Woman of the Century/Olympia Brown
BROWN, Olympia, Universalist minister, born in Prairie Ronde. Kalamazoo county, Mich., 5th January, 1835. Though a Wolverine, and always claiming to be a representative Western woman, Olympia's ancestry belonged to what Oliver Wendell Holmes would call "The Brahmin Caste of New England," though both her parents were Vermont mountaineers. On her father's side she traces her lineage directly back to that sturdy old patriot. Gen. Putnam, of Revolutionary fame, and through her mother she belongs to a branch of the Parkers, of Massachusetts. Olympia's parents moved to Nlichigan, as pioneers, in what was then the remote West. Her birthplace was a log-house, and her memories of childhood are the narrow experiences common to a farmer's household in a new country, with only the exceptional stimulus to mental culture afforded by the self-denial of a mother determined that her daughters should enjoy every advantage of study she could possibly obtain for them. At the age of fifteen Olympia was promoted to the office of mistress of the district school and was familiarized with all the delights of "boarding around." She alternated teaching in a country school in summer with study in the village academy in winter, till, in the fall of 1854, she entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, in South Hadley, Mass. Though she remained only one year, reviewing branches already quite thoroughly mastered, she there first began to be interested in those theological investigations that have shaped her life. Questioning the doctrinal teaching made prominent in the seminary, she secured the strongest Universalist documents she could find and laid the foundations of a faith never since shaken. Attracted by the reputation of Horace Mann as an educator, she became a student in Antioch College, Ohio, and was graduated from that institution in i860. The question confronted her then, "what use shall I make of my life?" To a careful paper, asking advice of the college faculty on that point, she received, as their best deliberate thought, direction to an indefinite course of reading and study, with the one aim of selfish intellectual enjoyment, varied by purely private acts of charity. Against the narrow limitations of such an existence all the activities of her soul rebelled, and, after much thought and in spite of determined opposition from every quarter, she chose the profession of the ministry, and was graduated from the Theological seminary, in Canton. N. Y., a branch of St. Lawrence University. She was ordained in Malone, N. Y., in June, 1863, by vote of the ordaining council of the Universalist Church, the first instance of the ordinaation of a woman by any regularly constituted ecclesiastical body. There had been woman preachers and exhorters in America ever since the days of Anne Hutchinson, but in no case had such preachers been ordained by ecclesiastical council or by the authority of the church of which she was a representative. This public recognition of a woman minister by a body of the church militant opened the pulpit to women so effectively that her ordination was followed by others of other denominations. Her first pastoral labors were as pulpit supply in Marshfield, Vt., in the absence of Rev. Eli Rallou, pastor, and preaching every alternate Sunday in East Montpelier. Desirous of better perfecting herself for efficient service, early in 1864 she moved to Boston and entered the Dio Lewis Gymnastic School, taking lessons in elocution of Prof. Leonard. There she received and accepted a call to the church in Weymouth. Mass., and was formally installed as pastor on 8th July, 1864, the Rev. Sylvanus Cobb preaching the installation sermon. Early in her pastorate the question was raised concerning the legality of the marriage rite solemnized by a woman. The subject was brought before the Massachusetts Legislature and referred to the judiciary committee, who decided that, according to the definition of legislative statutes, the masculine and feminine pronouns are there used interchangeably, and the statutes, as then worded, legalized marriages by ministers of the gospel, whether men or women. In the spring of 1866 Olympia attended the Equal Rights convention, held in Dr. Cheever's Church in New York, and there met Susan B. Anthony, Parker Pillsbury and other prominent advocates of woman's enfranchisement. From her early girlhood she had taken a keen interest in every movement tending toward a wider scope for girls and women, but on that occasion she was first brought into personal relations with the active reformers of the day. In 1867 the Kansas Legislature submitted to popular vote a proposition to amend their constitution by striking out the word "male." That was the first time the men of any State were asked to vote upon a measure for woman suffrage. Lucy Stone OLYMPIA BROWN. immediately made arrangements with the Republican central committee to send one woman speaker to aid in the ensuing canvass. In response to urgent importunity that she should become the promised speaker, Olympia obtained the consent of her parish, and personally furnished a supply for her pulpit. She set forth on her arduous mission in July and labored unremittingly till after election. A tour through the wilds of Kansas at that time involved hardships, difficulties and even dangers. Arrangements for travel and lilting escort had been promised her, but nothing was provided. Nevertheless, overcoming obstacles that would have taxed the endurance of the strongest man, she completed the entire canvass of the settled portions of the State. Between 5th July and 5th November she made 205 speeches, traveling, not infrequently, fifty miles to reach an appointment. The Republican party, that submitted the proposition and induced her engagement in the field, so far stultified its own action as to send out circulars and speakers to defeat the measure, and yet, by her eloquent appeals, she had so educated public sentiment that the result showed more than one-third of the voting citizens in favor of the change. Olympia's pastoral connection with the church in Weymouth continued nearly six years. But, she said characteristically, the church was then on so admirable a footing she could safely trust it to a man's management and she desired for herself a larger field, involving harder toil. She accepted a call to the church in Bridgeport, Conn., then in a comatose condition. Immediately affairs assumed a new aspect, the church membership rapidly increased, the Sunday-school, which had had only a nominal existence, became one of the finest in the city, and the work of the church in all good causes was marked for its excellence and efficiency. She severed her connection with the church in April, 1876. She remained in New England, preaching in many States, as opportunity offered, till February, 1878. when she accepted a call to the pastorate of the Universalist Church in Racine, Wis. There she made for herself a home, which is the center of genial hospitality and the resort of the cultivated and intelligent. She faithfully continued her pastorate with the Racine church, toiling with brain and hand, with zeal unflagging, taxing her resources to the utmost to help the society meet its financial emergencies, till the time of her resignation, in February, 1887. Of her work there, a member of her parish writes: "When she came to Racine some of the parish were groping about in search of 'advanced thought;' some, for social and other causes, had become interested in other churches, and some were indifferent. Her sermons interested the indifferent called many of the wanderers back and furnished food for thought to the most advanced thinkers. Her addresses were always in point." It is noticeable that all the churches with which Olympia has been connected have continued to be active, working parishes, dating a new life from the time of her union with them, thus showing that her quickening is not the transient development of an abnormal excitment, but healthy growth from central, vital truth planting. Since her resignation of her pulpit in Racine, while still keeping the interest of Universalism near her heart, and losing no opportunity to extend its borders and expound its doctrines, and continuing actively in the ministry, Olympia has given the larger part of her time to the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association, of which she has been for several years the president and central inspiration. As vice-president of the National Woman Suffrage Association she has been able to raise an eloquent voice in behalf of progress and has done much to recommend that organization to the people. In the course of her public career she has many times been called to address the legislatures of the several States, and her incisive arguments have contributed much to those changes in the laws which have so greatly ameliorated the condition of women. Olympia has not confined her sympathies to womans rights or to Universalism. She has been and still is a persevering, faithful temperance agitator, working assiduously for almost a score of years in the orders of the Good Templars and the Sons of Temperance. In April, 1873, Olympia was married to John Henry Willis, a business man, entirely in sympathy with her ideas in regard to woman's position. It is by mutual agreement and with his full consent she retains the maiden name her toil has made historic, and continues her public work. Two children beautify the home, H. Parker Brown Willis and Gwendolen Brown Willis. Perhaps one could hardly answer the sophistries of those who claim that the enlargement of woman's sphere of action will destroy the home-life better than by pointing to its practical illustration in her well-ordered home. Perhaps her most prominent characteristic, and one that has been sometimes mistaken for aggressiveness, is her absolute fearlessness in espousing and defending the right.