Mothering all People: The Intrepid Olympia Brown

Mother’s Day has always seemed like a Hallmark Holiday to me. I would send my mom flowers and a card and that was about it. I got a little more sympathetic to the idea when I learned it got started in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian woman, entitled a “Mother’s Peace Day.” It was intended to eradicate war. She wrote,[1]

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

I love the concept of women as leaders who might settle disagreements among nations – even if it seems just a dream today. But it is Mother’s Day, and I do hope we can spend a little time reflecting on what it means to mother, today. I think we all have some mothering capacity, regardless of gender. Today I will reflect on how we all “mother” or nurture commitments that will make a difference in the world, especially drawing on the life of Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained by a denomination in the US – and a Universalist.

When I was growing up, my mother nurtured a pretty fierce sense of independence in me. Oh sure, I had rules to follow, but overall, I played outside all hours, rode my bike all over the place, walked in the woods, went off in the rowboat with friends or cousins, and pretty much saw the world as a place to explore. I guess it was no surprise that I left home at 18 and spent six months in a camper van traveling about the country.

She also nurtured in me an appreciation for learning and reading. She read to me when I was young, and I excelled in school. Neither of my parents, nor my older siblings, went to college, and even though they valued reading, my parents really thought I should be a secretary – hence I took 3 years of typing! They didn’t understand college or what doors it could open; after all, they were doing just fine without college.

But my parents did the best they could and taught me many values that I hold today: generosity, keeping my word, independence, and a sense of fairness. I know not everyone has been so lucky and I am ever so grateful for the privileges I have had. I owe them a lot.

Here I am in seminary and part of that means learning about our history. Some of you have said you want to hear a little more history – so here comes! My seminary studies have led me to learn about some amazing Unitarian and Universalist leaders, and especially women. And while they weren’t role models for me in my growing up, I look at them with great respect for the lives they lived and the paths they created for me. I wonder what their upbringing was like. What kind of nurturance created these strong, committed leaders – the first to do this or that? We might learn something about how to nurture these liberal values in our children by examining the life of Olympia Brown.

I am interested in Olympia Brown because she was the first woman ordained by a denomination – Universalism. For those of you who are new, Universalism is a theology that argues that God would not damn anyone to eternal hell: God is love applies to everyone. Now, Antoinette Brown Blackwell was actually ordained about a decade earlier, but by a mainstream Protestant congregation – not a denomination. Nor would the theological school allow Antoinette to get a degree! And besides, we’re UUs, and we like to claim our place in history! Olympia Brown knew of Antoinette and saw her as a role model.

Olympia Brown was a significant leader who simply wanted a platform for women to have a voice, an absence she recognized at an early age.

Brown was born in 1835, so please picture these early years in which she lived. The underground railroad was just beginning. The Trail of Tears was forcing the resettlement of native Americans as the westward expansion was underway. The Alamo fell. People were creating sewing machines and threshing machines.

She was born in Vermont’s Green Mountains, in a town called Plymouth, where Calvin Coolidge was from. Vermont was staunchly abolitionist, so she was raised in that environment. In her autobiography she wrote, “Vermont was the first state to insert in its constitution a clause providing that there should never be ‘slavery or involuntary servitude in the state.’” (Brown: 4) The entire community valued books and the local families shared them with each other. Even though there were no libraries or colleges there, the community promoted learning through these shared efforts. The family eventually moved West so they could actually be leaders of schools.

Brown recognized what the community gave her; she wrote in her autobiography:

“The West owes much today to those former inhabitants of little Plymouth who by study and love of good books, by intelligent conversation and by reflection became truly educated. For us to speak slightingly of Plymouth does not enhance Calvin Coolidge’s credit, for though he was favored in receiving a more extended education than Plymouth could afford, it was there that he had the opportunity of learning the great lessons of love of country, loyalty to principles, and perhaps of holding his tongue when he had nothing to say, which is one of his chief assets; a lesson which other public men would have done well to learn. (Brown: 6)


[1] All content and quotes from: Brown, Olympia. (1960). Olympia Brown: An Autobiography. Edited and Completed by Gwendolen B. Willis. Racine Wisconsin. Published in The Annual Journal of the Universalist Historical Society. 1963. Volume IV: 1-76. Access at:;view=1up;seq=277



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