PHEBE ANN HANAFORD:
UNIVERSALIST  FOREMOTHER

OCTOBER 25, 1998
RACHEL TEDESCO

This morning I would like to present to you Rev. Phebe Ann Hanaford, who was ordained by the First Universalist Society in Hingham, Mass. in 1868. She was the third woman to be formally ordained by any denomination in the United States and the first woman to be ordained in this state.

Phebe Hanaford was active in many social causes: temperance, abolition, women’s rights and peace being the most prominent. She was also a writer of hymns, poems, children’s books and biographies, an editor of two Universalist publications, a lecturer, teacher, wife and mother. She knew – and was known by – many of the prominent progressive writers and social activists of her day. Hanaford, born a Quaker on Nantucket, was a cousin of Lucretia Mott, the famous campaigner for abolition, women’s rights and temperance.

The 19th century Universalists believed in the divine spark in all human beings and in the possibility of salvation for everyone – if only they were taught the way of the Gospel and lived righteously. Universalism was a forgiving, liberal Christianity – in stark contrast to the Calvinism of the day, with its emphasis on total depravity, sin and damnation. Hanaford’s Universalist theology is clearly reflected in the poem I read this morning, "Death and Victory," which was published in her book From Shore to Shore and Other Poems in 1871.

She was born Phebe Ann Coffin in the village of Siasconset (known to the locals as "S’conset") on Nantucket Island on May 6, 1829. She was the only child of Phebe Ann (Barnard) Coffin and Captain George Coffin, a merchant and shipowner. Her mother died shortly after her birth and her father remarried. Young Phebe received much encouragement from her father. One biographer wrote: "It was… at an early age that Phebe Ann discovered her great delight in public speaking. Her father was also aware of this fascination, and he would often entertain friends by obliging his little daughter to recite passages from Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket." Phebe was precocious in other ways. Her first poem, which had an anti-slavery theme, was published when she was 13. This early success encouraged her to write and submit more.

Hanaford later wrote about the Quakers on Nantucket: "The Society of Friends, or Quakers… have always had women among their preachers. Not a few women of Nantucket Island were approved ministers among Friends, during our first century as a nation…" It should be noted that formal ordination was not practiced. Young Phebe was fortunate to have two grandmothers who instilled in her their love of religion and community and imbued in her egalitarian Quaker principles.

While she taught in S’conset, she meet Dr. Joseph Hanaford, a schoolmaster from Newton who was also teaching on the island. He was ten years older than she and a Baptist. His regular occupations were homeopathic physician and medical journalist, but he never did very well financially. They married in 1849 when Phebe was 20. Out of wifely duty, Phebe converted to the Baptist faith. They had two children, Howard in 1851 and Florence in 1854. Because Dr. Hanaford never earned enough to support the family, Mrs. Hanaford had to supplement his income through her writing. Luckily she had some talent in this area and was very prolific. Over her lifetime, she published 14 books, in addition to innumerable editorials, sketches, speeches and sermons, prose and verse.

By 1857, the Hanaford marriage began to go sour. In her diary, Mrs. Hanaford recorded many philosophical arguments with her husband, which caused guilt and confusion on her part. She was still loyal to her Quaker beliefs. When they moved off the island to Beverly in 1857 – without Mrs. Hanaford’s foreknowledge or consent—their relationship became more distant. She became active in the anti-slavery movement. During the Civil War she temporarily suspended her Quaker pacifist beliefs to support the Union’s "holy mission." She wrote poems and essays supporting the Yankee cause, which were published in local papers, making her locally famous as a patriotic writer. Mrs. Hanaford was also active in the temperance movement, first writing poems and speeches, and then appearing as a speaker herself at temperance meetings and rallies.

In 1864, Dr. Hanaford moved his family to Reading. Mrs. Hanaford’s personal religious conflict with her husband continued. Although she was officially a Baptist, she had been looking at other religions for years. "Sometime during 1864, she began reading about the Universalist sect, and she became interested in that denomination’s cheerful attitude toward life and religion." With the deaths of a stepbrother and stepsister in 1865, she totally rejected the fire and brimstone message of the Baptists and became a Universalist.

Soon after the deaths, Hanaford was visiting her father in Nantucket and described to him her developing faith in Universalism. He invited her to preach on the subject. Another biographer wrote: "Here, in the summer of 1865, as she was choosing Universalism, Phebe gave her first sermons. The family was reeling from the deaths of her brother Rowland and sister Mary Jane. In his grief, George asked Phebe to share her faith with the people of S’conset. Sea-worn men wept as she talked of God’s universal love." A newspaper reporter who interviewed Hanaford in 1877 wrote, "Looking back on this fateful moment, the Rev. Phebe Ann Hanaford would later recall: ‘My father and the neighbors, old sea captains and their families, [sat] there before me, and the tears [ran] down their faces.’ From this charismatic experience, Phebe Ann Hanaford decided that she was destined in life to become a preacher."

