The Unitarian body has been remarkable for the women of intellectual power and philanthropic achievement who have adorned its fellowship. In proportion to their numbers, they have done much for the improvement and uplifting of society. In the early Unitarian period, however, the special work of women was for the most part confined to the Sunday-school and the sewing circle. Whatever the name by which it was known, whether as the Dorcas Society, the Benevolent Society, or the Ladies’ Aid, the sewing circle did a work that was in harmony with the needs of the time, and did it well. It helped the church with which it was connected in many quiet ways, and gave much aid to the poor and suffering members of the community. Nor did it limit its activities to purely local interests; for many a church was helped by it and the early missionary societies received its contributions gladly.

Before the organization of the Benevolent Fraternity of Churches, the women of Boston raised the money necessary for the support of the ministry at large in that city. One of the earliest societies organized for general service, was the Tuckerman Sewing Circle, formed in 1827. Its purpose was to assist Dr. Tuckerman in his work for the poor of the city by providing clothing and otherwise aiding the needy. The work of this circle is still going on in connection, with the Bulfinch Place Church; and every year it raises a large sum of money for the charitable work of the ministry at large.

The civil war helped women to recognize the need of organization and co-operation, on their part. In working for the soldiers, not only in their homes and churches, but in connection with the Sanitary Commission, and later in seeking to aid the freedmen, they learned their own power and the value of combination with others. In Massachusetts the work of the Sanitary Commission was largely carried on by Unitarians. In describing this work, Mrs. Ednah D. Cheney has indicated what was done by Unitarian women. “During the late war,” she wrote, “a woman’s branch of the Sanitary Commission was organized in New England. Mary Dwight (Parkman) was its first president; but Abby Williams May soon took her place, which she held till the close of the war. With unwearied zeal Miss May presided over its councils, organized its action, and encouraged others to work. She went down to the hospitals and camps, to judge of their needs with her own eyes, and travelled from town to town in New England, arousing the women to new effort. These might be seen, young and old, rich and poor, bearing bundles of blue flannel through the streets, and unaccustomed fingers knitting the coarse yarn, while the heart throbbed with anxiety for the dear ones gone to the war. A noble band of nurses volunteered their services, and the strife was as to which should go soonest and do the hardest work. Hannah E. Stevenson, Helen Stetson, and many another name became as dear to the soldiers as that of mother or sister. A committee was formed to supply the colored soldiers with such help as other soldiers received from their relations; and, when one of the noblest of Boston’s sons passed through her streets at their head, his mother ‘thanked God for the privilege of seeing that day.’ The same spirit went into the work of educating the freedmen. Young men and women, the noblest and best, went forth together to that work of danger and toil.”[1]
Women’s Western Unitarian Conference.

It was such experiences as these that encouraged Unitarian women to enter upon other philanthropic and educational labors when the civil war had come to an end. Leaders had been trained during this period who were capable of guiding such movements to a successful issue. The example of the women of the evangelical churches in organizing their home and foreign missionary associations also undoubtedly influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, the women of the liberal churches. After the organization of the National Conference, Unitarian women began to realize, as never before, the need of co-operation in behalf of the cause they had at heart.[2] It was in the central west, however, that the first effort was made to organize women in the interest of denominational activities. In 1877, at the meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference held in Toledo, it was voted that the women connected with that body be requested to organize immediately for the purpose of co-operating in the general work of the conference. At this meeting two women, Mrs. E.P. Allis of Milwaukee and Mrs. Mary P. Wells Smith of Cincinnati, were placed on the board of directors.

