Thursday 2 June 2016

Pioneer Preacher-woman

In these times when lgbt clergy are still regarded as unwelcome in the main denominations (even by extremists in the lgbt community itself) we should not forget that the same attitude has been given to female clergy. Ordained women are slightly ahead of lgbt clergy in terms of acceptance but many denominations still deny senior spiritual positions to women.

Ninety-five years ago today one woman died who was a pioneer of modern female lesbian ministry. Her name is Mrs. Phebe Anne Coffin Hanaford (1929-1921). Phebe’s profile on the LGBT-RAN website states very boldly that she “may be America’s earliest certifiable lesbian minister”. As with many lgbt people of her time the nature of her relationships with people are pieced together from snippets of surviving information and our interpretation of them. Phebe’s relationship with Ellen Miles, with whom she lived for 41 years and was referred to in the press as her “wife”, turns “may be” into “probable”.

So, who was Phebe Hannaford? Her ancestry was very illustrious. Her father was George W. Coffin, a descendant of the same family who are CydZeigler’s step-ancestors. The Coffins were Quakers who were accustomed to women leading worship meetings and this freedom to speak publicly played an important part in Phebe’s future. Even as a child Phebe was developing her preaching skills and is said to have stood on a box to preach to other children. She was highly intelligent and literate and she was writing for the local press by the age of 13.

When she was 8 she signed a temperance pledge, and the temperance movement was one of her main areas of campaign work. Through the movement Phebe became friends with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and joined them in another of their campaigns, women’s suffrage. Even though the suffrage movement suffered a split with Phebe on a different side she remained on very good terms with both Susan and Elizabeth. Well into her old age Phebe was invited to officiate at both of their funerals.

Phebe’s career as a preacher and minister began properly after her marriage. When she married Dr. Joseph Hanaford in 1849 she adopted the Baptist faith of her husband. In 1865, following the death of two siblings she became a Universalist.

The Universalist church opposed the general Christian doctrine that only few people can achieve salvation. The Universalists considered was, well, universal. In the 18th and 19th centuries Universalism encouraged scientific acceptance of the world and of reason above doctrine. By this means the church attracted many free-thinkers and campaigners for social justice.

It was in 1865 that Phebe preached her first sermon as a Universalist. Her own father had invited her to give two sermons in the schoolhouse where Phebe taught before her marriage. She didn’t become an ordained minister until after she was persuaded to enter the ministry by Rev. Olympia Brown, the first woman to be ordained as a Universalist minister. Phebe became an ordained minister in 1868.

Ministers were usually itinerant, being appointed to churches for a term of two to three years before moving on to another one elsewhere. Phebe’s first church was in Waltham, Massachusetts, and she later went to New haven, Connecticut. There she was appointed chaplain of the state legislature. She then moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1874 before returning to New Haven in 1884 and retiring in 1891.

In retirement Phebe lived in New York with Ellen Miles. She carried on with her social rights work, still campaigning for female suffrage and temperance.

Even though Phebe had not lived with her husband since her first appointment as an ordained minister she didn’t lose contact with the family. She participated in the ordination of her son as a Congregationalist minister, and officiated at her daughter’s wedding. In fact, some of the press tried to smear her reputation by claiming that Phebe always demanded that couples she married took the surname of the bride not the groom.

Edith Miles died in 1914 and Phebe moved in with her grand-daughter in Rochester. She was always in good health and in her old age expressed the desire to live to be 100 years old. Unfortunately, this was not to be, but she almost made it. On this very day in 1921, Phebe died at the age of 92.

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