Margaret Fuller’s Church – In Providence and the Larger World

Sermon by Phyllis Cole

Phyllis Cole was at one time a Women’s Studies in Religion Fellow at Harvard Divinity School; then, for over 25 years, taught as a professor of English at Penn State Brandywine. While writing at length about women of the Transcendentalist movement, she has served as president of both the Margaret Fuller Society and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. Now retired to Rhode Island, she is a member of First Unitarian and its history committee.

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It’s a joy and a challenge to speak from this grand pulpit.  But I want to claim it in the name of Margaret Fuller, a famous American religious thinker of the nineteenth century—some say the most important American woman thinker of Unitarian background.   She was part of the community of our Providence church in 1837 and 38, before going on to life accomplishments and adventures across the borders of state and nation.  She never spoke from this pulpit—that was the role and privilege of the male minister, Edward Brooks Hall.  You’ll see portraits of them both here in front of the church.  But she attended often, got to know Hall and his wife, and took communion here for the first time in her life, sitting before its pulpit in one of these very pews under these two-story, sunlit windows.  As a Transcendentalist, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, Fuller relied on each individual’s inspiration, but she also more strongly valued communion and community.  As we reflect on our own “beloved community” in anticipation of the upcoming 300th anniversary next year, Margaret Fuller is worth getting to know.

But when I call this talk “Margaret Fuller’s Church,” I’m referring mainly not to the space we’re in today, but to the wide domain of her influence as a teacher and writer.  Women’s voices were not yet accepted in church pulpits, but they were more widely in schools and in print. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fuller was living in Providence for eighteen months because she had taken up a needed job in the experimental Green Street School.  It was just after Providence that she rose to public eminence back in Boston, by leading women in mutual education sessions she called “Conversations.”  A few years later Fuller published her crucial book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.  From the few passages I’ve read to you from it, I hope you can hear that it is very much a liberal religious sermon.  It calls for consciousness-raising, for inward growth of women’s soul responding to divine law, so that life would be changed and enlarged for both sexes. The same year she also took on a different wide audience as a pioneering woman journalist for the New York Tribune, soon travelling to Europe and advocating for the Revolutions of 1848, especially in Rome, before returning home with a husband and child.  Tragically, Fuller and her family all died in a shipwreck as they were approaching New York harbor—she at the age of forty.  But the congregation of readers that heard her words in the short years of her adult career was wide, and the circles of influence she opened were to last long after she died.

Since the bicentennial of Fuller’s birth in 2010, Unitarian Universalists have newly embraced Fuller’s legacy, and that year Providence saw its own celebration of her work, led by Robert O. Jones and Nancy Austin.  Both are here today, and I’d like to say thanks to them both.  In fact I want to put these pieces of the puzzle together, claiming some of her most forward-looking early moments for Unitarian Providence.  Fuller was not especially happy away from home; her teaching job wore her out, and she was not always flattering to this city in her letters.  But a community that was not exactly her own gave her the first chance to experiment in some of the ways that would soon become her major offering to the wider world.  Providence was primarily a Baptist city, but her alliance with other religious liberals within it mattered deeply.  Her journal account of taking communion at First Church is a scrap of personal writing never before taken seriously, but I’d like to use it as a new center, revealing some interesting things both about her and about our church.  Here it is:

Sunday, July 1838,—I partook, for the first time, of the Lord’s Supper.  I had often wished to do so, but had not been able to find a clergyman,—from whom I could be willing to receive it,—willing to admit me on my own terms.  Mr. Hall did so; and I shall ever respect and value him, if only for the liberality he displayed on this occasion.  It was the Sunday after the death of his wife, a lady whom I truly honored, and should, probably, had we known one another long, have also loved.  She was the soul of truth and honor; her mind was strong, her reverence for the noble and beautiful fervent, her energy in promoting the best interests of those who came under her influence unusual.  She was as full of wit and playfulness as of goodness.  Her union with her husband was really one of mind and heart, of mutual respect and tenderness; likeness in unlikeness made it strong.  I wished particularly to share in this rite on an occasion so suited to bring out its due significance.