At the next annual meeting of the Western Conference, held in Chicago, the committee on organization, consisting of thirteen women, reported the readiness of the women to give their aid to the conference work, saying in their report “that we signify not only our willingness, but our earnest desire to share henceforth with our brothers in the labors and responsibilities of this Association, and that we pledge ourselves to an active and hearty support of those cherished convictions which constitute our liberal faith.” In response to their request, the conference selected an assistant secretary to have charge of everything relating to the work of women. They also recommended that the women of the several churches connected with the conference should organize for “the study and dissemination of the principles of free thought and liberal religious culture, and the practical assistance of all worthy schemes and enterprises intended for the spread and upholding of these principles.” In 1881, at St. Louis, there was organized the Women’s Western Unitarian Conference, with Mrs. Eliza Sunderland as president and Miss F.L. Roberts as secretary. During the seventeen years of its existence this conference raised much money for denominational work, developed many earnest workers, and accomplished much in behalf of the principles for which it stood. It aided in the support of several missionaries, organized the Post-office Mission and made it effective, and encouraged a number of women to enter the ministry.
Women’s Auxiliary Conference.

At the National Conference session of 1878, held at Saratoga, where much enthusiasm had been awakened, it was suggested that the women, who had been hitherto listeners only, should take an active part in, denominational work. At a gathering in the parlor of the United States Hotel, called by Mrs. Charles G. Ames, Mrs. Fielder Israel, Mrs. J.P. Lesley, and one or two others, a plan of action was adopted that led, in 1880, to the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Conference. The aim of this organization was to quicken the religious life of the churches, to stimulate local charitable and missionary undertakings, and to raise money for missionary enterprises; but its work was to be done in connection with the National Conference, and not as an independent organization. The purpose was stated in a circular sent to the churches immediately after the organization was effected. “Hitherto,” it was said, “women have not been specially represented upon the board of the National Conference, and have not fully recognized how helpful they might be in its various undertakings or how much they themselves might gain from a closer relation with it. But the time has now come when our service is called for in the broad field, and also when we feel the need of being at work there; for our faith in the great truths of religion is no less vital than that of our brethren; and since the service we can render, being different from theirs, is needed to supplement it, and because it is peculiarly women’s service, we must do it, or it will be left undone. It is one of the glories of such a work as ours that there is need and room in it for the best effort of every individual; indeed, without the faithful service of all it must be incomplete.”

In 1890, after ten years of active existence, the conference had about eighty branches, with a membership of between 3,000 and 4,000 women. Much of the success of the conference was due to its president, Abby W. May. Miss May was well known as a philanthropist and educator, and had occupied many prominent positions before she assumed the presidency of the auxiliary; but this was her first active work in connection with the denomination.
The National Alliance.

Admirable as were the aims, and excellent as was the work of this organization, it was auxiliary to the National Conference, and had no independent life. After the first enthusiasm was past, it failed to gain ground rapidly, the membership remaining nearly stationary during the last few years of its existence. As time went on, therefore, it became evident that a more complete organization was needed in order to arouse enthusiasm and to secure the loyalty of the women of all parts of the country. The New York League of Unitarian Women, including those of New York, Brooklyn, and New Jersey, organized in 1887, showed the advantages of a closer union and a more definite purpose; and the desire to bring into one body all the various local organizations hastened the change. It was seen that, in the multiplication of organizations, there was danger of wasting the energies used, and that one efficient body was greatly to be desired.

In May, 1888, a committee was formed for the purpose of drafting a constitution for a new association, “to which all existing organizations might subscribe.” The constitution provided by this committee was adopted October 24, 1890, and the new organization took the name of the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women. The object proposed was “to quicken the life of our Unitarian churches, and to bring the women of the denomination into closer acquaintance, co-operation, and fellowship.” In 1891 there were ninety branches, with about 5,000 members. While the membership, doubled under the impulse of the new organization, the increase in the amount of money raised was fivefold.

