Amanda Hedrick / West Virginia University

Progressive Protestantism: the Life of Frances Willard, 1839-1896


Frances Willard began her life in September 1839 in Churchville, New York.  Her early schooling included lessons in drawing, piano, singing, and French, but little exposure to math and science because her mother wanted her to be educated as a lady.[i]  Willard responded to this limited education by writing in her journal: “Am I to be chained down to this world?” followed by a quote from Sir Edward Dyer, “My mind to me a kingdom is.”[ii]  She happily received further education as a result of a popular seminary movement for young ladies that swept the Midwest in the late 1850s.  In 1857 Willard was able to attend Milwaukee Normal Institute founded by Catherine Beecher, daughter of Congregationalist pastor Lyman Beecher.  After a short time at the Institute, Willard went to North Western Female College at Evanston Illinois, a women’s seminary with Methodist connections.  At these schools, Willard was exposed to the ideas of Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and the Beechers.  She gained knowledge of botany, geology, astronomy, history, and mathematics, and was well grounded in philosophy and Methodist theology.[iii]

After her schooling was complete, Willard accepted a teaching position in May 1860 at Noyesville, near Harlem, Illinois.  She also started a Sunday School at the schoolhouse on July 28, 1860.  Willard finished out the school term then returned to Evanston in September.  On October 2, 1860, she took another teaching position at Kankakee Academy in Chicago.[iv]  After a time at Kankakee, Willard accepted the position of Preceptress of Natural Sciences at North Western Female College in August 1862.[v]  January 1863 saw Willard teaching at the Female College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she came in direct contact with rapid industrialization:  “. . .the dirt & the smoke. . .are truly awful.[vi]  Willard remained in Pittsburgh until 1863, when she returned home after the Confederate Army under the command of General Robert E. Lee crossed the Potomac in July.[vii]  After a few years at home, Willard resumed her teaching career on September 18, 1866, at Lima, New York.  Her title was the Preceptress of the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary.  In her journal Willard confided, “I have found my vocation at last - I was meant for a ‘Preceptress’!”[viii]

Willard’s stint as preceptress did not last for long.  During her stay at Lima she met and befriended Kate Jackson who took her on a tour of Europe from May 1868 to the fall of 1870.  Willard visited Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, and various other countries in western Europe.  While abroad, Willard mastered French, learned some Italian and German, and studied Renaissance art and literature in Italy.[ix]  Willard’s travels completed her formal education and prepared her for her eminent public career.  By 1874, Willard had become one of the leading female instructors in the United States and the head of the women’s division at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.[x] 

Her prestigious position at Northwestern University was not to last.  As a female instructor at a coeducational institution, Willard came under harassment from male students and faculty, including the president of the college and her former fiancé Charles Fowler and was forced to resign on June 13, 1874.[xi] 

During the winter of 1874, Willard became involved in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and spoke at mass temperance meetings as early as the spring of 1874.  This was not the first time Willard was involved in the temperance cause: she signed an abstinence pledge in 1855, and in 1866 she had been active in temperance circles in Evanston, Illinois.[xii]  Her main personal, direct action in the temperance movement came in the fall of 1874 when she joined a prayer demonstration outside a saloon with the Pittsburgh Crusaders.[xiii] 

Willard became the president of the Chicago Union in the early fall of 1874, and was appointed corresponding secretary of the Illinois Union in October 1874.  In November of the same year, Willard also took on the responsibility of the office of corresponding secretary for the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union.[xiv]  She quickly gained prominence as a public speaker, and went on speaking tours throughout the country from the late 1870s through the 1890s.  Her last speaking tour was through the South in 1896.[xv]

In January 1877, Willard resigned as the president of the Chicago Union in order to join Dwight L. Moody’s staff and become an evangelist.  D.L. Moody was raised a Unitarian but had a profound conversion which led to his international evangelism.  Moody advocated gospel temperance, not Willard’s political solutions, and did not like the fact that Willard was still lecturing on temperance, especially with women of different denominations onstage with her.  Willard did not agree with Moody’s methods of saving souls: he had separate meetings for men and women, which flew in the face of Willard’s mindset of gender equality.  By August 1877 Moody and Willard’s disagreements became irreconcilable and their working arrangement ended.[xvi]