Well, who were these people at First Church, Edward Hall the minister and Harriet Ware Hall the minister’s wife who had just died?  What about them generated such a recognition on Fuller’s part, drawing her to the sharing of communion as no church or minister in Boston had done?  Let me tell you about the Halls, then some of the ways Fuller connected with them.

Edward Brooks Hall served as minister here for thirty-six years, from 1832 to his death in 1868. Since the previous century this church had followed a practice of open communion among its so-called “damnable good works,” which more conservative critics deplored.  In fact Hall valued openness and good works in new ways, serving the wider city as well as his own congregation.    A cousin who recalled him in the Hall family genealogy wrote of his capacity for respect across difference, whether with “old orthodoxy or young radicalism.”  He could equally serve as a trustee of Baptist Brown University and get along with Margaret Fuller.  But he also was a reformer, not an appeaser.  He preached antislavery, and he served the city’s poor, following a newly established Unitarian practice of  outreach called the Ministry at Large.

That kind of ministry seems to be his shared vocation with Harriet Ware Hall.  Women of the past so often fall in the shadow of their male relatives; the main thing we are told about Harriet, even in the history on our church website, is that she was the daughter of Unitarian founder Henry Ware.  So Edward connected with the establishment by marrying her.  She had six children in the first nine years of marriage, three of whom died in early childhood; then she herself died after a brief unidentified illness.  Such is the short, tragic life of many wives at that time.  But there’s also this note by Edward’s cousin the genealogist:  Edward had “aided his first wife heartily in establishing the Employment Society,” which was “still thriving” forty years later.  What?  Nothing in our congregation’s history tells of such a project or its long life.  But the simplest kind of research—a Google search!—led to a new discovery.   It turns out that the year Fuller came to Providence, Harriet led the Female Benevolent Society of First Church in publishing a Report and Proposal to the Public on the subject of Female Wages. They invited the wider public to a planning meeting in the church vestry, so as to open an office across denominations that would serve impoverished working women in the city.  Especially they spoke of seamstresses who were being cheated of just wages by profiteers; in hard-headed economic terms, they rejected mere charity in favor of decent pay and affordable products.  A copy of this pamphlet is owned today by Harvard Business School rather than Harvard Divinity School.  I’m going to be looking for more about their work as part of our 300th anniversary.  For now please join me in imagining a portrait of Harriet Ware Hall up here alongside those of her husband Edward and friend Margaret Fuller.  Surely Fuller was hailing the support a husband gave a wife who was (in the midst of raising young children) engaged in such a public, boat-rocking “Ministry at Large.”

Fuller also had a kind of Ministry at Large as a teacher and intellectual in Providence.  Her two most important scenes were not officially Unitarian, but in them she worked out her own innovative version of liberal religion.  Green Street School, located across the river, had been dedicated by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Westminster Unitarian Church; and Fuller’s star pupil there was the Halls’ teenaged niece, Mary Allen, who actually lived with the Halls so as to attend.  We can know the style and content of Fuller’s teaching because (astonishingly) the letters and school journals of four of the older girls—Mary among them—survive.  As Mary wrote home to her parents, Fuller wanted her female students to read for true understanding and be ready for discussion in class.  “We should let no false modesty restrain us,” Mary quoted her teacher as saying.  “We must talk and let her understand our minds.”  This was far from standard practice at the time and looked ahead directly to the Conversations Fuller would soon be offering to the adult women of Boston.

But Fuller also expressed her own views, guiding the class toward progressive politics and religion in a way that both reflected and challenged Unitarian values.  According to one student journal, Fuller described Conservatives as “afraid of improvement,” whereas “Liberals or reformers” wanted to bring the poor on a level with the rich. Meanwhile the class studied a book on ethics and theology by Francis Wayland, president of Brown, with Fuller offering alternatives to his evangelical views.  As she argued, “Since God has created us, he is under obligation to create us capable of being happy.”  To that point Edward Hall would have agreed, but probably not with Fuller’s next step, offering pagan Socrates with his “sublime conceptions of the Deity” alongside Christ.  Hall was firmly devoted to the special moral example of Jesus.  Soon, as Mary wrote home, charges of heresy threatened to close down the school.  Fuller’s teaching was a crucial staging ground for the devout heresies she would soon offer in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, especially as they also pushed the boundaries of possibility for women.  She told her girls stories of Greek mythic heroines, like Atalanta who challenged her suitors to outrun her.  She saluted the new women writers and asked students to do their own research on women in history.  She told them point-blank that some people thought this world “made for man alone.”  But she did not think so.  The students, as they themselves wrote in their journals, should consider “what our sex is capable of.”

