Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Remarkable Anna Carpenter (Garlin) Spencer

Anna Carpenter (Garlin) Spencer
 [April 17, 1851 - February 12, 1931]

It was 162 years ago today (April 17, 1851), that Anna Carpenter Garlin was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts.  Anna was the fourth and youngest child of Nancy Mason Carpenter and her husband, Francis Warren Garlin.  Anna's mother Nancy was the older sister of my 2x great grandfather, Samuel Carpenter.  Nancy was also the author of the reply letter to Miss Emily Aplin as recounted in my article for American Ancestors magazine (Vol. 12, No. 4 -- Fall 2011) -- Echoes from the Dorr Rebellion: The 1842 Aplin/Carpenter Correspondence.  [The article was republished on this blog with the kind permission of the New England Historic Genealogical Society on January 14, 2013.  See,]

Anna died in New York just shy of 80 years old on February 12, 1931  -- twenty-two years to the day after she was one of 19 women and 42 men who signed the "Call for the Lincoln Emancipation Conference in 1909."  That manifesto, now generally referred to as "The Call," was signed by sixty prominent African American and caucasian leaders.  The Call brought about a meeting of progressives of different races, religions, educational attainment, and socioeconomic means and they emerged as the founders of the NAACP. [See the March 12, 2013 post on this blog, Fearless Females -- Nineteen Who Joined "The Call." ]

Anna may have been the "baby of the family," but it was clear from a young age that she was a self-confident and motivated girl who became quite a remarkable woman in her time.  At age 17, Anna joined the Women's Suffrage Movement of Providence, Rhode Island.  In a description of what might have been her first appearance among the suffragettes of Providence, it was later written, ". . . a young girl then in her early teens, came into a small meeting of woman-suffragists of Providence, R.I. rose unannounced, and spoke a few clear, strong words for the advancement of women.  Her dainty girlish beauty was unknown to most of the persons in the little assembly into which she had come but the slight, expressive figure, the clear brown eyes, the dainty coloring of hair and skin and above all the musical voice and the nature of what she said did not fail to attract attention and more than one of those present divined that this fluty voice and those steadfast brown eyes had a message from a soul to deliver to the world." [1]

Unusually for a woman of her time, Anna spent the years from age 18 through 21 engaged in private college tutoring in Providence schools (1869 - 1871).   During this same time, and for years beyond, she also worked as a writer for the Providence Daily Journal (1869 - 1886).

By the time Anna was 24 years old, she had developed doctrinal issues with the Congregational church to which she belonged and so in 1875 she joined the Providence Free Religious Society.  This began a new endeavor for Anna as she commenced several years of preaching to such liberal religious organizations as the Progressive Friends in Chester, Pennsylvania and the Free Religious Society in Providence.  In 1878, she was a speaker at the Free Religious Association's annual meeting and it was there that she met her future husband, Unitarian Minister William Henry Spencer, who was also a speaker at the meeting.  Anna and William were married on August 15, 1878 and they moved to Haverhill and Florence, Massachusetts and then to Troy, New York as William pursued his calling as a Unitarian minister.  Anna was his assistant in all these assignments.

In 1889, the Spencers were living in Wisconsin where William had returned to assist in the Spencer family business (a loan collection agency) and word was received that James Eddy, patron of the liberal Bell Street Chapel in Providence, had passed away.  The Eddy family wanted Anna to return to Providence to assist the Eddy family in administering the James Eddy trust.  Anna agreed to the request and the Spencers returned to Providence where Anna, now the mother of five-year-old daughter Lucy, dove into civic and religious activities.  She became Vice President of the Providence Women's Suffrage Association (the organization she had boldly addressed in her early teens) and she joined other organizations in the city.  This return to Rhode Island and Anna's flurry of civic activity undoubtedly helped her recover from the still stinging misery of having lost her first-born child, son Fletcher Carpenter Spencer.

In 1890 Anna helped found the American Purity Alliance -- later renamed the American Social Hygiene Association -- and she became the Chair of the Family Relations section.  Then, in 1891, Bell Street Chapel voted unanimously to ordain her and she became the first female ordained minister in Rhode Island.  Anna served as pastor and President of the Bell Street Chapel for the next eleven years.

Anna in a colorized photo taken in the Bell Street Chapel (date unknown)
In the years 1891 - 1902, Anna had a long list of service and involvement in religious, social and political activities from her base in Rhode Island.  She was a member of the Board of the Rhode Island State Home and School for Dependent Children; Vice President of the Providence Society for Organizing Charity; Chair of the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago; Vice President of the Free Kindergarten Association; member of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement (Providence Chapter); member of the Board of Directors for the Free Religious Association and delegate to the Unitarian Convention, the World Parliament of Religions and the Free Religious Association.  Somehow, with all this involvement and the raising her daughter, Anna also found time to write.  Over the years, she had numerous publications and books to her credit in newspapers, magazines and the likes of the Journal of Sociology, Popular Science Monthly and others.

In 1902, the Spencers moved to New York City where their daughter Lucy started a career in theater. Ever active, Anna became an Associate Director of the New York School of Philanthropy (later known as the New York School of Social Work before it was merged into Columbia University as its School of Social Work).  Anna lectured at the School of Philanthropy until 1912.  She also was Associate Director of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.  Among her later academic pursuits, she was a lecturer on Social Service at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago.  From 1913 - 1918, she was Professor of Sociology and Ethics at Meadville Theological School in Pennsylvania and she was a special lecturer at Teachers College, Columbia University from 1920 until her death.  

Anna's husband died in 1923 and Anna herself died of a heart attack in New York on Lincoln's birthday, February 12, 1931, while attending a dinner of the League of Nations Association.

Anna Carpenter (Garlin) Spencer on the right with Alice Stone Blackwell, daughter of Lucy Stone.

Anna Carpenter (Garlin) Spencer was an author, lecturer, ordained minister and social activist.  She is  my 1st cousin 3x removed.  

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[1]     Quote from a hand-written script found among the papers in the Anna Garlin Spencer Papers (DG 034), Swarthmore College Peace Collection. [Author unknown.]

All photographs of Anna Carpenter (Garlin) Spencer from photographs in the Anna Garlin Spencer Papers (DG 034), Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. Thank you for this interesting history of your notable ancestor. Rev. Anna Garlin Spencer shared the podium with Swami Vivekananda at the Free Religious Association conference in Plymouth, MA in August 1894.