In 1879 Willard was elected president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at its national convention.[xvii]  During her nineteen years as president, Willard saw temperance as the root of other reform and advocated women’s rights, suffrage, dress reform, prison reform for women, labor organization, eight hour workdays and improved working conditions in factories.  She also combated child labor, aided the formation of kindergartens, and was influential in raising the legal age for sexual consent from seven or ten years old to sixteen years old.[xviii]  Although she did not live to see it, Willard’s work resulted in the eighteenth and nineteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, permitting women to vote and prohibiting the sale or use of alcohol in America.[xix]

In 1893, Willard began complaining of her health:

“Not well - red blotches on tongue - inflamed throat - cough - no appetite whatever.  It is ‘pernicious anemia’ I suppose - what my blessed Mother had off & on for 2 or 3 years before her final flight. . .”[xx]

Her self-diagnosis proved to be accurate and fatal.  Willard’s health slowly deteriorated, and by January 1898 she was bed-ridden.  Frances Willard died at midnight on February 17, 1898 in a hotel in New York.[xxi]

Willard’s actions and choices in life were not made in isolation, but were results of societal influences.  Willard’s parents were quite active in society and quickly exposed her to progressive ideas.  Her father Josiah was involved in the Free Soil party and was elected to Wisconsin’s legislature in 1848.  He was a prominent member of the Wisconsin Agriculture Society and introduced Abraham Lincoln in one of the meetings in 1859.  Mr. Willard later became a Republican when the party formed and wholeheartedly agreed with their antislavery sentiments.  Willard’s father was also a member of the Washingtonians, a antebellum temperance group founded by reformed drunkards.[xxii]  Mary Hill Willard was a schoolteacher for eleven years before her marriage and continued her instruction after she wed.  She tutored her own children and taught her servants and farmhands how to read, write, and solve simple math.  Mrs. Willard attended college courses while she raised her children and became engaged in public reform after her husband died.[xxiii]  From her parents Willard gained an inquisitive nature along with temperance and antislavery ideas.

The American society that influenced Willard revolved around alcohol.  After the Revolutionary War a surplus of cheap grain and new distilling technology resulted in an increased supply of beer and liquor.  Alcohol abuse quickly became a problem.  Temperance advocates were able to decrease the consumption of alcohol in the 1840s and 1850s, but after the Civil War alcohol abuse escalated.[xxiv]   

During the same era, women had few rights.  They could not vote, did not control their wages, could not own property, and had no rights to their children.[xxv]  By the 1870s, the middle class was becoming an extremely large body with decreasing birth rates.  This allowed middle class women to have more free time, and urbanization allowed these bored, educated women to assemble easily.[xxvi]  The combination of alcoholism, lack of women’s rights, and free time brought on by upward class mobility culminated in a temperance Crusade in 1873 that began in Ohio and swept through the country.[xxvii]  The renewed temperance fervor and her father’s temperate example led Frances Willard to join the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the winter of 1874.  Also leading to her decision to join the temperance movement was the fact that her brother and nephews had serious problems with alcohol abuse.[xxviii]

Racial conflict and the Civil War also had a great effect on Willard.  Willard recounted events leading to and during the war in her journal.  On the day of John Brown’s execution, December 2, 1859, Willard called him a “brave old man” who was not “insane or fanatical.”  She declares that his “intention was righteous - and his death the death of a martyr.”[xxix]  Willard frequently showed her egalitarian spirit in her journal by repeatedly paraphrasing Galatians 3:28: “there is neither male nor female, bond nor free, but ye are all one in Christ.”[xxx]  On November 7, 1860, Willard wrote about Lincoln’s election with enthusiasm, and when the War began she wrote, “. . .If the curse that slavery entails upon us, can be removed, every true, patriotic heart must say ‘let it be done.’  Our greatness must remain problematic while this shadow of a terrible wrong is over us. . .”[xxxi]  Willard was ecstatic when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863, but in the 1890s Willard became aware of the increasing racial repression in the South by Jim Crow laws, segregation, and lynching.  She directed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to pass an anti-lynching resolution in 1893, and toured the South in 1896 with Booker T. Washington when she wrote that “life must seem grievous” for the African Americans in the South.[xxxii]