Such views were certainly better than “heresy” to the Unitarians of Providence—after all, Harriet Hall was also leading women in new capabilities.  But Fuller’s critical questions aimed for a more fundamental shakeup.  We might imagine a dinner-time conversation at the Halls’ parsonage about Fuller’s teaching.  But one encounter between Fuller and Edward Hall was actually recorded, at a debating society called the Coliseum Club.  Judge Albert Gorton Green, son of the architect of our church, founded it in 1835 from his home on Benefit Street.  More than half of the members were women, with Harriet Hall leading the list.  They declared their club a means to “develop mind” in ladies through direct dialogue with gentlemen.   Since the members read essays to each other that they had already written, they got around the prohibition against women speaking in public.  Throughout the spring of 1838, monthly meetings considered the idea of human Progress:  was it real?  Was it desirable?  Fuller spoke after three others, and a month later Edward Hall responded—with Harriet surely present as well, and perhaps even Mary Allen.  This was the two-way dialogue they would never have inside the sanctuary of First Church, and it amounted to a debate between two liberal religious viewpoints.

Fuller spoke from her faith in inward transformation as the only true basis for change.  She declared railroads and telegraphs a shallow form of progress; even the worldwide expansion of Christianity, fraught with sectarian conflict, offered only a slight improvement in the lives of the masses.  Instead Fuller endorsed the “deep questionings of the spirit” that contemporary Romantic writers affirmed and also urged a return to ancient wisdom, to Moses and Socrates, for guidance.  As for women’s progress, she now fully embraced the ancient mythology of Egypt, India, and Greece, finding the highest imaginings of female greatness in the goddess of wisdom and the heroic seeker Isis.  Women should gather power from all ages past and present, she concluded.  Then she added, “But I might easily be tempted to write a volume on this subject.”  Fuller was surely forecasting things to come.

Hall responded by defending the present expansion of Christian influence, calling it a genuine improvement over heathen superstition or Greek philosophy.  As he put it, were not self-denial and conviction of brotherhood “opening the eye and the heart of humanity to the pure and beautiful light, shining on to the perfect day”?   And Hall saw women as necessarily part of this progress.  He humorously acknowledged how hard it was to comprehend the “heap of folderol” for and against the female sex, but he still believed woman “not quite the slave, or cipher, or mere animal, that she once was.”  Hall argued at the institutional level, whereas Fuller looked to the individual; Hall was a liberal Christian but did not embrace other world religions as sources of truth.  Hall rightly saw women overcoming former limitations, but Fuller rightly saw the potential for much more, for the female half of the human race actually to create that “perfect day” of the future.

True to his reputation for tolerance, however, Hall answered Fuller by asking to hear more.  And we know that their conversation continued, because less than two months after his paper at the Club, he offered open communion that included Fuller on her “own terms,” surely including this more pagan theology. There must have been some real—now more personal—conversation between them.  But also, in the short weeks between the Club performance and the communion came his wife’s death.  The ongoing conversation between Fuller and Hall definitely included sympathy over that loss, for a surviving note from her thanks him for the chance to read Harriet’s thoughtful and loving letters.  Fuller would continue to respect mutual commitments like the Halls’.  In Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she celebrated the possibilities of marriage, rising in rank from “household partnership” to “pilgrimage towards a common shrine.”  She clearly saw Edward and Harriet Hall in this highest category.

After her time in Providence, Fuller acted quickly on the ideas she had floated in this city.  Her Boston Conversations asked women to consider the most important questions:  “What shall we do, and how shall we do it?” This was Fuller’s self-initiated “church.” As she wrote to a friend in Providence, their discussion centered on the Greek gods and goddesses as a way of understanding themselves.  The result, Fuller claimed, was “real society,” better than the Providence circle, and she invited her friend to come visit.  But I would claim that the Green Street School and Coliseum Club and First Church were all early settings for the community and conversation she later sought to advance.  Soon Fuller wrote the book on women and society that she had been contemplating since Providence.  And she kept expanding her boundaries.  Even as Woman in the Nineteenth Century came out in 1845, she had moved to New York City to write in the Tribune about needs of the city and nation, then about Europe in revolution.  Her dispatches from Italy both saluted a rising of the people and called Americans to recognize it as a response to their own cherished liberty and equality.  Even as this revolution failed, she hailed the “New Era” it had given birth to.

