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Remembering Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford

by Rosemarie C. Smurzynski

   A paper prepared for the Greenfield Group of Unitarian Universalist ministers.

“[F]or complicated reasons, this extraordinary woman [Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford] is almost forgotten today. . . . To write a fully rendered and usable past, then, requires including those important but now forgotten women [and men] in our stories.”

—Lisa M. Tetrault, “A Paper Trail: Piecing Together the Life of Phebe Hanaford,” Historic Nantucket (Fall 2002).

Phebe Ann Coffin was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, on May 6, 1829. She was the only child of a Quaker couple, George Coffin and Phebe Ann Barnard Coffin. After Phebe’s mother died early, her father remarried, adding to the family a stepbrother and, later, several half-brothers and half-sisters. At age 20 Phebe married Joseph Hanaford, a homeopathic physician and teacher. The Hanafords moved to Beverly, Massachusetts, then a hotbed of liberalism, where Phebe discovered Universalism and the social reform movements of the day.

In 1868 Phebe was ordained as a Universalist minister. She separated from her husband in 1870, and afterward lived out her life for 42 years with her soul mate, Miss Ellen Miles, a writer of books for children. Phebe died June 2, 1921, at 92 years of age.

Rev. Phebe Hanaford served six Universalist churches; wrote 14 books, including a best seller on the life of Abraham Lincoln that was released shortly after his death; wrote numerous sermons, articles, and political speeches; and edited several journals. She was an indefatigable speaker and advocate for her faith and for women’s rights. Remembering her affords us a more usable past. Her life choices guide us in matters of the heart, constructs for the mind, and actions for the hands.

Her Nantucket Years

On her paternal side Phebe was descended from Tristram Coffin; on her maternal side, from Peter Folger. Both men were among the first white settlers on Nantucket Island, its name comes from an Indian word often interpreted as “far-away island.” Over the centuries, the Folger/Coffin kin proliferated, and by 1829, when Phebe was born, she was surrounded by an extended family of Coffins and Folgers. The island’s predominant industry was whaling. Because whaling voyages took Nantucket men far and wide for long periods of time, few men lived at home on this “far-away island.” The absence of men set up a dynamic: Nantucket raised independent women, of which Phebe was one. Lucretia Mott, the antislavery activist and women’s rights advocate, was another and a Coffin as well; and Maria Mitchell, a 19th-century astronomer and a distant cousin of Phebe’s, was another. Schooling on the island was rigorous for all, men and women alike.

Phebe’s birth religion, Quakerism, believed in equal education for men and women. Her faith gave her inner strength and encouraged her to trust her own voice. Island living afforded freedom few women of the era enjoyed, save women like Margaret Fuller, a contemporary who grew up in Cambridge and whom Phebe admired all her life.

Her Short Marriage

After marrying in 1849, Joseph and Phebe Hanaford lived in Nantucket, where their two children were born: Howard in 1851 and Florence in 1854. In 1857 the family moved off-Island to Beverly, Massachusetts. To supplement family income Phebe wrote. She was clear to friends that writing was an economic decision and not a vocational choice; vocational writing would come later. But clearly she had a skill in writing that had been acquired in childhood.

In Beverly Phebe became a Universalist. Her conversion came after the deaths of her younger brother, Rowland, and sister, Jane. She began reading the Bible for herself, and in Bible passage after Bible passage she found scriptural support for Universalism. She embraced Universalism’s belief in one loving God and in universal salvation. She also was moved by the social reform agenda that was intrinsic to Universalism. In Beverly she became involved in the top social reform movements of the day: abolition, women’s rights, and temperance. I like to think that Phebe met the ancestors of a church I served in 2005-2007, the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church in Danvers. NSUU’s predecessor Universalist churches, near Beverly, were filled with the social activism of the mid- to late 19th century. Indeed, Mrs. Hanaford was in the right place at the right time for the stirrings of her heart as a reformist.

In Beverly Phebe Hanaford also met Ellen Miles, when both worked on the Women’s Right to Vote issue. And in 1870, when Phebe accepted a call to be a minister in Connecticut and Joseph didn’t want to move with her, Phebe separated from her husband of 11 years. She and Ellen took the children of her marriage, raised them, and lived together the rest of their years until Ellen Miles died in 1914. The Nantucket Historical Association has an extensive collection of their loving and passionate letters to each other, often written when they were miles apart when Phebe was speaking away from home. In the boxes at the Historical Association there are also numerous letters sent to Phebe by others, which often ended: “Please give my love to your friend, Miss Miles.”

