"Sowing the seeds of liberal thought": Unitarian Women Ministers in Nineteenth-century South Dakota

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Their numbers were few and their resources limited, yet for a brief and exceptional time in the late nineteenth century, a small group of women ministers of liberal religious faith flourished in South Dakota and neighboring states. With conviction and zeal, these clergywomen of the Western Unitarian Conference founded and led churches and proclaimed a message of religious freedom, reason, and optimism. "Our success gives me courage to undertake anything and to hope for everything," wrote the Reverend Eliza Tupper Wilkes in 1888 after forming a tiny but resolute congregation in Miner County.' Wilkes, the organizer of numerous mission churches in eastern Dakota Territory and western Minnesota and Iowa, had been ordained in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1871 as one of the first women ministers in the Universalist Church/ Eighteen years later, the community of Unitarian female clergy expanded as four women, all with ties to Wilkes and ministry in South Dakota, were ordained within a three-week span in October and November of 1889. The stories of these women —Eliza Tupper Wilkes, her sister Mila Tupper, Caroline Bartlett, Helen Putnam, and Blanche Pentecost Bagley—shine a revealing light on the opportunities and obstacles encountered by women who strove to forge careers in the late nineteenth century. With gender roles in flux and an emerging spirit of reform taking hold, they pursued their callings on the western prairies, committed to an unorthodox faith, social action, and community service.

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South Dakota History





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