On a Sunday in April 2008, I attended the service at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, Florida, wondering if this was the congregation founded in 1912 by Eleanor Gordon (1852-1942), co-leader with Mary Safford of the Iowa Sisterhood. I did not wonder long. In a chronological display of portraits of the congregation’s ministers, Eleanor Gordon’s was the first.
The portrait could easily have been Mary Safford’s. In 1912 both women were in Orlando, not planning to start new churches at their stage of life, when friends who had moved there from Iowa asked Gordon to organize a church in town. Gordon suggested Safford as the minister, but Safford declined, being occupied with her retirement project of growing citrus, and yielded the field to Gordon.
As the church began to take shape, however, Safford and Gordon disagreed about how to finance it — and about who should take the pulpit. Though Safford was better known for her preaching and personal appeal, the congregants called Gordon, who accepted. This jolted Safford, who was accustomed to center stage. The episode was the culmination of long-developing tensions in their relationship, which was nevertheless a productive one. Its outcome can be seen as an acknowledgement of Eleanor Gordon’s leadership qualities.
Gordon’s leadership skills and religious liberalism developed during her childhood and youth on an Illinois farm. Because her mother was an invalid, Eleanor competently ran the household and handled its finances, even when her father was away serving in the Union Army. Her early-developing religious liberalism stemmed from the diversity of religious belief in her extended family. Accustomed to open and good-natured discussions of religion at family gatherings, she lost respect for any religion class where questioning of doctrine was not tolerated. And when hellfire and damnation came into the discussion, she typically responded with hearty laughter. During their girlhood friendship, Gordon encouraged Safford toward bolder thoughts and actions than Safford might have taken on alone.
Safford and Gordon vowed in their youth to undertake ministry as partners, renouncing marriage as incompatible with this vocation. Neither of them could afford more than a year at the University of Iowa, so they educated themselves with wide reading. Gordon, like many Midwestern Unitarians, was especially taken with Theodore Parker, notably his courageous stands on social issues.
In 1879, encouraged by Unitarian minister Oscar Clute, the pair launched a church in their home town of Hamilton, Illinois, with Safford as minister and Gordon as her assistant. By the end of the year, Sunday services were drawing 150-200 persons. The young women also put on evening lectures and plays and added a country satellite church that was well attended. Seeing them as potential missionaries for the Western Unitarian Conference, Jenkin Lloyd Jones connected them with Unity Church, a liberal congregation in Humboldt, Iowa. Originally Methodist, Unity had affiliated with the American Unitarian Association and needed a minister. Safford was called, and Gordon went along to assist and to work as a school principal in the town. Winters were severe, and the women had to carry food, water, and fuel to their second-floor flat. Yet their spirit and energy attracted attendance that strained the church’s 300-seat capacity.
In Humboldt they were complementary partners. Gordon’s practical competence and Safford’s eloquence and charm helped open donors’ purses. Gordon, assistant pastor in all but name, sometimes took the pulpit when Safford was preaching elsewhere. She helped run the Unity Club, which studied religion and many other topics. Her Sunday School classes took a critical approach to scripture and included Emerson and Darwin.
As a public school principal, Gordon was often called before the school board and accused of injecting “Unitarianism” into the curriculum, which usually meant any hint of evolutionary theory. She even had to defend her remark that the opposable thumb had facilitated human progress.
As Safford’s leadership of the Iowa Unitarian Conference laid more parish duties on Gordon, Gordon began seeing herself as more minister than educator. When the pair took a church in Sioux City, Gordon requested time to study for ministry, but the demands of the growing congregation made this hard to arrange. An opportunity finally arose when Safford’s health required time off. They traveled to Boston, where they found that Harvard professors and Unitarian clergy were openly hostile to women in ministry and were dull, dryly academic speakers. Gordon enrolled at Cornell, where women were admitted on an equal standing with men. When at length she was ordained in Sioux City, eight women ministers were present and no Eastern clergy were invited.
Mary Safford was inclined to assume dominance in the partnership. Yet Gordon often did more than her share when Safford was taken from her parish duties by illness or professional trips, and she resented Safford’s receiving credit for work she herself had done. For instance, Old and New, the Iowa Conference publication, was chiefly the work of Gordon and Arthur M. Judy, and Gordon became indignant when Jenkin Lloyd Jones referred to it as Safford’s. By the mid-1890s Gordon had reluctantly chosen to take parishes without Safford as a partner. Her closest friend was now Carolyn Groninger Gore, a laywoman in Sioux City who later moved to Florida and was one of those requesting a new Unitarian congregation in Orlando.
Even years later, any reminder of the conflict in Orlando aroused strong emotions in Gordon, and Mary Safford only joined the Orlando congregation after Gordon had left. But in some ways the bond remained. When Safford returned to Hamilton, Illinois, in 1927 for the dedication of a high school auditorium which she had paid for and named for her mother, Gordon met her at the station. At the time, Safford was incapacitated by a broken hip and was barely able to speak at the ceremony. On the return trip, she suffered a stroke and died in Florida. When her body was sent to Hamilton for burial, Gordon once again met the train, held the viewing in her own home, and delivered a blessing at the funeral.
Gordon and Safford created a network of women in ministry that strengthened the Western Unitarian Conference and the case for women’s equality. Thanks to the revival of feminism in the later twentieth century and especially to the work of Cynthia Grant Tucker, the male denominational leaders who obstructed and devalued women in ministry live chiefly in infamy, while UUs today honor and celebrate the Iowa Sisterhood.
If Gordon was unduly eclipsed by her long-time colleague, the balance was significantly redressed in Orlando, where the First Unitarian Church, a century old in 2012, continues today as a strong congregation. The light-hearted, joyful spirit of the service I attended in 2008 is one of my fond memories.
History and Heritage Committee of the MidAmerica Region, UUA
Most of the above is from Cynthia Grant Tucker, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 (New York, Authors Choice Press, ©1990 and 2000 by the author), Kindle edition. It was tempting simply to quote long passages of the clear, graceful writing rather than paraphrase and condense it. I recommend this book to anyone who has not read it.