The Making of a Woman Minister by Reverend Annis Ford Eastman

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Reverend Annis Ford Eastman describes her first visit to Brookton Congregational Church, her work in the Church, and her ordination as one of the first women ministers of a Congregational Church.

“We put a new roof on the meeting house, and mended the steps, and cleaned it. Oh, how we did clean it! And the people revealed such beauty of character and grace as I could never have imagined.”

“How faithfully and lovingly she worked for us. Only those who knew her best and labored with her are aware. And she has been a good friend to us ever since.”

Chapter 11

“The Making of a Woman Minister”

by Annis Ford Eastman

THE minister soon fell into the habit of talking over his sermons with me early in the week, saying it helped define his thoughts to have to fight for them. I liked those talks, and soon learned to be more gentle and insinuating in my disagreements, and he to be more tolerant of my opinions. . . . Through ten years of domestic and ministerial ups and downs, with sickness and moving and multiplied cares, my interest in the sermons never flagged. And each year I noted with silent satisfaction that the minister knew less about God and more about people, talked less religion and more life. . . .

There came a day when it was no longer possible to conceal the fact that the minister could preach no more. For months he had dissipated in tonics and been eased by exchanges. But when one good sister said to me, “His sermons are just as good, but he makes such a draft on our sympathies by his looks that we can’t enjoy coming to church any more,” it was evident that he must stop.

Together we faced the situation — three children, one baby of three years, no money, no health, only pride and courage and friends. The story of those years that followed, when all the high counsels of the pulpit were translated into the common deeds of the common day, what need to tell it? It is written in the hearts of the farmers and housekeepers and laboring men, who saw him going about the humblest tasks on the streets of his aristocratic parish with the same simple dignity which had marked his pulpit ministrations. . . .

As the minister lay on his couch one day — which had become as much the center of things as an open fire, and for the same reason — I told him of my recent trip through the churches of the state in the interest of home missions. As I spoke a thought suddenly came to me which I as suddenly expressed, although only in fun: “Sam, I believe I’ll preach!” It had the effect of a galvanic shock. The minister raised himself right up and said, with almost solemn earnestness, yet with the dazed air of one making a surprising discovery: “It’s what you were made for!”

Then came the weeks of consultation with friends, of discouragements from quarters where help was confidently expected, of surprising offers of furtherance from those who had no faith in women preachers, but thought there might be such a thing as a divine leading. . . . For a time it seemed likely that my high resolve to preach was to be frustrated by a counter-resolve on the part of the churches, but at last there came a letter from a home-mission secretary, telling of a little church which had fallen among thieves and robbers, and was left more than half dead. “They have a debt and a leaking roof, several antiquated church quarrels and about twenty-five members. They will have you for one Sunday, but promise nothing after that.”

As I walked down the streets of my own town to the station, I felt as much shame and humiliation as if I had been led along by a policeman. Citizens I had always known averted their eyes as they saw me coming; those who spoke to me did so compassionately; children gazed at me wonderingly; and the ticket agent (a woman!) seemed to feel the indelicacy of my buying a ticket to Brookton on Saturday afternoon, and tossed it to me as if she said: “I wash my hands of you!”

At the little station in the solemn hills near Ithaca I was met by a florid gentleman of pleasant countenance, who plainly regarded me as a religious joke. He seemed to divine the ambitious hope I cherished, and as we drove down the hill into the little hamlet, took occasion to tell me the needs of the church.

“We must have here a man” — with pitying emphasis upon the word — “who will come and live among us, a man with a family, I might say.” I had the latter requirement, but I said little, for one cannot talk with her heart in her mouth.

I preached twice on Sunday. In the Scripture that I read in the morning were these words: “And the Lord sent Moses and Aaron and Miriam!” I never knew of the coincidence until years afterward, but it was remembered of me as a great stroke of diplomacy. Before the day was over I had begun to feel human again and to realize that the people before me were men and women to whom one might hopefully say, “Come, let us reason together.” They were kind people, and waited in the dim light of the smoky kerosene lamps to speak to me.

But oh the dawn of the next morning! Every inch of my body was sore as if I had been beaten. I was one throb of pain from head to foot. “The croakers were right after all,” I said. “A woman cannot do a man’s work.” But I have since decided that a man who had baked and scrubbed for his family all day Saturday, and had prepared everything in the home for Sunday from the minister’s white necktie to the smallest tot’s clean shirt, and had then taken a plunge into the world to swim against the tide of immemorial custom in a community of strangers — even a man might be sore in spirit and tired in body on Monday morning.

On the way to the station my weary soul and bruised body both were comforted by a change in my escort’s manner. I had ceased to be a joke. Would I come next Sunday, and would I consider an engagement for a year? And I took the precious dollars home, the price of my shocked nervous system, and told “him” that they were willing to have me another Sunday. He did not seem as much surprised as I had expected.

For three years I kept my first parish, although at arm’s length. We put a new roof on the meeting house, and mended the steps, and cleaned it. Oh, how we did clean it! And the people revealed such beauty of character and grace as I could never have imagined.

After a time my humble friends in the little church called a council to ordain me. It was afterward spitefully called a “picked council,” but this was true only in the sense that we picked the biggest and best men we knew in our neighborhood.

Of the work and worship of that day I will not speak, but only tell the dream I had the night before, which was a prophecy. I was at the foot of a high mountain. I knew that on the other side was a company of ministers. I could see them in their long black coats and white ties; they looked very dreary but earnest and dependable. Before me was an indistinct sort of vehicle, which I was to enter and which they were to pull up to the top of the mountain by an attachment of rope and pulleys. I hesitated to get in, for the mountain was high and rocky, and I feared the rope would break or the ministers would not be strong enough. Yet it seemed necessary, and I entered the vehicle finally, although woefully and trembling. As I began slowly to rise, I lifted my fearful eyes to the summit of the mountain, and there appeared the old house which we called home. Light streamed from its open door, and in its upper windows appeared the eager faces of my three children. They were waving their hands and crying: “Don’t be afraid, mother. They won’t let go! They’ll pull you up!”

And they did pull me up, making me a full-fledged minister, with authority to pronounce benedictions and solemnize marriages and join associations — if the associations didn’t object. And I have lived happily ever after.

From “The Making of a Woman Minister” by Reverend Annis Ford Eastman. Chapter 11 in “Enjoyment of Living”, by Max Eastman, Harper, New York NY, 1948, p68-71.

To better understand the attitude of the ticket agent, consider the following description of a Good Templars lodge meeting in 1873 in Cincinnati Ohio:

…According to her husband, “an organized conspiracy…of both men and women” unsuccessfully tried to block Mattie Brown’s election to a term in her own right in 1873. The conspirators objected to what they regarded as a scandal: she had “assumed her right to travel alone by public conveyance without an escort”.

— 1996, Temperance & Racism by David M. Fahey, The University Press of Kentucky, p26.

1910 Deaths

Died in Elmira N.Y. Saturday Oct 22 1910. Rev. Annis Ford Eastman, joint pastor with her husband, Rev. Samuel E. Eastman of Park Ch. Mrs. Eastman was born in Peoria Ill. Apr 24 1852. She was ordained in this church Nov. 12 1889, and remained our pastor until 1891. Previous to her ordination she preached for us from Apr 1889 until Nov, same year. How faithfully and lovingly she worked for us. Only those who knew her best and labored with her are aware. And she has been a good friend to us ever since.

She was the first woman to be ordained to preach in the Cong. Ch.

1910, Digitally photographed entry in Congregational Church 1868-1933 Minutes of Meetings and Membership, used with permission from Caroline Valley Community Church. View largest available size.