On a Sunday morning in Western New York State in 1833, a minister was astonished to see a nine-year old girl come up to request to be accepted into the church. Antoinette Brown (1825–1921) remembers being as “deeply and truly religious at that time…as I have ever been at any age.”
Her family had settled in the ‘Burned-Over District’ where the Millerites, the Latter-Day Saints, the Shakers and passionate revivals were thriving.
Antoinette’s father wanted her to get an education, so she attended the Monroe Academy where she was taught a more rigorous curriculum than most girls received. At fifteen, she was hired to be a teacher.
She really wanted, though, to become a minister. She needed a school that taught more than home-making skills and found one in Oberlin College.
The college was aflame with the abolitionist cause. There were several African-American students and ten percent of the town’s population was African-American Though female students could take academic courses, they were not allowed to speak in public settings. The Ladies Board discouraged Brown in her study of theology because she could never be wise enough to compare to the “great men of the past.”[i]
Brown continued with her theological studies but when she graduated at age twenty-five, her name was not included on the list of graduates because a woman was not supposed to study theology in any official capacity.
At the National Women’s Rights Convention, her public-speaking talents were validated, and she decided to try to make her living as a public speaker. In those times, lectures were a source of evening activity for people as there were no radios, televisions, or movies. Soon, Brown was lecturing throughout New England, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
On a speaking trip through central New York State, the village of South Butler offered her a position as pastor in its church. Brown agreed to take the position. She had become the first woman to be ordained a minister in the history of the United States.
Click the first video to learn a little about Oberlin College and its ties to African-American history
Click the second video to hear a reenactment of a talk by Antoinette Brown
Click the third video to learn more about the Faiths of the Burned-Over District