Through her editorship of the Universalist paper the Ladies’ Repository and her association with the temperance movement, she began to met several outspoken Universalist women. Among them was Rev. Olympia Brown, the first ordained woman minister. The two strong, talented women became friends. Some time in 1866, Hanaford received an invitation from Rev. Brown to preach at her church in South Canton, New York. After this sermon, Brown was so impressed with Hanaford’s preaching ability that she urged her to enter the ministry. In November, Hanaford received a Letter of License—good for one year—from the Committee of Fellowship, Ordination and Disciplines of the Massachusetts Universalist Convention. The letter stated that the committee "hereby express their confidence in Sister Phebe Ann Hanaford as a worthy candidate for the Ministry…"

Hanaford was asked to serve as pastor to the Universalist Society in Hingham. She was an ideal, all-round candidate. Her teaching experience equipped her well for teaching the "Sabbath School." She also had talents that would serve her in the pulpit: a strong, well-modulated speaking voice; experience as a public speaker, both as a preacher and a lecturer; a broad knowledge of the Bible and religion; a classical education in science and philosophy, and a facile pen. Her duties were those of the church’s pastor, which she began in November of 1866. She soon won the church’s admiration. A March 1867 article in The Hingham Journal describes a "presentation party" where Mrs. Hanaford was presented with a gift of a gold watch in appreciation for her services as a teacher and pastor.

That same month Mrs. Hanaford preached a lengthy sermon, "The Reciprocal Duties of Pastor and People," which was later reprinted, most likely for general distribution to her congregation to remind them of these duties. She described her call from God and her belief that he would sustain her in her labors. She spoke of the Quaker practice of listening in the stillness for the Voice of Divine Wisdom. "I have sought to hear that Divine Voice, and I think its utterance is in approval of my choice." Mrs. Hanaford then expounded on the reciprocal duties of pastor and people. The pastor’s first duty was to preach the word. She believed that the New Testament was incomplete without the Old, on which Jesus and his disciples based their faith. She intended to preach from both, but with her own interpretation. She would seek the opinions of others, especially Universalist theologians, as well as history, science and philosophy—"but, after all, I must preach the word only as I understand it, even as the divine spirit, who is its best interpreter, shall reveal its meaning to me." It is clear from the rest of her sermon that Hanaford was deeply Christian and loved the bible. But, she said she was not limited to biblical theology and was willing to see things in a new light.

She would, she promised, condemn their sins, but she explained that to her sin meant not so much individual sin, but social wrongs. "I do not believe in harsh, indiscriminate denunciations of individuals, but I do believe in uncompromising warfare with evil… I honor the men and women who to-day are battling in the Temperance Reform, and I clasp hands with every true reformer the world over." She continued: "If it shall be mine to guide the young, strengthen the middle-aged, to console the venerable, I am content. … Already is my heart knit to many of you, with whom I have rejoiced and with whom I have wept."

Articles in The Hingham Journal reported on her many activities with the church. This energetic woman also engaged in pulpit exchanges and would sometimes preach three times on one Sunday. The Star in the West, a monthly Universalist publication, wrote at the time of her ordination the following year: "Educated in the good old fashioned way, she had the bible from Genesis to Revelation at her tongue’s end; having common sense and a good heart she understood our faith. And when the question about pastoral labor was put [in the examination for ordination], the chairman of the committee of the Hingham society, where she has been preaching for a year, stated she had done it more effectually than any man they had had for the last twenty years!"

The historic event of Hanaford’s ordination and installation services came on February 19, 1868. The Hingham Journal reported: "The sermon was delivered by Rev. John G. Adams of Lowell from the text,-- "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond or free, there is neither male nor female, but ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Rev. Olympia Brown, Hanaford’s friend and mentor, offered the hand of Fellowship in the ordination service and the sermon at the installation service. Rev. Brown said to her, "As a woman, you stand in some sense as a representative; as one [of] the earliest to assume the high office of the preacher, it is yours to maintain the position in which you now stand. … In your office, show yourself worthy of your high calling." Especially touching were the words which Rev. Brown delivered which might have been written about herself: "Young women will look to you for instruction and guidance—for that sympathy which they have not found in the ministry in the years past. Be it yours to call them to a higher life. … And my prayer is, that you will have opportunity to lead some of the young women of your parish to consecrate themselves to the work of ministry. I would that you might lead them up, to be sharers with us in this work."

