Recognition and Remembrance Service, 2001
Excerpt from the 2001 Service of Recognition and Remembrance held at the Boston University School of Theology
The Reverend Doctor Anna Howard Shaw is a saint of the Church and of this university. Called by God, she led the way for women in the church, the society and the world. During her life as a preacher and prophet Anna continually worked for social justice concerns, organizing and lecturing throughout the world for the causes of temperance, women’s suffrage, and peace. Anna took seriously God’s command at Pentecost declaring that your daughters shall prophesy and prophesy she did.
Let us hear now her story. As we remember the life of Anna, let us re-call and remind ourselves, as heirs of her faithful witness, of the need to continue the work she did for women in the church and in the world.
The Reverend Doctor Anna Howard Shaw was born in England on February 14, 1847. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1851. They first moved to Massachusetts but in 1859 Anna’s father sent the family to live in a rudimentary cabin in the wilderness of Michigan. Shaw’s early years were thus marked by the pioneering spirit of hard work and “gumption” of which she thought so highly.
Anna felt called to preach early on at the age of fourteen and preach she did to the frontier. Her family, however, seriously opposed this calling. Let us hear Anna’s words as she recalls that time in her life…
“In those days, almost fifty years ago, and in a small pioneer town, the fields open to women were few and unfruitful. I had been working a month at my uncongenial trade in Big Rapids when I was favored by a visit from a Universalist woman minister, The Reverend Marianne Thompson, who came there to preach. It was a wonderful moment when I saw my first woman minister enter her pulpit and as I listened to her sermon, thrilled to the soul, all my early aspirations to become a minister myself stirred in me with cumulative force…But when I told my family, it was such a shock to everyone and created such a sensation that my people who had decided upon sending me to Michigan University refused to do so unless I gave them my pledge never to preach. This I could not do, so again I faced what seemed like defeat.”
And God said your daughters shall prophesy…
But Anna was determined to preach. While attending undergraduate school at Albion College and supported by Universalist minister Marianne Thompson and suffragist Mary A. Livermore, Anna was “discovered” by a Methodist Episcopal Elder who was eager to be the first to have a woman ordained. Shaw was licensed in 1871 and given many opportunities to preach in the surrounding areas.
“My most dramatic experience during this period occurred in the summer of 1874, when I went to a Northern lumber-camp to preach. I could only reach my pulpit by having someone drive me through the woods all night. After I had made several vain efforts to find a driver, a man appeared in a two seated wagon and offered to take me to my destination, I felt I had to go with him, though I did not like his appearance. It was already growing dark when we started and within moments we were out of the settlement and in the woods. Tonight the heavens held no lamps aloft to guide us, and soon the darkness folded around us like a garment.
Suddenly the driver began to talk and at first I was glad to hear the reassuring human tones, for the experience had begun to seem like a bad dream. He began to tell me grim stories with horrible details, repeated with such gusto that I soon realized he was deliberately affronting my ears. I told him I could not listen to such talk and he replied with shocking vulgarities, stopping his horses that he might turn and fling the words into my face. He snarled that I must think him a fool to imagine he did not know what kind of woman I was, alone with him in those black woods. Though my heart skipped a beat, I tried to answer calmly, “You know perfectly well who I am and you understand that I am making this journey tonight because I am to preach tomorrow”. He uttered a most unpleasant laugh. “Well”, he said coolly, “I’m damned if I’ll take you. I’ve got you here and I’m going to keep you here!”
I slipped my hand into the satchel in my lap and it touched my revolver. With a deep breath of thanksgiving I drew it out and cocked it and as I did so he recognized the sudden click. “Hey, what do you got there?” he snapped. “I have a revolver”, I replied as steadily as I could, “and it is cocked and aimed straight at your back. Now drive on. If you stop again or speak, I’ll shoot you.” The rest of the night was a black terror but he did not stop nor speak again. The next morning I preached at a friend’s pulpit as I had promised to do and the rough building was packed to its doors with lumbermen who had come in from the neighboring camp to se the woman minister who carried a revolver. “Her sermon?” said one of them, “Huh? I dunno what she preached. But don’t make no mistake about it; the little preacher has sure got grit!”
And God said your daughters shall prophesy…
Feeling called to ordained ministry, Anna cut short her undergraduate studies at Albion College to go directly to Boston University School of Theology. While male seminarians roomed and boarded free, she had to make her own way, living off campus and working to pay for meals. She was more than once on the brink of starvation, living on nothing more than milk and crackers. Exhausted and weak from malnutrition Anna would often rest on the stairway, to catch her breath and garner strength before resuming her climb to classes. Today in the second floor stairwell of the School of Theology there is a window in memory of Anna, as you pass by you might pause and remember the days when Anna too paused on other stairwells, as she persevered for her faith and call.
