March is Women’s History Month and an appropriate time to remember Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford—a remarkable woman whose Hingham connection is not generally remembered.
This photograph from our archives is of the Meeting House of the First Universalist Society in Hingham. The building remains standing as a private home on North Street—albeit without the wonderful “crown.” It was built in 1829 by a group of Hingham adherents of Universalism, a liberal Protestant Christian faith which, like Unitarianism, developed in New England as a reaction to the strict Puritanism of the area’s early settlers. Universalists believed in universal salvation: that all human souls—not just the Elect—achieve salvation through Christ. Their liberal theology was matched with liberal social views, and in the mid-19th century, the Universalists were one of the few Protestant denominations to ordain women to the ministry.
Phebe Hanaford, born Phebe Ann Coffin on Nantucket, was the third woman ordained to the ministry of any Christian denomination in the United States—and the first in Massachusetts. That signal event occurred on February 19, 1868 at the Universalist Meeting House pictured above in Hingham, after she had served as that church’s pastor for around 18 months. Sermons were preached by the Rev. Olympia Brown, the first woman minister in the United States and at that time pastor of the Universalist church in Weymouth, and John Greenleaf Adams who preached on the text, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bound nor free, there is neither male or female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Hanaford was popular as the part-time pastor in Hingham. The Star in the West, a monthly Universalist publication, wrote at the time of her ordination:
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!
She stayed in Hingham (while also preaching at the Universalist Church in Waltham) until 1870, commuting by horse and buggy from the Reading home she shared with her husband and two children. In 1870, she accepted a call to the First Universalist Church and Society at New Haven, taking her children with her but leaving her husband behind. From 1870 on, in parishes in New Haven and Jersey City, New Jersey, she shared her home with a woman named Ellen Miles.
Hanaford had been active in the abolition movement in the 1860s and after the Civil War became an increasingly well-know activist in the women’s suffrage movement. She lost her pulpit in Jersey City in a controversy that stemmed partially from her outspoken involvement in the suffrage movement but also partially from her then-unorthodox domestic arrangements (contemporary newspaper articles referred to Miles as “the minister’s wife”). She did not have a parish of her own again, but she wrote and spoke and remained active in the women’s suffrage and temperance movements. (We also have in our archives two letters that she wrote after the turn of the 20th century as President of the Women’s Press Club in New York.) In the public sphere, she presided at the funerals of both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Closer to home, she had the opportunity, unprecedented for a woman of her time, to give the blessing at her son’s ordination to the Congregational ministry and to perform her daughter’s marriage.