What happened to Phebe’s husband? People ask when I speak about her. Phebe and Joseph Hanaford never divorced. He returned to Reading, Massachusetts, where he lived the rest of his life and died in 1907.

Her Ministry

During her years of intensifying commitment to reform work and the working out of her new faith beliefs, Phebe also became friends with Rev. Olympia Brown, the first Universalist woman to be ordained to that ministry. The year of Olympia Brown’s ordination in New York State was 1863, five years before Phebe was ordained. Clearly this relationship nurtured Phebe’s vocation as a minister.

In the words of the UUA’s Singing, Shouting, Celebrating 200 Years of Universalism by Eugene B. Navias (1990):

Universalists early on opened the ministry to women. By the time the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution had been passed on August 6, 1920, giving women the right to vote in the United States, a total of eighty-eight women had been ordained to the ministry by the Universalists, less than half of that number (42) by the Unitarians.

Once ordained to the Universalist ministry, Olympia Brown mentored women like Phebe Hanaford. Brown was so impressed with Phebe — with her passion, perception, and intellect; her thorough embrace of Universalism’s theology of love; her understanding of God as Love; and her dedication to Universalism’s social action agenda — that she opened the door to ministry for Phebe as well. Lacking Brown’s credential of a divinity-school education, Phebe had not studied at any theological institution. However, her early classical education on Nantucket Island easily allowed her to meet the rigorous standards for ordination in the denomination.

Rev. Phebe Hanaford was soon called to, installed, and ordained at the First Universalist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts. The year was 1868. The position was half-time. The claim is that she was the first woman ordained to Universalist ministry in New England. Olympia Brown preached Phebe Hanaford’s Ordination Sermon that day. A year later, to boost the family’s finances, Phebe took a second part-time position as minister to the Waltham, Massachusetts, Universalist church.

In April 1870 Phebe was called to full-time ministry at the First Universalist Church and Society of New Haven, Connecticut. She received a three-year contract, common practice for that time in Universalist churches. The salary was “$2,000 and a bonus for moving of $500.” Her Installation Service was a big event among Connecticut Universalists. Other ministers in the area attended, and many participated as speakers at the ceremony. Rev. William Garrison Haskell, a close friend for whom she had given the Charge to the Minister at his Installation Service, delivered the Charge to the Minister. Haskell reminded her:

I am not to tell you what you shall preach, or how you shall preach it, because I cannot do this. You know, or you will know ere long, the people to whom you minister, and will be best able to judge of their needs and to shape your preaching to those needs. . . . Christ in the world and not merely Christ going out of the world will need be preached. . . .

And you will remember — the great work of Christian preaching is, to the end, that the world may be made a better place by it.

Miss Miles wrote the Closing Hymn for the occasion. The third verse reads:

Unite us in the bonds of love,
Pastor and people guard and guide,
Within our hearts may thy sweet dove,
With folded wings, for aye abide.

And Julia Ward Howe, a friend and colleague in the Women’s Right to Vote movement, wrote the Installation Hymn. The last verse reads:

For here thy last deliverance stands
     To loose the palsied spell of Fear,
And Woman, with unfettered hands,
     Keeps thine accepted priesthood here.

Three years later, in a pamphlet she wrote on the Connecticut church’s history, Rev. Phebe Hanaford gave an account of her ministry in the third person. She said:

It is now three years and five months since the present pastor entered upon her labors, and it does not become her to say aught which might savor of boasting, but in a spirit of devout and humble gratitude she is able to declare that according to the statistics of both Church and Society, there has been unexampled prosperity during this pastorate. The popular prejudice against attending a Universalist church has been so far overcome, that this large edifice has often been crowded to overflowing. Women are no longer ashamed to be seen at our meetings.