“My class at theological school was composed of 42 men and my unworthy self, and before I had been a member of it an hour I realized that women theologians paid heavily for the privilege of being women. Throughout my entire course at Boston University I rarely entered the classroom without the abysmal conviction that I was really not wanted there. On one occasion in class I came across the lesson where on the mountain top after Pentecost when the people declared the Christians were drunk and Peter defended them saying, “These are not drunken; this is the fulfillment of your own Scriptures of your own prophet, who said, ‘In the last days I shall pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy’” And I innocently said to the professor, “What does prophesy mean?” “Well, he said, it depends on where it is used. In the New Testament such as this it is used wholly in the sense of preaching. When the word prophesy is used in the New Testament it means that they shall preach” “Oh”, I said, “then women did preach, did they not, at the time of Pentecost?” He was bitterly opposed to women preaching and didn’t want me there. He said, “No, oh no, the women talked to each other.” I said, “Yes, and what did the men do? Talk to each other?” He said, “Oh no they preached.” And I said, “But the two are connected by a conjunction, ‘men and women’ and when women talk they talk and when men talk they preach; is that the way it was?” He said, “We will resume””
And God said, your daughters shall prophesy…
In 1878, Anna became the second woman to graduate from Boston University School of Theology, but she was refused ordination by the New England Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She was one of the first women to be ordained in any branch of Methodism by the New York conference of the Methodist Protestant Church in 1880. While serving Wesleyan Methodist Church in East Dennis, Massachusetts, Anna earned a medical degree form Boston University.
At age 39 she broadened her ministry to include preaching worldwide on issues of social justice, women’s rights and peace. She worked in a wide circle of reformers- The Emersons, Garrisons, Alcotts, Frances Willard and others. Anna was the first ordained woman to preach in Amesterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, and London, and the first woman to deliver a sermon in the State Church of Sweden. The first women awarded a distinguished Service Medal for her work as a chair of the women’s Committee of the National Council of Defense during WWI, Anna was an advocate for the League of Nations covenant just prior to her death in 1919.
Let us hear her words spoken in 1888 at the International Council of Women. It was this sermon that convinced Susan B. Anthony she must draw the silver-tongued Shaw to full time suffrage work and she soon did.
“Patiently prone upon the earth, Sphinx-like, sat woman limited by social custom, limited by false theories, limited by narrow bigotry and by still narrower creeds, patiently toiling and waiting, humbly bearing the pain and weariness which seemed to fall her lot. The truth stood before her and she knew it was not the purpose of the Divine that she should crouch beneath the bonds of custom, that she should yield blindly to prejudice and ignorance. She learned she was not created from the side of man but by the side of man. The world had suffered that she had not kept her divinely appointed place.
But by all you hold sacred, let me in the name of my master say to the young women here today if you have a bit of truth, hold fast to that which God had given you; let no power, no injustice, no obstacle, no scorn, no opposition, let nothing extinguish the flame. Hold it high and if the world lags behind, hold it still higher. Bid the world come up to your truth, never take your truth down to the world’s level.”
And God said your daughters shall prophesy…
Though Anna was dedicated to promoting social justice for issues of suffrage, temperance and peace, she like many others of her time and many of her contemporary activist sisters today, fell into the pernicious cycle of racism and classism. White liberal men were not the only ones who betrayed resistance movements. The suffrage movement, controlled by middle class White women, like Anna, appealed to class and race prejudice to strengthen its coalition with White men in power. Anna, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, increasingly argued that White women were more qualified to vote than Black and immigrant working-class men and women. Let us listen with pain in our hearts as we hear her speak, using race humiliation as a way to gain the vote for white women only…
“You did not wait for woman suffrage but disenfranchised both your black and white women thus making them politically equal. You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!”
As we hear these words our hearts sink as we acknowledge that even those most dedicated to lives of justice fall prey to the domination systems of power that perpetuate injustice. While we proudly celebrate the fruits of our historic work to claim the power of women’s voices. We acknowledge that this power has primarily benefited white women. We confess that the narrowness of our vision has perpetuated injustice and silenced the voices of many sisters. Anna’s legacy calls us to a recognition and repentance for our own racism. Together we confess our past and present participation in racist and classist systems of oppression and at the same time, we commit ourselves to an ever more just future, intentionally working for the full participation of women of all races and classes.