Willard’s society was also one of rapid industrialization.  With this progress in technology came a wave of immigration from Catholic countries in Southern and Eastern Europe.  The influx of immigrants into American society in the 1890s resulted in nativism, the ideology of prejudice and discrimination against the new Catholic European presence.[xxxiii]  Although Willard used nativist propaganda in her speeches because her main audience was white, middle-class, Protestant women, she did not support nativism, but worked for cooperation and outreach.[xxxiv]  By 1895, she was successful in passing a resolution to allow Catholic and Jewish women to work in the Women’s Temperance Christian Union.[xxxv]

Also in the 1890s, Willard became involved in an interesting fashion of society.  She was battling the ill health that anemia brings when she took up bicycling.  Willard wrote a book on it, and described it in her journal as a “regular study in mental philosophy, Christian Science mind-cure and balance all in one.”[xxxvi]  She also used calisthenics and new health diets to regain her strength and health.[xxxvii]

Popular culture was not the only influence upon Willard.  She had a rich, and somewhat diverse, religious history that directly influenced her own beliefs.  One of her father’s ancestors was Simon Willard, an English Puritan who settled in Massachusetts Bay when he was thirty-one years old.  Frances Willard’s branch of the family moved into New Hampshire and became Baptists in the eighteenth century.  Willard’s mother, Mary Hill Willard, was also from New Hampshire where her family members were Freewill Baptists.[xxxviii]  Willard’s immediate family did not remain Baptists but joined a Congregational church and later converted to Methodism.

On October 23, 1859, Willard had a conversion experience and wrote her thoughts in her journal:

I wish I could practically apply the intellectual belief I have in Christ. . . I intend immediately to be a Christian. . .Divest me of all pride, let me feel as I see, how glorious a thing it is to be at peace with Him by whom I was created, by whom I am preserved.  Let me truly repent, and help me to please Thee, and to be useful in the world, I ask it very humbly and sincerely, only for Christ’s sake.[xxxix]

Two months later on December 16, 1859, Willard wrote that she had publicly renounced her sins and asked God for forgiveness and help “to live a good, true, valuable life - a life that shall glorify God and be a blessing to my fellow toilers and sufferers on the earth.”[xl]  Willard joined the Methodist church in January 1860, and remained a Methodist the rest of her life.[xli]  She was baptized as a Christian on May 5, 1861.[xlii]

Willard attended a camp meeting on the Des Plains River, sixteen miles northwest of Chicago on August 26, 1866.  She wrote that it was “a great day, 10,000 persons on the grounds.”[xliii]  As a result of this meeting, Willard became involved in the Holiness Movement, a pious movement that began in Methodism and spread to other denominations.  It advocated complete sanctification.  Willard’s family attended meetings led by Walter and Phoebe Palmer, who founded the Holiness Movement.[xliv]  The Holiness Movement, however, was not for her.

In the late 1870s Willard began to doubt the necessity of a literal interpretation of the Bible, probably as a result of the rising influence of modernity on United States society.[xlv]  In the 1880s she became interested in psychic phenomena.  She went to sermons on spiritualism and corresponded with Elliot Cones of the Society for Psychical Research.  In the 1890s her interests changed again and led her into theosophy.[xlvi]  Even though Willard was influenced by new ideas and theologies, she always remained a strong Christian.  Looking back over her life in June 1896, she wrote, “I should have loved best of all to be a Gospel Preacher.”[xlvii]

Although she was not a minister, Willard had several lasting impacts upon American Christianity.  First, with her leadership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Willard and her ladies were against using wine for communion.  Beginning in 1876, grape juice began to be used in place of wine in Methodist, Baptist, and Congregational denominations.  The Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Catholics continue to use wine.[xlviii]  Secondly, because of her outreach, women of all denominations and faiths worked together in a common cause, allowing for more religious tolerance and cooperation in America.

