Faithful women. Indispensable yesterday, today and tomorrow.
National Council of Churches USA

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Heroic Women

Elizabeth Blackwell

(1821 – 1910)
Breaking barriers

The study and practice of medicine is . . . but one means to . . . the true ennoblement of woman, the full harmonious development of her unknown nature . . .[i]

As the nineteenth century dawned it became more and more difficult for women to be involved in the medical arts.  The herbalists and midwives of the villages began to disappear as more and more people migrated to the cities. Dispensing of medical advice or treatment evolved into a male dominated profession. Through courage and determination Elizabeth Blackwell forced open the doors of medical training for women.  These doors would never be closed again.      

Elizabeth was a “guiding star…to rebellious women everywhere.”[ii]  After years of frustration and effort, she became the first woman to receive a fully accredited medical degree.  Why did she do it?  The defining moment of her life came when a family friend was dying.  Elizabeth went to visit her, and her friend confided her humiliation at having to be treated for such personal issues by a man.  Something stirred inside Elizabeth, and her desire to be a physician was strongly attached to her compassion for this woman’s suffering.

After graduating from Geneva (now Hobart) College in 1849, she then went to Europe to study.  When she returned she opened the first free clinic in New York City specifically for the medical needs of indigent women and children. Soon Elizabeth realized that this need was overwhelming.  Her clinic was full and there weren’t enough hours in the day to treat everyone who needed her.

She closed her small clinic and opened the much larger New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.  This was a hospital, not a clinic, and it had facilities for many more patients. Eventually the hospital became a training school for female medical and nursing students.  It was a tremendous success, and it exists to this day as part of the New York University Hospital System.

When Elizabeth first attempted to gain entry to medical schools she was ridiculed at best, reviled at worst. Now fully fifty percent of medical students are female.  Through perseverance and faith, this pioneering woman who once described herself as a “Christian physiologist”[iii] achieved radical change. She opened up a whole new world of healthcare for women and children

[i] Blackwell, Elizabeth.
[iii] Ibid.


Fanny Jane (Fanny) Crosby

(c. 1820 – 1915)

Fanny Crosby was born in a one-room cottage in New York. Her father died when she was a year old, leaving her mother and grandmother to raise her.

Though she was born seeing the world around her, at six weeks old she lost her sight. The family physician was away, and a country doctor was called in to treat a slight cold in her eyes. He prescribed mustard poultices. By the time Fanny’s mother found out that he was not qualified to practice medicine, he had disappeared.

At five years old Fanny learned that the damage was irreversible. Being blind didn’t upset her, but not being able to go to school did. “My ambition was boundless and my desires were intent to live for some great purpose in the world and to make for myself a name that should endure.”[1]

How would she achieve her purpose without an education?

Fanny’s grandmother became the girl’s eyes, describing the beauty of the world. She also introduced her granddaughter to the Bible. It is said that, as a child, Fanny could repeat from memory the Pentateuch, the book of Ruth, the book of Proverbs, Song of Solomon, much of the New Testament, and many of the Psalms.

At age fifteen Fanny’s mother told her that she would attend The Institution for the Blind in New York City. “O thank God,” Fanny cried joyfully, “He has answered my prayer, just as I knew he would.”[2] Fanny was a student there for twelve years, and taught there for eleven more years.

Poetry flowed from Fanny’s mind and heart. Early in her school career, however, the principal told her that she needed to stop distracting herself with making rhymes. Although she left his office in tears, she couldn’t give up her natural gift.

“I seem to have been led, little by little, toward my work; and I believe that the same fact will appear in the life of anyone who will cultivate such powers as God has given him, and then go on, bravely, quietly, but persistently, doing such work as comes to his hands.”[3]

Fannie allowed God to lead her to her work, and her trust was rewarded. She became a prolific poet, who wrote up to seven hymns a day:

Pass me not, O gentle Savior,
Hear my humble cry:
While on others Thou art smiling,
Do not pass me by. 

Let me at a throne of mercy
Find a sweet relief;
Kneeling there in deep contrition,
Help my unbelief.

The Lord did not pass Frances Jane Crosby by. Inspired by God’s guiding light, she died with over 8,000 hymns to her credit.

[2] Frances Jane Crosby, 1820 – 1915 A biography,, p 2

[3] Frances Jane, from The Hymns and Carols of Christmas,, p 17


Elizabeth O’Connor


Every single one of us has a good work to do in life. This good work not only accomplishes something needed in the world, but completes something in us.[i]


Answering the Call 

There is a certain kind of theology that sees God as entirely separate from human beings. In this view, God is magnificent and terrible, and we are sinful and powerless. Elizabeth O’Connor had a strong conviction that our true relationship with God was different from this. Her understanding was that we are co-creators with God of the good that exists in the world and that we are necessary to complete the Divine mission.