Fuller’s legacy is of value to our community today for all of the arguments she began in Providence and built on so strongly after that.  She is prophet of a religious consciousness that embraces the diversity of world religions. She speaks for gender equality and also for racial and economic justice, in this nation and beyond.  She invites conversation, values community, and urges activism.  I’ll end with a call she made near the end of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, perhaps especially fitting for our present moment in this country.   “Last week brought news,” she wrote, of a new threat to the cause of liberation around the world; the American people had elected a president (James K. Polk) who “threatens to rivet the chains of slavery and the leprosy of sin permanently on this nation, through the annexation of Texas!”  Polk was promising to cross the Mexican border and start the war that would indeed give the United States its whole Southwest—as new land where slavery could expand.  “Women of my country!” she called out, “Exaltadas! If such there be,…have you nothing to do with this?”  “If you have a power, it is a moral power…Do you not feel within you that which can reprove [the men], which can check, which can convince them?  You would not speak in vain; whether each in her own home, or banded in unison.”

American women could not vote, nor speak in the official forums, but they could join voices in a “unison” community of protest. Acting upon her earlier call, Fuller was proposing what women could do and how they could do it.  This was certainly beyond the slow progress that Edward Hall had affirmed for American women, or even the pragmatic organizing that Harriet Hall and the Female Benevolent Society had taken up to support poor women in Providence.  This was a politics based on women’s—on everyone’s—power within.  But I believe that Edward and Harriet, seven years after their friendship with Fuller, would have listened with attention and found more to say in reply.  May the conversation continue.


Passages from Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century
  • Our aim this morning is to honor, in the words of the first hymn, one of the “hallowed lives and minds” of the liberal religious tradition. I don’t take it for granted that you know who Margaret Fuller was, so let me begin with a few passages from her 1845 book about women.  She asked not just for “women’s rights,” though that as well; even more she urged readers to  pursue a religious quest, a self-recognition and liberation for women that would empower the whole human race.  Here is a sample, which is also included on the bulletin insert:

Whatever the soul knows how to seek, it cannot fail to obtain.  This is the law and the prophets.  Knock and it shall be opened, seek and ye shall find….

We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down.  We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man.  Were this done… we believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres would ensue….

  • In this soul-talk, she writes as an American, seizing upon both the Declaration of Independence and the current antislavery movement for political principles that support women as well. And she claims multiple religious scriptures for women, from the Bible to the goddess mythology of Greece and Asia.  It’s quite a mix. 

As the friend of the negro assumes that one man cannot by right hold another in bondage, so should the friend of woman assume that man cannot, by right, lay even well-meant restrictions on woman.  If the negro be a soul, if the woman be a soul, appareled in flesh, to one Master only are they accountable.  There is but one law for souls….

The severe nation which taught that the happiness of the race was forfeited through the fault of a woman,…even they greeted, with solemn rapture, all great and holy women as heroines, prophetesses, judges in Israel; and if they made Eve listen to the serpent, gave Mary as a bride to the Holy Spirit.  In other nations it has been the same down to our day….The idea of woman was nobly manifested in their mythologies and poems, where she appears as Sita in the Ramayana, a form of tender purity, as the Egyptian Isis, of divine wisdom never yet surpassed….In Greece, Ceres and Proserpine, significantly termed “the great goddesses,” were seated side by side….

  • This is not only a liberal religious sermon but one that, with a prayer of hope, looks ahead toward a new era, a new heaven on earth:

And will she not soon appear?  The woman who shall vindicate their birthright for all women; who shall teach them what to claim, and how to use what they obtain? …It is not woman, but the law of right, the law of growth, that speaks in us, and demands the perfection of each being in its kind….Always the soul says to us all:  Cherish your best hopes as a faith, and abide by them in action.