Three years after being installed in the Connecticut church, Phebe was called to the Church of the Good Shepherd in Jersey City. Miss Miles moved with her. At Good Shepherd Hanaford also served the denomination in the local New Jersey State Convention. Local conventions were the governance bodies for Universalist churches. When the Jersey City congregation did not renew Phebe’s initial three-year contract with them, members of the congregation as well as the convention were surprised. The vote not to renew was taken by men. It was close — 47 to 42 — but it meant that Rev. Phebe Hanaford was out of a church pulpit.

The decision not to renew was about issues other than the quality of her work, which was outstanding. And it was about more than the time she spent away from the parish because of her involvement with the Women’s Right to Vote movement or her extensive denominational responsibilities at the convention. Speculation suggested that the reason for the decision was her relationship with Ellen Miles, and in fact the church fathers threatened Phebe with this proposal: “Miss Miles or your ministry.” When she chose Miss Miles, her tenure was not renewed. Her church supporters set up a “church across the street,” where Rev. Phebe Hanaford continued to preach to large crowds about Universalism; and she also spoke to large crowds on the circuit about women’s right to vote. She left this church in 1878 and focused solely on her political work for several years. In 1884, however, Rev. Hanaford returned to New Haven to answer a call from the Church of the Holy Spirit, Universalist. She retired from active ministry permanently in 1890.

After she retired from ministry she was able to write about her experience in the Jersey City pulpit. She used the venue of the Woman’s Journal to reflect publicly on that traumatic situation. As quoted by Loretta Cody in the Jersey Journal of May 28, 1999, she commented:

If I were to write the full history of that 10 years’ pastorate (with graphic descriptions of what some men said and did to hinder woman’s work, and how angry some men were because I was a friend to woman suffrage. and would not renounce Sorosis [a women’s club], which, being a woman’s club, they felt must be an unfit place for a pastor); if I were to put in print some of letters then received signed and unsigned: if I were to tell what was said and done by men who thought themselves doing God service by blocking a woman’s way — I should put before the public a book which would cause both laughter and tears. Perhaps to cast the mantle of oblivion over them would be the work of charity. Time heals many wounds, and I have lived to stand in the same pulpit again and preach the state sermon, and after all that opposition to represent the state in our National Universalist Convention.

Her Work in Women’s Rights

Beginning her involvement in the Women’s Right to Vote movement in 1860, Phebe Hanaford continued that work, indefatigably, until her death in 1921. During her 61 years of labor in this vineyard and as an ardent activist in the movement, she worked alongside those most remembered for this work, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She remained all of her life a spokesperson for the movement’s vision. In 1869 she was chosen to be one of the 12 delegates from Massachusetts to attend the First Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association in Cleveland. She became a charter member of that association. Phebe spoke in towns, cities, and villages along the eastern seaboard defending women’s right to vote. She suffered emotionally when, after the Civil War, Negroes got the right to vote and women didn’t.

Preserved in boxes of her papers at the Nantucket Historical Association are some of Phebe’s speeches for the cause. In a pivotal speech, “Women Soldiers,” she proclaimed that of all the “great questions that agitate the mind more or less, there is none more important than the question of suffrage for women.” She further challenged the day by insisting that we all are called to be a part of this movement. “Life is a glorious conflict and from the cradle to the grave we are all soldiers, some volunteer, some drafted, some professional, and when I say we, I mean, men and women.” Her words are meant to rally.

Phebe Hanaford’s demand for equality for women united her religious and political beliefs, as shown in the text of “Women Soldiers.” She believed that God is One and that we are a part of that One God, equally. She wrote:

I have no tirade to utter against men nor am I inclined to undervalue my own sex. I do not believe in men’s rights to the exclusion of women’s, or in women’s rights to the hindrance of men’s. I believe in human rights. We are all sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty subject to the same physical and moral laws.

Her Legacy

Lisa Tetrault writes in Historic Nantucket (Fall 2002) that Phebe has not been celebrated for her work in the Women’s Right to Vote movement; more, that she has been left in the shadow, lost among the “nationally more prominent profiles” of activists in that movement. I would add that Unitarian Universalism also has lost sight of this remarkable woman.

Tetrault’s hope is that the collection of Phebe Hanaford’s papers at the Nantucket Historical Association, offering as it does superb primary source material, will remedy our ignorance. “Women Soldiers,” quoted above and preserved in its many pages and revisions, affirms in Hanaford’s own handwriting her dedication to, articulation of, passion for, and stature in the suffrage movement in its heyday. She gave this talk 20 times from 1870 to 1872, in venues from Swampscott, Massachusetts, to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. During this time she also fulfilled the responsibilities of full-time parish ministry in Connecticut.

