Women Sing Out

November 13, 2014

Rosalind Black

Speakers (from left to right) Reverend David Hill, Professor of History Carol Lasser, Reverend Beth Marshall portraying Antoinette Brown Blackwell, and Marlene Merrill, an affiliate scholar at the college, pose in front of the marker.
Photo credit: Dale Preston

Community members, visitors, local congregations, religious leaders, and dignitaries gathered on Sunday, November 9, in the First Church Meeting House to join their voices in song and dedicate a new Ohio Historical Marker in honor of Antoinette Brown Blackwell and the First Church in Oberlin, United Church of Christ. Blackwell was an Oberlin alumna who became the first female ordained minister in the United States. The ceremony opened with a “sing” of historic hymns, titled Oberlin Connections Through Hymns, featuring those composed or arranged by women active in the Oberlin community throughout the years. The event culminated with the dedication of the marker.

The inscription on the marker recounts how Blackwell completed Oberlin’s Ladies' Course in 1847, continuing on to study theology under Charles Grandison Finney. She completed the seminary in 1850 but received no theology degree until Oberlin granted her an honorary Master of Arts in 1878, and a Doctor of Divinity in 1908. Women speaking in public was unheard of when Blackwell left Oberlin, so she held a Congregationalist pastorate in South Butler, New York, after leaving Oberlin even though she had been speaking in church services since she was nine. In 1853, however, the church asked her to serve as a minister, and she became the first woman ordained by the Christian church in the United States.

Although honored, Blackwell disagreed with the strict orthodoxy of her church and resigned a year after her ordination. In 1856, she married Samuel Blackwell and, together, they had five daughters, but Blackwell never abandoned her beliefs. Until she was 90 years old, Blackwell continued giving speeches and sermonizing in the Unitarian church, which she joined in 1878, about gender equality and the abolition of slavery, among other causes. She also wrote many books, the last of which came out three years before her death at 96 years old.

Blackwell made history when she became ordained, inspiring the United Church of Christ to create an award in her name in 1975 granted to outstanding clergywomen. The hymn sing and dedication were sponsored by First Church and the Oberlin Heritage Center. Now Blackwell, and the religious community that educated her, enters the historical landscape of Oberlin commemorating a woman eager to learn and unafraid to speak—or sing—out.

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