The admirable results secured by the Women’s Alliance, which has finally drawn all the sectional organizations into co-operation with itself, are in no small measure due to the energy and the organizing skill of the women who have been at the head of its activities. Mrs. Judith W. Andrews, of Boston, was the president during the first year of its existence. From 1891 to 1901 the president was Mrs. B. Ward Dix, of Brooklyn, who was succeeded by Miss Emma C. Low, of the same city. Mrs. Emily A. Fifield, of Boston, has been the recording secretary; Mrs. Mary B. Davis, of New York, the corresponding secretary; and Miss Flora L. Close, of Boston, the treasurer from the first.
Cheerful Letter and Post-office Missions.

In 1891 the executive board appointed a committee to organize a Cheerful Letter Exchange, of which Miss Lilian Freeman Clarke was made the chairman. One of its chief purposes is to cheer the lonely and discouraged, invalids and others, by interchange of letters and by gifts of books and periodicals. To young persons in remote places it affords facilities for securing a better education, with the aid of correspondence classes. By means of a little monthly magazine, The Cheerful Letter, religious teaching is brought to many persons, who in this find a substitute for church attendance where that is not possible. Through the same channel, as well as by correspondence, these workers help young mothers in the right training of their children. Libraries have been started in communities destitute of books, and struggling libraries have been aided with gifts. Forty travelling libraries are kept in circulation.

Although much had been done to circulate Unitarian tracts and the other publications of the American Unitarian Association, by means of colporteurs, by the aid of the post-office, as well as by direct gift of friend to friend, it remained for Miss Sallie Ellis, of Cincinnati, in 1881, to systematize this kind of missionary effort, and to make it one of the most valuable of all agents for the dissemination of liberal religious ideas. Miss Ellis was aided by the Cincinnati branch of the Women’s Auxiliary, but she was from the first the heart and soul of this mission. “If there had been no Miss Ellis,” says one who knew her work intimately, “there would have been no Post-office Mission. Many helped about it in various ways, but she was the mission.”

Miss Ellis was a frail little woman, hopelessly deaf and suffering from an incurable disease. Notwithstanding her physical limitations, she longed to be of service to the faith she cherished; and the missionary spirit burned strong within her. “I want,” she said often, “to do something for Unitarianism before I die”; but the usual avenues of opportunity seemed firmly closed to her. At last, in the winter of 1877-78, Rev. Charles W. Wendte, then her pastor, anxious to find something for her to do, proposed that she should send the Association’s tracts and copies of the Pamphlet Mission to persons in the west who were interested in the liberal faith. She took up this work gladly, and during that winter distributed 1,846 tracts and 211 copies of the Pamphlet Mission in twenty-six States.

A tract table in the vestibule of the church was started by Miss Ellis; and she not only distributed sermons freely in this way, but she also sold Unitarian books. It was in 1881 that she was made the secretary of the newly organized Women’s Auxiliary in Cincinnati, and that her work really began systematically. At the suggestion of Mrs. Mary P. Wells Smith, advertisements were inserted in the daily papers, and offers made to send Unitarian publications, when requested. Many doubted the advisability of such an enterprise, but the letters received soon indicated that an important method of mission work had been discovered. Rev. William C. Gannett christened this work the Post-office Mission, and that name it has since retained.

Only four and one-half years were permitted to Miss Ellis in which to accomplish her work,–a work dear to her heart, and one for which her many losses and sufferings had prepared her. During this period she wrote 2,500 letters, sent out 22,000 tracts and papers, sold 286 books, and loaned 258. The real value of such work cannot be rightly estimated in figures. Through her influence, several young men entered the ministry who are to-day doing effective work. She saved several persons from doubt and despair, gave strength to the weak, and comfort to those who mourned. At her death, in 1885, the letters received from many of her correspondents showed how strong and deep had been her influence.[3]

The movement initiated by Miss Ellis grew rapidly, and has become one of the most valuable of all agents for the dissemination of liberal religious ideas. In the year 1900 the number of correspondents was about 5,000, and the number of tracts, sermons, periodicals, and books distributed was about 200,000. The extent of this mission is also seen in the fact that in that year about 8,000 letters were written by the workers, and about 6,000 were received.

