Vintage image of Christian Union Church

Maybe Portsmouth welcomes women preachers and pastors because Anne Hutchinson is part of our heritage.  I knew that Julia Ward Howe had “supplied the pulpit” at the Christian Union Church (now the headquarters for the Portsmouth Historical Society). As I went through church records I was surprised that in the 1870s the church welcomed a woman preacher who did more than guest preach.  Rev. Ellen Gustin was an evangelist who had more of a pastoral role in a time when the congregation had lost a strong pastor.

Ellen led a long and productive life.  When she died at age ninety in 1924, the New York Times carried an obituary that claimed she was the third woman in America to be ordained in the ministry.  She was born in Frankfort, Maine and delivered her first sermon in a school house at the age of eleven.  She toured as an evangelist before she joined the Christian denomination.  The Christian Union Church in Portsmouth was part of this loosely connected group.  Anti-slavery leader Stephen Hopkins was one of the originators of the Rhode Island Christian Church.  The church was progressive and offered a welcome to everyone and sought to work for peace and justice.  Ellen Gustin worked as President of the Women’s Board of Foreign Missions – part of the national organization of the denomination.

From Church Records, George Manchester Clerk

Rev. Gustin supplied the pulpit and served unofficially as a co-pastor from 1872 to 1878.  Church records show no concerns about a woman taking on such a leading role in the congregation.  Ellen was a friend of Julia Ward Howe and shared her work in the Suffrage movement.  In 1872 the Executive Board of the church voted to allow a lecture on suffrage at the church.  Ellen spoke at major meetings of the Woman Suffrage Association in New England.

Julia was even a little jealous of Ellen’s abilities.  Sunday, September 29, 1872, Julia writes:

“Reverend Mrs. Gustine to dine.  I afterwards to church to hear her.  A sweet woman, called of God, with a real power.  Her voice, manner, and countenance, most sweet and impressive.  Intellection not remarkable, I think, but tone, feeling and effect very remarkable.  No one, I think, would doubt the reality of spiritual things after hearing her.  I asked myself why I am not jealous of her, as she preaches far more effectively than I do.  Well, partly because I believe in my own gift, such as it is, and partly because what she does is natural, genuine, and without pretense or pretentious.  Her present Society was much disturbed by strife when she was called to its care.  No man, she told me, could have united the opposing parties.  A true woman could.  This shows me a work that women have to do in the Church as well as elsewhere.  Where men cannot make peace, they can.  Mrs. Gustine says that by my writings and example I have helped her a good deal. I am glad to hear this, but pray to do far better than I have yet done…Thought much about Mrs. Gustine, who, without any of my training and culture can do what I cannot.  I can also do what she cannot – think a subject out. She can only shadow and suggest, yet how powerful is the contact of her soul, and what a good power!”

Recorded in:  Julia Ward Howe. Compiled by  Richards and Elliott – Houghton Mifflin, 1916 page 387.

A short Newport Mercury article from November 11, 1878 shows another one of her causes.

“Rev.  Ellen Gustin has been holding services and speaking at temperance meetings at the Christian Church with great acceptability.  She is a favorite with the people of this congregation and has done much good.”

Ellen continued on to pastor churches in Attleboro and Mansfield, Massachusetts.  Even though Ellen Gustin stayed and ministered in Portsmouth only a few years, she had a remarkable gift of evangelization that recharged the Portsmouth community.