Willard’s most significant contribution to Christianity began in the 1880s.  During this time, women were extremely active in church, but only through their own separate societies and meetings.  They were not allowed to preach, be ordained, vote in, or be elected to the church governments.[xlix]  In October 1887, Willard and five other women were elected the first time as delegates to the Methodist General Conference that was scheduled for April 1888 in New York.  General Conference met on May 1, 1888, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.  Willard was not able to attend due to her mother’s health, but two women were already there - Mary Ninde and Angie Newman.  Willard’s absence hurt the female delegation, and the resolution to seat women in the conference was defeated in both the lay and ministerial votes.  This issue was voted on again at the 1892 General Conference and was passed by the lay vote but defeated by the ministerial vote.  Finally, in the 1896 conference both the lay and ministerial votes passed the resolution.  Female delegates were allowed to be seated beginning with the Conference of 1904, after Willard’s death.[l]

During this controversy, Willard used her influential voice to support female delegation by writing Woman in the Pulpit in 1889.  She pointed out that women were already working hard in the church and that there were thirty scripture passages “in favor of woman’s public work for Christ, and only two against it, and these not really so when rightly understood.”[li]  She eloquently expressed the views of thousands of Protestant women when she wrote,

I believe women should be authorized as ministers in the church of God. . .man has no greater natural or spiritual rights than a woman to serve at the altars of the church, as minister of the Gospel. . . If women can organize missionary societies, temperance societies, and every kind of charitable organization . . .why not permit them to be ordained to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments of the Church?[lii]

Thanks to the efforts of Frances Willard, women were allowed to participate in the church governments of many Protestant denominations.  Women finally became equal in the eyes of the church and each other just as they had always been equal in the eyes of God.  Christian women in America owe a large debt of gratitude to this highly influential Christian woman.


[i] Carolyn Gifford, ed., Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard, 1855-96 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 38.

[ii] Ibid. 

[iii] Ruth Bordin, Frances Willard: A Biography (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 20-24.

[iv] Gifford, Writing Out My Heart, 68-89.

[v] Ibid., 187. 

[vi] Ibid., 204. 

[vii] Ibid., 220. 

[viii] Ibid., 237. 

[ix] Bordin, Frances Willard, 48-50.

[x] Ibid., 32.

[xi] Ibid., 54-63. 

[xii] Ibid., 68. 

[xiii] Ruth Bordin, Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 42-43.

[xiv] Ibid., 45.

[xv] Bordin, Frances Willard, 114. 

[xvi] Ibid., 87-89. 

[xvii] Bordin, Woman and Temperance, 47.

[xviii] Ibid., 102-119.

[xix] Bordin, Frances Willard, 189.

[xx] Gifford, Writing Out My Heart, 372.

[xxi] Bordin, Frances Willard, 237-238.

[xxii] Ibid., 15, 68.

[xxiii] Ibid., 18-19. 

[xxiv] Bordin, Woman and Temperance, xxii.

[xxv] Ibid., 7. 

[xxvi] Ibid., 10-11.

[xxvii] Ibid., 28-29.

[xxviii] Ibid., 161.

[xxix] Gifford, Writing Out My Heart, 51-52.

[xxx] Ibid., 58. 

[xxxi] Ibid., 120-121.

[xxxii] Bordin, Frances Willard, 216, 222-223.

[xxxiii] Bordin, Woman and Temperance, 86.

[xxxiv] Amy R. Slagell, “The Rhetorical Structure of Frances E. Willard’s Campaign for Woman Suffrage, 1876-1896,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4:1 (Spring 2001), 4.

[xxxv] Bordin, Frances Willard, 169-170.

[xxxvi] Gifford, Writing Out My Heart, 309.

[xxxvii] Bordin, Frances Willard, 208.

[xxxviii] Bordin, Frances Willard, 14-15.

[xxxix] Gifford, Writing Out My Heart, 47.

[xl] Ibid., 54.

[xli] Bordin, Frances Willard, 27-29.

[xlii] Gifford, Writing Out My Heart, 124. 

[xliii] Ibid., 231.

[xliv] Bordin, Frances Willard, 156.

[xlv] Ibid., 158.

[xlvi] Ibid., 157.   (Theosophy was founded in New York in 1875, and encouraged the comparison and study of religion, philosophy, and science.  It also taught that race, sex, and class should not be used to differentiate humans from one another.  http://www.carm.org/list/theosophy.htm)

[xlvii] Gifford, Writing Out My Heart, 411.

[xlviii] Bordin, Woman and Temperance, 54.

[xlix] Bordin, Frances Willard, 167.

[l] Ibid., 164-167.

[li] Frances E. Willard, Women in the Pulpit (Chicago: Woman’s Temperance Publishing Society, 1978). Available online at http://www.christianethicstoday.com/Issue/033/Issue_033_April%20_2001.htm

[lii] Ibid.



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