Mary Augusta Safford was a very important woman in the Unitarian Church. Throughout her life she was instrumental in the establishment and growth of Unitarian churches across the American West in the late nineteenth century. She was the central figure in a group of women Unitarian Ministers called the “Iowa Sisterhood” that founded congregations in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. In Sioux City she ministered at the First Unitarian Church from 1885 to 1899.
Safford was born on a farm in Illinois near the Mississippi River in 1851. Her mother Louisa, the daughter of Presbyterian parents, tried to teach Mary to be a traditional religious woman confined to the kitchen or to praying from the pews. Mary’s father Stephen, on the other hand, taught her that the Christian Bible was not perfect and the ideas of Darwinian evolution. Safford’s father died in 1860 and left Mary a large collection of books, journals, and articles. After reading many of them, Mary began understanding different religions and religious beliefs.
While she was still young, Mary began preaching from a tree stump on her family’s farm, much to her mother’s disapproval. Also at this time Mary befriended Eleanor Gordon who lived on a nearby farm and had free religious beliefs. In the 1870s, when they were both in there twenties, Mary and Eleanor pledged to “spend their lives together serving the world as a team.”
Safford began her college education at Iowa State University, but left the school when she became ill. She returned to Illinois where she began a teaching job and gave herself a program of study like she would have received in college. As part of the self-teaching experience, she established a literary society where she could share ideas, book reviews, essays, poetry, and present plays. The group sometimes had guest lecturers like Oscar Clute, who lectured on the evolution of religion. He encouraged both Mary and Eleanor to begin a Unitarian Church in Hamilton, Illinois.
The two women took Clute’s advice and by 1879 they were planning public worship services. Their success in opening their first church in Hamilton took them to Humboldt, Iowa, where Western Secretary for the American Unitarian Association wanted the enthusiastic pair to lead the Christian Unity Church. Safford became the minister there before the church building was even completed. She served in Humboldt from 1880 until 1885. She was ordained as a pastor there.
While Safford was ministering in Humboldt, her mentor, Oscar Clute, was giving a lecture to a group in Sioux City. Many of the people at the lecture were so impressed that they decided to form a Unitarian Church in Sioux City. In March of 1885 the Sioux City congregation formed Articles of Incorporation and by April they had rented a space at 6th and Douglas for their first Easter service.
The people who formed the church were some of the most prominent figures in Sioux City including Dr. William R. Smith, G.R. Badgerow, A. Groninger, Craig L. Wright, and G.W. Wakefield. These trustees immediately set out to raise money for a permanent church building and a minister. To help raise money, the ladies of the Circle sponsored a series of guest lecturers including Jenkin Lloyd-Jones from the All Souls Unitarian Church of Chicago and Mary Safford.
Again, the members of the new Sioux City congregation were so impressed with the ideas of Unitarianism and Mary Safford that they voted to make her their new minister. Safford accepted the job in September of 1885. Mary Safford became Sioux City’s first Unitarian pastor with her friend Eleanor Gordon as assistant and associate minister.
Sioux City’s Unitarian Church had a large active congregation with more than 300 members. In 1887 the congregation had put together enough money for a new church to be built at the southeast corner of 10th and Douglas Streets. On 5 May 1889 the First Unitarian Church building was dedicated. The buildings completion was a “testimonial to Safford’s energy, ability, and success as a pastor.”
Under the leadership of Safford and Gordon the congregation “became a power for good in the new western town.” Also under their influence, objection to women preachers faded away. Only a few of old-fashioned Sioux Cityans opposed the church and its women pastors. Safford put in many long hours trying to establish connections between the hymns and the teachings of the church.
Safford’s work in the Unitarian Church went far beyond her ministerial duties for the congregation in Sioux City. She helped set up regular church services in Ida Grove, and liberal societies in Washta and Cherokee. In Sioux City she founded the Unity Club and Unity Circle. She served as president of the Iowa Unitarian Association for seven years and was its secretary for six. She also directed the American Unitarian Association and the Western Unitarian Conference.
After fourteen years of service to the Sioux City congregation, Safford resigned in 1899. She left Sioux City for Des Moines were she led a new church. Because of failing health, she decided to retire in 1910. She moved to Orlando, Florida and helped that city establish its first Unitarian Church where she again served as pastor from 1910 until 1927.
Throughout her whole life, Safford fought for equality between men and women. As a pastor she helped break stereotypes that only men could lead religious services. She also fought for women’s right to vote by encouraging all women to take a stand. She served as president of both Iowa’s and Florida’s Equal Suffrage Associations and was on the board of directors of the National American Suffrage Association.
First Unitarian Church. Celebrating a Century of Spiritual Freedom 1885-1985.
_____. Fifty Years of Unity Church.
Mary Augusta Safford. http://www,uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/maryaugustasafford.html
Oelberg, Sarah. Mary Safford. http://harvardsquarelibrary.org/UIA%20Online/saffordpopup.html.
The First Unitarian Church of Sioux City. http://www.psduua.org/heritage/bring/part2/2_ia_sioux_city.html