so great a responsibility upon herself, she must prepare for it, so after her return from Mount Holyoke she went to Yellow Springs, Ohio, and commenced her college course at Antioch, then under the presidency of Horace Mann.
She graduated in 1860, at which time she received the degree of A.B., and immediately her heart and brain turned toward theology. “Where shall I go,” was the question, “to Meadville or Canton?” She applied to Meadville, but in that theological school it was too great an innovation to admit a woman. She next wrote to Rev. Dr. Ebenezer Fisher, President of Canton, N.Y., Theological School, and received a most cordial reply. His frank and encouraging letter, telling her that she would be received at Canton and treated in every respect like any other student, made her forget the misfortune of being a woman, for a season at least, until she had eclipsed some of the masculine students in her studies. Gratefully does she remember those who treated her with consideration for being a woman, and with pity she remembers those who tried to hinder her progress.
Dr. Fisher was opposed to a Woman Ministry, but did not feel willing to allow his own views to hinder a woman from entering the profession if she felt a call to it. He wrote, “No woman has ever been admitted to this college, and personally I do not think women are called to the ministry, but that I shall leave with the great Head of the church.” He closed his kind letter by adding, “I shall render you every aid in my power,” and she entered the theological school in the Autumn of 1861, and graduated in the Spring of 1863.
Immediately after her graduation, she was ordained at Malone, N.Y. Dr. Fisher preached the sermon. Rev. J.S. Lee, D.D., and Rev. J.T. Goodrich assisted in the ceremony.
Very soon after leaving Canton she supplied the pulpit in Marshfield, Vt. Her first settlement was at Weymouth, Mass. She supplied until April 1st, after which she was regularly engaged as pastor, in which position she remained until October 1869. She was installed at Weymouth, July 8, 1864. Rev. Sylvanus Cobb, D.D., preached the sermon, and Rev. George H. Emerson, D.D., took part in the services. One of the most earnest and devoted members of the Weymouth Church, writes me, “When Rev. Miss Brown came among us, the society was in a poor and unhealthy condition; but as soon as possible she went to work, and she was an earnest worker, totally unselfish, doing everything in her power for the advancement and best interests of the society. When at the end of more than five years’ faithful labor Miss Brown sent in her resignation, it was not received until a consultation had been held with her, and they were assured that she felt it her duty to go, and then, reluctantly.”
In October, 1869, she became pastor in Bridgeport, Conn. I wrote to a member of the parish, who replied, “No woman can know her well without respecting her as a Christian woman and a preacher of the Gospel of good tidings. I listened to her nearly every Sunday, and felt that as a preacher she was earnest, faithful and true to the great Master’s work. Her heart was ever open to those with whom she came in contact. I have never seen the person who would willingly work harder and sacrifice more for our blessed faith.”
In 1867 she delivered the address to the Alumni in Antioch, on “Diversity of Gifts.” After her address, the degree of A.M. was conferred. Her graduating essay seven years previous, was one of the best of the class, twenty-eight in number, but this address the “Star of the West” said, “Was in every way superior, showing conclusively that she had been steadily fitting herself for the work she had chosen. She has accomplished much more perhaps, than she dared hope, and has made it easier in all future time for woman to labor in the pulpit.” “Women of the Century,” says of her, “She took her place in the ranks of the ministry as well furnished intellectually as any man ever was; and in logical acumen and forcible speech she has few equals.”
Mrs. Willis is an able Woman Suffragist, but she considers this subject incidental to what she was sent to do, although it lies very near her heart. In her campaign in 1867, through Kansas, she made two hundred speeches. My reader must remember that in 1867 political influence was more or less against the movement, and no preparation for the presentation of this subject had ever been made previous to her campaign, and yet one-third of all the votes cast were for Woman Suffrage. Very good for a “border ruffian” State. It has been my pleasure to listen to Mrs. Willis but once on the subject above mentioned, at the Woman’s Congress, in Chicago, in 1880. Many speeches were made, and many kinds of speeches — long speeches and short speeches, strong speeches and flimsy speeches, but among the most eloquent hers was pre-eminent. It was logical, Scriptural, fervent, and in all respects a most powerful forensic effort. At the Woman’s Congress at St. Louis, the reporters said she was one of the ablest women, by no means second to Susan B. Anthony. She was reported as having concise thought, and in elaborating it; both Scripture and logic were brought into requisition.