Elizabeth was a lay minister at the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. She believed that social transformation could not occur without the participation of ordinary Christians. She herself was involved in founding many of the church’s far-ranging programs for the marginalized, and she inspired others in the pews to join with her in the work. Much of her writing centered on the transformation that takes place in ordinary people when they have the courage to open themselves to the spirit:

We have to be radically obedient to the vision that has been given to us, saying, "Here I am, send me." God's Spirit descends on such a person. His heart is changed, his fears dispelled. As his energy begins to flow, enthusiasm is generated. Other people are drawn and contribute their gifts. Signs are given and, in time, the new bursts forth out of the womb of one's own life.

Elizabeth knew that people were sometimes kept from ministry by their sense that they were not worthy. Past mistakes and failures kept them from believing that they could make a difference. Much of what she wrote in her books was intended as a counter argument against this self-defeating point of view. She wanted people to understand that, no matter how defeated, exhausted, or self-hating we are, the Christian experience renews and empowers us. She wrote:

The future will not be a repetition of the past. It does not matter how damaged our lives are, or what forces for destruction are loose in the world. God is going to do something which is totally new.

God not only needs us for the completion of his divine purposes, but we need him for the completion of our souls. This is the dual nature of our relationship. God’s work cannot get done without us, and we cannot become whole without doing it. As Elizabeth says, “The question is, as we wait in the presence of God, what is He calling you to do?”

 Sarah Moore Grimké


“….to God alone is woman accountable for the use of those talents with which [God] has entrusted her.” [i]

Heeding the call

Sarah was an ardent abolitionist and one of the first feminist voices to be raised in America. She and her sister, Angelina, were leaders in the social reforms that changed the national consciousness.

As a member of a wealthy and established southern family, Sarah grew up in a household with many slaves. As an adult, she wrote about what it was like to witness the violence that rips people apart when one human being owns another. When she was four years old, she saw a slave woman being whipped. The experience was so searing that she tried to run away and board a steamer to go live in a place where there was no slavery.[ii]

Later, in defiance of her father, Sarah taught a slave girl named Hetty to read.  She would later write,

I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting-maid at night…the light was put out, the keyhole screened, and flat on our stomachs before the fire, with the spelling-book under our eyes, we defied the law of South Carolina.[iii]

They were eventually caught, and both were punished. This didn’t change Sarah’s mind about slavery, however. Instead, she constructed a plan of going to college to study law to  work for justice through the legal system. Her father forbade it.

In 1821, Sarah was introduced to the Quaker movement. She was drawn to a practice that encouraged each person to develop their conscience, not to mention to be a part of a religion  that gave women the same right as men to speak at meetings.

 Sarah’s remarkable intellect and spiritual certainty gave her courage. She found her strength in the Bible.  She  knew that God’s truth was often at odds with human law and custom. Sarah chose to live by the truth of God’s word, knowing that God was speaking to her and through her.  She found peace and inspiration in Psalm 106 “Happy are those who act with justice, and always do what is right…Visit me with your saving help.”[iv]

Sarah turned out to be one of the nineteenth century’s most prescient and able thinkers. In 1836 she published her Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States, thus initiating a speaking tour that would bring fame, difficulty, and confrontation with some of the most eminent male clergy of the times.

[i] Grimké, Sarah, Letter 1: The Original Equality of Woman, July 11, 1837.”
[ii] Sunshine for Women.
[iii] Mark Perry, Life Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family’s Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders (New York: Viking, 2001), 2. (page 141 of Helen’s dissertation)
[iv] The Book of Common Prayer.  New York; Oxford University Press, 1990 edition.  P.742.


Mary Lyon


Do the best you can today.[i] 

Faith and Action

Mary Lyon’s life was warmed by daily prayer and the keen understanding that God had a plan for her. When circumstances were difficult, she improved them through prayer and determination. God was her inspiration, and He provided the path through which she achieved her goals. At a time when few women were well educated, she went to school, became a teacher, and ultimately established Mt. Holyoke College, the first college in America that provided a classical education expressly for women.

Mary was very devout, and felt that education was a natural right that brought one closer to the spirit of God. When she heard men saying that it was against God’s will to educate women, she said, “[A] great mistake [is made] by good people in supposing religion counter to principles of nature”.[ii] It was time to open the doors of higher education to all, and through faith and prayer, she composed her plan.

Mr. Holyoke was an instant success. The doors of higher education were now open to women, and would never be closed again. Mary was devoted to God and to her college; truly, she felt that there was no separation between prayer and her daily work. She felt that life itself was a prayer when lived in His service. She would tell her students, “God wants you to be happy; He made you to be happy”. Mary always maintained that the way to show appreciation to God was to do your best every single day.  She taught this to her students right up until the time of her passing in 1849. 

[i] Gilchrist, Beth Bradford.  The Life of Mary Lyon.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.  1910.  P. 58.
[ii] Ibid.  p. 129.


Harriet Tubman

(c.1820 – 1913) 

and I prayed to God to make me strong and able to fight and that's what I've allers prayed for ever since....[1] 

Faithful Defiance

Harriet Tubman is best known for her work as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, where she escorted more than three hundred blacks to freedom. Less well known is the tireless work she did during and after the Civil War to support the war effort and newly freed blacks.

Asked to organize a network of scouts and spies, Harriet wrote about her encounters around the battlefields: “We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”[2] She faced challenging experiences, but was sustained by the powerful faith of knowing that she was doing God’s work.