By means of the Post-office Mission the literature of the denomination, the tracts of the Unitarian Association, copies of The Christian Register, and other periodicals have been scattered all over the world. Thousands of sermons are distributed also from tables in church vestibules. Several branches publish and exchange sermons, and a loan library has been established to supplement this work.[4]

From the distribution of tracts and sermons has grown the formation of “Sunday Circles” and “Groups” of Unitarians, carefully planned circuit preaching, the employment of missionaries, and the building of chapels or small churches. Two of these are already built; and the Alliance has insured the support of their ministers for five years, and two others are in the process of erection.
Associate Alliances.

The women on the Pacific coast have been compelled in a large measure to organize their own work and to adopt their own methods, the distance being too great for immediate co-operation with the other organizations. In this work they have not only displayed energy and perseverance, but, says one who knows intimately of their efforts, “they have shown executive ability and power as organizers that have furnished an example to many non-sectarian organizations of women, and have made the Unitarian women conspicuous in all charitable and social activities.”

The oldest society of Unitarian women on the Pacific coast was connected with the First Church in San Francisco. In 1873 it was reorganized as the Society for Christian Work. Its work has been mainly social and philanthropic, contributing reading matter to penal institutions, money for the care of the poor of the city, and aiding every new Unitarian church in the State. The Channing Auxiliary combines the activities of the churches in the vicinity of San Francisco with those in the city. Its objects are “moral and religious culture, practical literary work, and co-operation with the denominational and missionary agencies of the Unitarian faith.” From 1890 to 1899 this society spent over $6,000 in aid of denominational enterprises, and it appropriates annually a large sum for Post-office Mission work. While these two organizations represent San Francisco and its neighborhood, the women up and down the coast have also been earnest workers. In 1890 they felt the need of a closer bond of union, and organized the Women’s Unitarian Conference of the Pacific Coast. In 1894 this conference became a branch of the National Alliance, and has co-operated cordially with it since that time.

The New York League of Unitarian Women has been active in forming Alliance branches and new churches, as well as in affording aid to Meadville students. The Chicago Associate Alliance, the Southern Associate Alliance, and the Connecticut Valley Associate Alliance were organized in 1890. The Worcester League of Unitarian Women began its existence in 1889, and was reorganized in connection with the National Alliance in 1892.
Alliance Methods.

In thus coming into closer relations with each other and forming a national organization, each local branch continues free in its own action, chooses its own methods of carrying on its work, but keeps close knowledge of what the Alliance as a whole is doing, that all interference with others and overlapping of assistance may be avoided, and the greatest mutual benefit may be secured. This method gives the utmost independence to the branches, while preserving the element of personal interest in all financial disbursements, and creates a strong bond of sympathy between those who give and those who receive.

The first duty of each branch is to strengthen the church to which its members belong; and the value of such an organized group of women, meeting to exchange ideas and experiences on the most vital topics of human interest, has been everywhere recognized. Each branch is expected to engage in some form of religious study, not only for the improvement of the members themselves, but to enable them to gain, and to give others, a comprehensive knowledge of Unitarian beliefs. A study class committee provides programmes for the use of the branches, arranges for the lending and exchange of papers, and assists those who do not have access to books of reference or are remote from the centres of Unitarian thought and activity.

With this preparation the Alliance undertakes the higher service of joining in the missionary activities of the denomination, supplementing as far as possible the work of the American Unitarian Association. This includes sending missionaries into new fields, aiding small and struggling churches, helping to found new ones, supporting ministers at important points, and and distributing religious literature among those who need light on religious problems.

[1] Memorial History of Boston, IV. 353.

[2] See later chapters for account of admission of women to National Conference, Unitarian Association, the ministry, Boston school board, and various other lines of activity.

[3] Mary P.W. Smith, Miss Ellis’s Mission.

[4] This library is in the Unitarian Building, 25 Beacon Street, Boston.

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