Twenty years later, on May 2, 1895, after she retired from ministry and well into the maturity of the movement, Phebe Hanaford was asked to redeliver the talk. She was 64. She rewrote and redelivered “Women Soldiers” and complained that the speech was as hard to rewrite as it was to write the first time.

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton died, Rev. Phebe Hanaford was asked to officiate at her graveside service. This honor alerts us again to her standing in the inner circle of the movement. Her prayer quoted in part below was written for that service. Its crafting shows Hanaford’s passion for voting rights for women; further, it gives evidence of her evolving Universalist theology. In this prayer for a fallen colleague, Hanaford united her faith and her commitment to social activism. Notice how she addresses God as both Father and Mother, a change from the days when she easily called John Murray, the pioneer of Universalism, “Father Murray” and Hosea Ballou, a primal thinker in the faith, “Father Ballou.”

O Thou Infinite and Eternal Power whom so many of thy children love to call Our Father and Our Mother, into thy hands we commit the spirit of our beloved one, assured that all is right where thy rule extends.

Neither Stanton nor Anthony lived to see the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1920, but Hanaford did. A daughter of the women’s rights activist Lucy Stone remembered Hanaford’s role in the passage and graciously wrote a note to an aging lady who waited 60 years to see a vision reached.

Dear Mrs. Hanaford:

It gives me real pleasure today to think that you will be voting. . . . In thinking of the women to whom we owe [the vote] you come to my mind, and my grateful thoughts go out to you.


Alice Stone Blackwell

Her Theological Beliefs

Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford believed in an afterlife in the company of God and of friends. In funeral services she wrote of both grief and joy and of the sweet by-and-by. She preached that now the deceased was in a greater place than here on earth. This is what she wrote for Daniel Stodder Lincoln (Hingham, Mass., 1869):

The circumstances connected with the event which calls us together today, dear friends, are sad indeed. We are called to mourn with those who are almost shocked in their bereavement. . . . Earth is sad because of those who have gone before us; they shall be there to welcome us to our loving and blessed home.

And for Katie A. Hughes (New Haven, Conn., 1871) she wrote:

We have come here today, dear friends, with solemn gladness to this hour. The solemnity of this death changes for us and our beloved dead is not forgotten. The tears of natural grief cannot but fall sometime, yet beyond and above all our grief, we remember the parting injunction and request of our risen Katie that we should not mourn today — that we should remember for our comfort and joy that she had gone where the song of praise would be eternal and the flowers would never fade.

It was Hanaford’s fervent hope that when she died she would meet face to face the great intellectual Margaret Fuller, whom she had admired from childhood.


In 1914, after Ellen died, and with her two children having died years before, Phebe went to live with her granddaughter Dionis Coffin Santee in New York State. Hanaford told Dionis how she looked at her approaching death, saying that she was sure in her faith that a larger work awaited her in the life beyond. She also told her how she wanted to be remembered for her life on earth. She said that she was satisfied that she would be “leaving the world a little happier, a little better because she has lived and worked in it.” At her installation service back in 1870, Hanaford had been charged by Rev. William Haskell to “remember — the great work of Christian preaching is, to the end, that the world may be made a better place by it.” To this charge Phebe Hanaford had been faithful all her days, and she knew it when death was about to claim her.

Hanaford was integral to 19th-century American history, and it is hard to understand why she has been so forgotten. We ought to remember this lady and stand her beside other women history-makers of her day. May her story encourage our own stories — not necessarily that we should imitate her in detail, but that we should live our stories in the deepest way, according to our own inner light and independence of mind, that our lives too may be given to make a difference in this world.

And her native Nantucket Island has not forgotten Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford. Her life’s works are safe in acid-free boxes at the Nantucket Historical Association; her books, all 14 and in numerous copies, are in the Great Hall at the Nantucket Athenaeum, as is a marble bust portraying her.

If you visit Nantucket, try to catch Phebe’s spirit. Imagine how she and all those other remarkable 19th-century women roamed free on the playground of the open moors, under the large sky of Nantucket, the “far-away island.”

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