Rev. Hanaford lost no time in undertaking her many duties as parish minister, while continuing her involvement in social causes. Unfortunately, Rev. Hanaford was unable to adequately perform her duties as editor at the Universalist Publishing House. The organization asked her to resign, which caused a small uproar in the denomination. It was accused of "not believing in women ministers" and an explanation was demanded. The Publishing House replied that "[It] had to seek a replacement for Mrs. Hanaford because complaints had been made about the manner in which her work was being done; she neglected her obligations; other individuals had to cover for her, while she continued to receive her full salary ($600 a year). She had been warned when she announced that she was entering the ministry in addition to her other activities … that this new responsibility would seriously interfere with her work. But she went ahead with her plans." It seems that even with her incredible spirit and energy, Rev. Hanaford couldn’t perform the impossible.

A Hingham Journal article from August 1868 notes that Rev. Hanaford "having recovered from her recent illness, will preach at the Universalist Church next Sunday." It seems there were no summers off for this hard working minister.

We should not forget that Mrs. Hanaford had a home life in Reading with a husband and two teenage children. On December 10, she wrote a letter to her son Howard, who was about to start school at Dean Academy, the new Universalist school located in Franklin, Mass. Howard was just turning 17 and his sister Florence was 13. The tone of the letter is warm and intimate. The mother and son obviously shared an interest in religion and literature. She writes, "it was so pleasant to have someone at home who was ready to read every Universalist paper and was so ready to welcome the new books. My dear son can hardly realize what a comfort it was to have his sympathy in so many matters. I long to hear from you …" These words stand in stark contrast to the lack of sympathy she felt from her husband.

The year 1869 began. As if Rev. Hanaford didn’t have enough responsibilities, she sought a half-time position at the Universalist church in Waltham. She spoke in that town—probably as a candidate—on January 17. The write-up of her performance in the Waltham Sentinel was very complimentary. "In manner she is easy and graceful, and her every word, tone and look carries conviction to the heart that she speaks as she feels… One great charm in her preaching and in her whole appearance is her womanliness, which is borne with such modesty and reverential grace that all unjust criticism and prejudice is at once disarmed against woman as a spiritual leader." Hanaford was called to Waltham in March 1869 at a salary of $1,000. She preached on alternate Sundays at Hingham and Waltham. "One member of the [Waltham] Society resigned in disgust when Mrs. Hanaford was called to the pulpit, saying that if he had a ‘hen that crowed, he would cut her head off.’"

Then in January 1870, there appeared in The Hingham Journal a brief notice: "Rev. Mrs. P.A. Hanaford… has received and accepted a call to the pastorate of the First Universalist Church and Society of New Haven, at a salary of $2500. The Society will part with her in regret." The Hingham church asked Rev. Daniel Livermore to be their pastor or supply their pulpit. He accepted the latter proposal for an indefinite time. On May 27, the Journal announced that Rev. Hanaford would preach on May 30. This was probably her farewell sermon in Hingham because on June 9 she was installed at the First Universalist Church in New Haven.

Sometime that spring, Rev. Hanaford moved to New Haven with Florence, separating from her husband. Judging from the strained relationship they had had since 1857, it must have been a relief. We know from subsequent letters from him (dated February 1871 and after) that Dr. Hanaford didn’t fare well after their separation, was rather lost and miserable, and seemed to miss her and Florence terribly. Judging from these letters, however, the Hanafords seemed to be on cordial terms. They never got a divorce, which would have been scandalous in that day.

Why did Rev. Hanaford leave the Hingham and Waltham churches and eastern Massachusetts? Some reasons seem obvious. The first was that the weekly commute back and forth by horse and buggy between Reading and Waltham and between Reading and Hingham must have been tiring. It couldn’t have been the money because the salaries from the two part-time pastorates equaled the total she was to get from New Haven. The second reason was undoubtedly the opportunity to set up a separate household from Dr. Hanaford. The third factor may have been the desire to be nearer the women’s rights activists of New York, the center of the action. Fortunately, the move seemed to have been a good one for Hanaford. She invited Ellen "Nellie" Miles to be her female companion in her new household, since it was frowned upon for a woman to live alone. They became life long companions and friends. Her ministry in New Haven lasted four years.

Hanaford’s ministry in Hingham and her other activities of this period in Massachusetts came to a close in the spring of 1870. She certainly had made her mark on Universalism and on various causes for social reform and continued to be an outspoken minister and pioneer for the rest of her long life. Hanaford was certainly a woman rooted in her time and culture—New England of the 19th century. But she also was a woman ahead of her times. Universalists preached about the spark of the divine in each person. In Rev. Phebe Ann Hanaford, the divine spark had grown into a flame.

May you be attuned to the spark of the divine within each of you

And may this divine spark be coaxed into a flame.