Antoinette Brown Blackwell
First Ordained Woman Minister in America
Antoinette Brown was born on May 20 to Joseph and Abby Brown, devout Christians, in the farming community of Henrietta, New York. Her parents valued education and sent all their children to local country schools at early ages. Netty, as she was fondly called, started attending school at the tender age of 3 years old.
As a young girl, Netty began to feel the call of God on her life to preach the Gospel. She was an unusually devout child and at the age of 9 was accepted as a member in her local Congregational Church that she attended with her family. She often spoke at meetings and testified of God’s love and presence in her life. As she grew into a young woman, she longed to become a minister, but she cherished her dream in silence, since it was unheard of for a woman to be a pastor.
She spent three years continuing her education at Monroe Academy in Henrietta and began teaching in nearby country schools at the age of 15. She was an attractive young woman and had many suitors. Though she longed for a husband and a family of her own, God’s call on her life to become a minister kept her from marriage. Against her parents wishes, she made plans to attend Oberlin Collegiate Institute in Ohio, a relatively new school that admitted women. She also chose this school because of the theological school attached to it. She worked for 3 years to earn her tuition and at 21 years of age she set off for Oberlin College.
After completing two years in the Ladies Literary Course with an excellent academic record, she applied for admission the theological school. She was met with disbelief and anger. While Oberlin admitted women students to its institution, much of the faculty still did not support coeducation and women were not allowed to study theology. But while most of the professors objected to her being admitted into the theological school, Oberlin’s charter stated that the college facilities must be open to everyone, regardless of race, color, or sex. Though they didn’t want to admit her, the faculty could find no grounds for refusing her. Finally, she was permitted to attend classes in the theological school, but she was not accepted as a registered student.
Netty completed the course in theology in the allotted 2 years, earning her the money for tuition and board by housekeeping and teaching an art class. During the time in the theological school, she completed a 30 page exegesis demonstrating that St. Paul’s words that seemed to limit a woman’s role in the church were being misinterpreted. This research project was to be used by countless women in the future as they struggled for equal rights. As graduation drew near, Antoinette applied with the men students to the trustees for a license to preach. She was refused under the pretense that since she was not a registered student, they could not give her the license. Neither was she allowed to participate in graduation exercises.
Discouraged, Netty returned home. There her family pleaded with her to give up the idea of becoming a minister, but Netty could not comply. While home, she was contacted by Lucy Stone, a fellow student from Oberlin, to come and speak at a woman’s rights convention in Massachusetts regarding the status of women as set forth in Scripture. This first speaking engagement took Netty one step closer to the realization of her dream.
She became a lecturer of reform for the abolition of slavery, temperance, and woman’s rights. A wealthy woman reformer paid for Netty’s expenses and though she was not a pastor, she felt she was doing the Lord’s work. To her delight, after many lectures, she was often asked to stay over and preach.
Antoinette receive much exposure on the lecture circuit and in 1853 she was finally offered a position as pastor of a small Congregational Church in South Butler, New York. She was ordained to the ministry by the Reverend Luther Lee, a prominent Congregationalist from Syracuse, thus becoming the first regularly ordained woman of a recognized denomination.
Later in life, Netty resigned her pulpit in South Bulter and married Samuel Blackwell, brother of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to receive a degree in medicine. She found great happiness and fulfillment as a wife and mother of six daughters. While she always took care of her family’s needs first, she continued to preach and lecture as time permitted. She also took up writing and published nine more books and hundreds of articles.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell became one of the most revered women of America and countless people were moved by her gospel of love. Throughout her life she was at the forefront of the reform of all kinds and a pioneer in the woman’s rights movement. Her strength and perseverance in pursuing her goal of becoming a minister helped pave the way for other women to seek fulfillment of their own dreams, never before thought possible.