Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Phebe Hanaford

Phebe Hanaford, born today in 1829, was not only the fourth woman ordained in the United States (in the Universalist Church) but was also an author, activist, poet and hymnwriter.

Born into a Quaker family, she was aware from a young age that women in that tradition were allowed to preach during services, but she tried to put those ideas aside when she married Joseph Hanaford in 1849 and agreed to worship in his Baptist church.  A few years later she learned that Lucy Stone, a prominent activist for abolition and women's rights, was speaking at a local church.  Knowing that her husband would not approve of her attending the lecture, she stayed outside the church but managed to listen anyway.

Following her ordination in 1868, she led churches in the Massachusetts towns of Hingham and Waltham, but when she was called to a Universalist congregation in New Haven, Connecticut, her husband refused to go with her and they separated.  Ellen Miles, a Sabbath school teacher in Phebe's Waltham congregation, accompanied her to New Haven and throughout the rest of her long career, often being called the "minister's wife."

Today's hymn, probably written in the 1860s, not long before Phebe decided to pursue ordination, takes its theme from Exodus 15:20-21, the Song of Miriam, which follows the story of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt. It's not quite a paraphrase of that passage, but takes it as a springboard of sorts.

Miriam’s song we’ll echo now,
Singing praises to the Lord;
Who has triumphed gloriously,
Shout the victory of our God!

Sound the timbrel! Loud and high!
Let the song of praise ascend!
Sound the timbrel, far and nigh!
God is our unchanging friend!

When the Red Sea tide o’erwhelmed
Israel’s foes in that great hour
While they sought the promised land,
Then was seen th’Almighty’s power.

Ever thus shall righteousness
Over wrong victorious be,
And the Lord shall be proclaimed
Ruler over land and sea.

Phebe Hanaford. c.1866; alt.
Tune: EVELYN (
Emma L. Ashford, 1905

Poor health and the loss of Ellen Miles, her companion of more than forty years, prevented Phebe from remaining active in her causes in the final years of her life.  She was living unhappily with her granddaughter's family in rural upstate New York, far from the cities and organizations she had loved and led.  Though she had worked for years in the cause of women's suffrage, there is no evidence in local voting records that she cast a vote in 1920, the first national election following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.  At age 91, she was unable to travel to the polls on her own. Fortunately, New York State allowed women to vote a few years earlier, and she did take advantage of that limited opportunity.

She died on June 2, 1921, one month after her 92nd birthday, and was buried in an unmarked grave next to her daughter Florence Hanaford Warner.  There were some attempts over the years to have a headstone erected for her, but that did not happen until 1998, when the headstone (pictured below) was funded by the Unitarian Universalist Women's Heritage Society.

P.S. - As we were discussing Abraham Lincoln's funeral services two days ago, it should be noted that Hanaford also wrote a hymn for an ecumenical memorial service for the President at the Old South Congregational Church in Reading, Massachusetts.  This is the first stanza:

Hushed today are sounds of gladness
From the mountains to the sea;
And the plaintive voice of sadness
Rises, mighty God, to thee.

Combined choirs from the Congregational, Baptist and Universalist churches sang Phebe's hymn to the tune MOUNT VERNON by Lowell Mason (finally, a historical record of a tune!).  She later published it in the closing chapter of her best-selling biography of Lincoln.

***UPDATE***  This hymn is now posted on Facebook with words and music together.  Go to "Conjubilant W. Song" and click on "Photos" -- it's in the Downloadable Hymns section.

Six Years Ago: Phebe Hanaford

Five Years Ago: Phebe Hanaford

Three Years Ago: Phebe Hanaford

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