Rev. Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, Pioneering “Lesbian” Minister, 1829 – June 2, 1921

Gay and lesbian clergy have been around for a long time – right from the start of ordained ministry (barring some quibbles over terminology: the words “gay” and “lesbian” do not apply directly to the earliest years). Even in modern times, there are numerous reports of openly gay or lesbian clergy going back a lot further than I had recognised. Among many who are described as the “first” in one or other specific field, the earliest clear example I have come across (so far) is Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, who was raised a Quaker,where she was accustomed to full participation by women,  was briefly a Baptist, and finally ordained in the Universalist church in 1968, claiming to have been the first woman of any denomination ordained in New England.  She was also plainly and openly “lesbian”, many years before the term or concept was widely recognized.

 

Phebe Ann Coffin was born into a Quaker family in Siasconset, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, the only child of the merchant and shipowner George W. Coffin and his wife Phebe Ann (Barnard) Coffin. Both were Quakers and direct descendants of the island’s first white settlers, Tristram Coffin and Peter Folger.

Phebe lived amidst women who bore the responsibilities of daily life as the whaling men were at sea. These two influences made Phebe an extraordinarily independent woman. She was educated in public and private schools on the island, tutored in mathematics and Latin and her talents were encouraged at home. She was a formidable scholar and active reformer: she wrote the first biography of Lincoln to be published after his death, and was active in both the abolitionist and women’s movements.

She spoke openly of her desire to be a Quaker preacher. She took the pledge at the early age of 8, and at age 18 was chaplain and treasurer of the Daughters of Temperance and Deputy Grand Worthy Chief Templar in the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.

She taught school on Cape Cod and in Nantucket until her marriage in 1849 to Dr. Joseph H. Hanaford, a homeopathic physician and school teacher. She joined her husband’s Baptist church. Their son, Howard, was born in 1841 and their daughter, Florence, in 1854.

Living in Beverly during the Civil War, her commitment as an abolitionist led her to relinquish her Quaker pacifism. As her marriage was failing she supported and educated her children with her writing. Her contact with Universalist women opened up a world of activism for the rights of women. In 1868 she was ordained a minister in the Universalist church. From 1874, she was pastor to a congregation in New Jersey, but after her initial three year term, controversy arose over her reappointment which she did not get.

The controversy was nominally over her involvement in the “women’s issue” (ie, the suffragette movement), but in reality it was her relationship with coworker Ellen Miles, which had begun in 1870. Newspaper clippings preserved in Hanaford’s scrapbook reported that the disgruntlement among congregation members was, in fact, over Hanaford’s liaison with Miles, whom the papers called the ‘minister’s wife.’ Hanaford, it seems, was not simply asked to cease her women’s rights activities, but more specifically, to ‘dismiss’ Miss Miles… their letters testify to a deep and abiding affection. The two remained life-long companions, separated after forty-four years together only by Miles’s death in 1914.

After her failure to be reappointed in New Jersey, she attempted to set up a new congregation of her own. However, when her dissident New Jersey congregation applied for formal recognition and was rejected by the General Universalist Convention in 1878, Hanaford had no settled pulpit, and for years she conducted lecturing and preaching tours across New England and the Middle Atlantic and Western states. Deprived of formal ministry, she created a successful independent ministry of her own – ultimately achieving high honour in the early twentieth century , when she was asked to officiate at the at the funeral services for two leading women’s rights activists of the nineteenth century: the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the woman-suffrage organizer Susan B. Anthony. The two friends, who had shared a life of labor, died within four years of each other, and Hanaford had known them both well.

After Ellen’s death Phebe lived with her granddaughter in Basom, New York where she was isolated from the activities she enjoyed. Both her children predeceased her. She voted in the New York election but not in the federal election of 1920. The family moved to Rochester, New York where she died alone in her bedroom. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Orleans, New York next to her daughter Florence Hanaford Warner.

There is a great deal in the story of this remarkable woman for us to reflect on and admire. The story of her extraordinary achievement as a woman in defying and transcending gender boundaries as an impressive scholar and pioneer female ordained minister is remarkable in itself. Thereafter, after commencing a new life committed to a woman, she was confronted by a demand from her congregation to give up her partner and conform, or to face the loss of her ministry.  Courageously, she chose commitment and truth over expedience, and paid the price. She persevered independently for decades, forging an independent ministry where she was unable to work within the formal structures – and ultimately achieved honour and recognition for it.

June 2nd is the anniversary of her death, a day that in Catholic tradition would be marked as her “die natalis“, or her birth into new life. It is a fitting day for us to remember and celebrate her.

(Sources:

I first came across Rev Hanaford on the useful LGBT biography pages at Matt & Andrej Komasky, but have added to their notes with more extensive material from the Nantucket Historical Association .  Also see her page at the LGBT Religious Archives, where she is described as (possibly) “America’s earliest certifiable lesbian minister”)

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