An early advocate for women’s rights, Jenkins is now considered the first woman to be ordained by a denomination in the United States. Born in Auburn, New York, Lydia Ann Moulton embraced Universalism as a young woman, and sometime after 1846 married Edmund S. Jenkins, a Universalist minister. They began a team ministry in the late 1850’s. Research by Charles Semowich has shown that she was ordained by the Ontario Association of Universalists in Geneva, New York in 1860. Three years before that Thomas Whittemore wrote in the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine that she “has commenced preaching to good acceptance.” Horace Greeley heard her in New York City and responded favorably as well. When she was given a license to preach, the Christian Freeman reported, “This is the first instance in our denomination, and we think in the world, where a woman has received a formal license of Letter of Fellowship as a minister of Christ.”
In 1858 the Universalist General Convention was presented with a resolution supporting the fellowshipping of women as preachers, but it was tabled and postponed. There was still strong resistance to the idea, even though in Jenkins’ case it was reported that “there was great beauty in the lady’s style.” In May 1860 she and her husband became coministers in Clinton, New York, and they were ordained on June 23. They also worked with students at the Clinton Liberal Institute, a Universalist secondary school founded in 1831. After leaving Clinton in 1862, she continued to be an itinerant preacher until 1866. After that time she became a physician in Binghamton, New York, where she remained until her death on May 7, 1874. Throughout her adult life she was a speaker for women’s rights, and her effectiveness as a preacher convinced many, including Universalist leaders like Whittemore, that women belonged in the pulpit, and in other fields of labor on equal terms with men.