Reverend Phebe Coffin Hanaford, 1829 – 1921 Minister – Author – Women’s Rights Supporter

Universalist minister and author Phebe Coffin Hanaford was born in Siasconset on Nantucket on May 6, 1829, to Phebe Ann Barnard Coffin and Captain George Coffin, both Quakers (Hanaford 1883, 427). Phebe’s mother died when she was only six weeks old, and her father’s remarriage provided Phebe with seven half-siblings. Because she was the oldest in a family of eight children, it is likely that Phebe learned to lead at a young age. It is said that she often played at being a preacher when young, mimicking what she heard from strong Quaker women at First Day meetings. She was schooled in Nantucket and began to teach when she was sixteen (Hanaford 1883, 427). At the age of twenty, Phebe met and married Dr. Joseph H. Hanaford, a homeopathic physician, medical author, and teacher in Nantucket schools. They moved to Beverly, Massachusetts, and although they had two children – a son and a daughter – her marriage appears to have been an unhappy one, and the couple later separated.

Reverend Phebe Coffin Hanaford.
Reverend Phebe Coffin Hanaford in her Vestments, ca. 1860. P15556. Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

At age twenty-four, Phebe Hanaford published her first antislavery book, titled Lucretia the Quakeress. She would publish fourteen books in her lifetime, including the first biography of Abraham Lincoln to be published after his assassination. The Life of Abraham Lincoln sold twenty thousand copies and was followed by perhaps her best-known book, The Daughters of America, which sold sixty thousand copies. (Hanaford 1883, 427; Tetrault 2002). This work includes essays about prominent American women, such as Lucretia Coffin Mott, Harriet Hosmer, Maria Mitchell, Mary Lyon, Elizabeth Peabody, Graceanna Lewis, and Sojourner Truth – written by Hanaford and other well-known women of the nineteenth century. The book also heavily details the lives of Nantucket women and their influence on women around the United States through their own work and that of organizations that they helped to found, such as Sorosis and the Association for the Advancement of Women. Hanaford also authored a book of poetry, From Shore to Shore and Other Poems, which includes poems about Nantucket and its people, as well as The Captive Boy and a biography of Charles Dickens – ironic, because she was the president of the Women’s Press Club that was formed in part because women were banned from a Press Club event at which Dickens spoke.

Phebe Coffin Hanaford, however, is known not only for her work as an author, but also as a minister of the Universalist Church. In 1864, she turned from her Quaker upbringing – as other Quakers later did – and studied to become a Universalist minister. She preached her first sermon in 1865 and in 1868 was ordained and asked to become the first female minister of the First Universalist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts (Tetrault 2002, 7). She was the first woman ordained as a minister in New England and the fourth in the world. She served as minister at several churches, including the First Universalist Church in New Haven, Connecticut. While in Connecticut, she was invited to be chaplain of the state legislature – the first woman in the United States and the world to officiate in a legislative body of men. Hanaford was the first woman to offer prayers for the ordination of a minister – her son – and the first woman to exchange pulpits with her own son, as well as the first woman to officiate at the marriage of her own daughter (Hanaford 1883, 428).

In a family genealogy chart that was sent out to Coffin family members, Hanaford stated, “I was the first woman ordained in Massachusetts. The first woman in the world to open a legislative session composed of men only . . . .The first woman, I suppose, to respond to a toast at a Masonic Supper. The first woman to perform the ceremony of marriage for her own daughter . . . . (NHA Coll. 38, Folder 1). She likely used a similar sermon for her daughter’s marriage ceremony that she used when she officiated at other weddings – more than forty of them during her lifetime. Her marriage ceremonies were her own creation but were based upon those she witnessed as a child in Quaker meeting (Phebe Hanaford, NHA Blue File). Hanaford was obviously quite proud of her accomplishments and rightfully so. Likely, she saw herself as a leader and as an example for other women. By making note of her accomplishments, she was providing herself as an illustration of what women could accomplish, despite the difficulties they might face when confronted with the nineteenth century’s belief in separate female and male spheres.

Hanaford’s life was not without controversy. She remained separated from her husband for life and maintained a close friendship and relationship for forty years with a woman named Ellen E. Miles, a companionship that caused some friction in her tenure at several churches. Despite the problems, Hanaford was a popular minister with a strong following. She was a champion of equal rights for women and for African Americans and spoke from her pulpit about unequal treatment and the opportunities for change. She supported her beliefs in many other ways; for example, she always selected hymns written by women for installation ceremonies of other ministers, and she was a vice-president of the Association for the Advancement of Women, to which several Nantucket daughters belonged and had helped to found – Maria Mitchell among them. Unlike most of the women’s suffrage pioneers, Hanaford lived to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. She died on June 2, 1921 (Tetrault 2002, 9).

Hanaford credited much of her accomplishment to her upbringing. In a letter to the Nantucket paper, the Inquirer and Mirror, on March 23, 1869, she stated,

That I have been successful as a preacher is largely owing to the fact of my Quaker birth, and my early education on the Island of Nantucket, where women preach and men are useful on washing days, and neither feel themselves out of place. (Phebe Hanford, NHA Blue File)

In an environment like Nantucket, it is easy to see why Hanaford and other Nantucket women both on and off the island were able to accomplish what they did. The lines of the women’s sphere and the men’s sphere were blurred, as the sexes on Nantucket took up the tasks commonly associated with the opposite sex elsewhere in America.

Excerpted from The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island
By Jascin Leonardo Finger
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NHA − Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket, MA.


NHA Blue Files – Phebe Hanaford.

Phebe Coffin Hanaford Collection. Collection 38. Nantucket Historical Association. Nantucket, MA.

Secondary Sources

Hanaford, Phebe A. 1883. Daughters of America; Or, women of the century. Augusta, Maine: True and Company.

McCleary, Helen Cartwright. 1929. Phebe Ann (Coffin) Hanaford: The 100th anniversary of her birth. Nantucket Historical Association Proceedings XXXV.

Tetrault, Lisa M. 2002. A paper trail: Piecing together the life of Phebe Hanaford. Historic Nantucket 51, no 4: 6 – 9.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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