Olympia Brown was married in Providence, R.I., in April, 1873, to Mr. John Henry Willis, a merchant of Bridgeport. This union has been blest by the advent of two promising children, the elder a son, Henry Parker; the younger, a daughter, Gwendolin. Their house is one of hospitality and culture, and in tenderness and care of the household Mrs. Willis is in every sense of the word a model wife and mother. As her years increase her nature develops new graces. She prefers to wear her baptismal name, and is usually called, as before marriage, Olympia Brown, though many of her friends, whose judgment we accept, designate her as Mrs. Willis.
In March, 1876, Mrs. Willis removed to Racine, Wis., and the following letter from Hon. A.C. Fish, of that city, who was formerly one of our most consecrated ministers, will inform my readers in what estimation she is held in that society.
“Dear Madam: — I take pleasure in saying that Olympia Brown Willis’s work at Racine, where she is now preaching, is such as any preacher might rejoice in. The field was by no means a promising one when she entered it. The parish had made several unsuccessful efforts to raise by subscription a sufficient amount to call a minister. Mrs. Willis’s ‘call’ to the place consisted solely in her knowledge of the fact that there was no regular preaching in the Universalist church. Her response to a most discouraging view of the situation by the Secretary of the parish deserves a place in her record.
“ ‘Yours just received. I infer that there is no objection to a Sunday service in Racine, therefore I shall be there one week from next Sunday, February 24. You will oblige my by giving the proper notice. I will preach morning, afternoon or evening, or all three as the people may desire. Yours for the good cause.’
“Added to the other obstacles in her path was the inevitable prejudice against a ‘woman preacher.’ She preached three Sundays, and March 10th, 1878, the vote was unanimous to engage her for two years’ time to begin that first Sunday in April. At the end of the first year her salary was increased and a flattering resolution passed without dissenting voice.
“As one of the results of her three years’ labor in Racine, the parish has just completed the thorough renovation and repair of its church building, at a cash expenditure of about four thousand dollars, making it one of the neatest and most attractive houses of worship in the city.”
Referring to the compliment the Racine parish paid her of making her life member of the Woman’s Centenary Association, she says, “It was a most generous compliment on their part, which I appreciated and with which I was pleased, but I have conscientiously refrained from belonging to societies of women only, believing that the Lord knew what was best when he placed men and women, boys and girls, together in families. I have the highest respect for the efficient, energetic management of the Woman’s Centenary Association, the Woman’s Congress and the Woman’s Christian Union. I respect all our organizations for raising the money for our cause, whether composed of lay-women or lay-men or both. I shall render each and all of them any aid in my power.”
Olympia Brown Willis is one of the half-dozen of our Woman Ministers who would be placed by the general consent of our people in the front rank.
Mrs. Fish writes, “Mrs. Willis’s spirit of work and tact in setting others at work is excellent, and her ability as a preacher is recognized, not only by her own church, but by the public. We always feel when she rises to speak that she has something to say that is ‘in point,’ and she always says it well. When she came to Racine some of the parish were groping about in search of ‘advanced thought,’ some from social and other causes had become interested in other churches, and some were indifferent. Mrs. Willis’s sermons interested the indifferent, called many of the wanderers back, and furnished food for thought to the most advanced thinkers.
“In addition to her church work she is a model wife and mother, giving her children scrupulous care and attention.
“The world is moving in the direction of women occupying wider fields of usefulness than ever before, and Olympia Brown Willis’s record entitles her to a place among the pioneers in the grand work.”
Mrs. Willis writes to me under recent date, “To-day I feel more and more interested in the work of the ministry than ever before. ‘I must go on,’ as Constantine said, ‘until the God who leads me stops.’ “