Harriet never received a formal education and couldn’t read or write. Yet she was noted for her organization of sophisticated information-gathering operations. Once, She approached a general and told him about plantations along the Combahee river that, based on the information she’d gathered, were ripe for an invasion. Trusting her word without question, the general appointed the colonel and dispatched one hundred and fifty black soldiers under his command to cross the river and secure the area.

The Confederate Army saw the approaching boats, and sent word to all the plantations on both sides of the river. It was too late, however, for the Army to successfully mobilize any resistance. Hundreds of slaves, not understanding what was happening, ran to the forest. As soon as they got word that it was “Lincoln’s gunboats come to set them free,”[3] they turned around and started running for the boats. In total, seven hundred and fifty slaves sailed to freedom that night, on a mission whose strategy was formulated by Harriet.

Harriet spent her first paycheck building a facility where freed black women could earn their living cleaning the soldier’s laundry. She wasn’t paid regularly from the military, however, and only earned $200 in three years. She sold baked goods and root beer, that she made herself in any spare time she could find, to support herself and her work.

After the Civil War Harriet established schools for freed slaves in South Carolina. She understood how crucial education was for blacks needing to support themselves. Once she felt her work was complete there, she returned to her Auburn, New York home.

In Auburn, Harriet channeled her drive to obtain freedom for others into the suffrage movement. She took in several young children, whom she raised as her own, and operated a home for poor and aging free blacks until her death. During her lifetime, Harriet brought the sweetness of freedom to so many, touching countless lives. She died at age 93, and was buried with full military honors.

[1] (History at the Univ. of Houston)
[2] Harriet Tubman (~1820-1913), Selected Harriet Tubman quotes,
[3] Harriet Tubman, “General Tubman: Campaign on the Combahee” June 2, 1863,, The following dispatch, quoted in part, appeared on the front page of The Commonwealth, a Boston newspaper, on Friday, July 10, 1863, page 2


Angelina Grimké Weld


I desire to talk but little about religion, for words are empty sounds, but may my life be a living epistle known and read of all men.[i] 

Freedom of Expression

There was a time in this country when expressing minority views was actually dangerous. If you rose in public and said that owning slaves was evil, or that men had no right to restrict their wives, you were harassed, threatened with violence, and vilified in print. You had to be so sure of what you were saying that you were willing to endure personal suffering in order to say it.

Angelina Grimké Weld was one of a small group of women who experienced great personal loss and hardship as they spoke in public against the two evils of slavery and the unequal rights of women. But because she believed that she was doing what God mandated, she was able to withstand the pressures of her opposition. An ardent feminist, passionate orator, and committed abolitionist, she grew to be one of the most influential reformers of the nineteenth century.

From the time she was a young girl from a slave-holding family in South Carolina, Angelina witnessed the destructive cycle of enslavement in the South. She couldn’t reconcile what she saw with what she was learning from her Bible studies. And when her father gave her a slave as a gift, she was horrified and refused to accept this “gift.”

This experience was so upsetting that she left the south and followed her sister, Sarah, to Philadelphia. There she became a Quaker and flourished in the atmosphere of freedom and equality that made their religious practice so distinctive. In meeting, Angelina could freely express her views, and as she became more bold and effective as a speaker, she set into motion the event that would change her life.

William Lloyd Garrison was editor of the Liberator, a widely read journal of the anti-slavery movement. In 1835, Angelina read about a mob attacking a Charleston, South Carolina post office in order to destroy anti-slavery materials stored there. She wrote a letter to Garrison, expressing her disgust at human bondage and her willingness to take action, saying, “… it is my deep, solemn, deliberate conviction that this is a cause worth dying for.[ii] Garrison published her letter, and she immediately became a public figure.

Angelina slowly accepted her public role. Her speeches energized many, but enraged many more. As she spoke of the cruel injustices she had seen on her father’s plantation, she attracted angry mobs. Even when violence was threatened, Angelina was not cowed.

In 1836 she wrote her first pamphlet, Appeal to Christian Woman of the South. She was convinced that the power to sway the minds of men lay in the hands of Southern women. They could not vote or speak to legislative bodies, but they could influence their husbands at home. In Angelina’s mind, it was their Christian duty to do so. She wrote, with evangelical fervor:

As a moral being I feel I owe it to the suffering slave, and to the deluded master, to my country and the world, to do all that I can to overturn a system of complicated crime, built up upon the broken hearts and prostrate bodies of my countrymen in chains, and cemented by the blood and sweat and tears of my sisters in bonds.[iii]

Back home in South Carolina Angelina’s writings were publicly burned. She was virtually banned from her home state. Nevertheless, she continued to live according to her  Christian spirit and conviction. She helped blaze a new trail that ended up changing the American Landscape forever.

[i] Grimké, Angelina. Diary entry, 1828, quoted in Browne, Angelina Grimke, 35. (p. 144 of Helen’s dissertation., “revisiting the Origins of American Feminism”)
[ii] Angelina Grimke to William Lloyd Garrison, 30 Aug. 1837 (Liberator, 19 September 1835). p. 144 of Helen’s dissertation.


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