April 30: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, Editor & Prophetic Witness, 1879

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Sarah Josepha Buell was born in New Hampshire in 1788 to Captain Gordon Buell and Martha Buell, both of whom were advocates for equal education for both sexes. In 1813 she married David Hale, a promising lawyer who shared her intellectual interests. In 1822, David died four days before the birth of their fifth child. Sarah Buell Hale wore black for the rest of her life and to support her family she turned to her considerable literary skills. In a year a volume of poetry appeared, followed by a successful novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England, which was the first American novel by a woman and one of the first dealing with slavery. The success generated by Northwood enabled her to edit the popular Ladies’ Magazine, which she hoped would aid in educating women, as she wrote, “not that they may usurp the situation, or encroach upon the prerogatives of man; but that each individual may lend her aid to the intellectual and moral character of those within her sphere.”

In 1830, she published a book of verses for children aimed at the Sunday school market; it included the now-famous “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” originally called “Mary’s Lamb.” Following the examples of her parents, she labored consistently for women’s education and helped found Vassar College. Her publications, including the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book, promoted concern for women’s health, property rights, and opportunities for public recognition. Hale’s influence was widespread, particularly for middle class women, in matters of child-rearing, morality, literature, and dress. Although the editor of Godey’s instructed her to avoid party politics in the publication, she dedicated much energy to causes which could unite North and South across party lines. She worked diligently to preserve Bunker Hill and George Washington’s plantation home, Mount Vernon, as American monuments. She is perhaps most famous for the nationalization of the Thanksgiving holiday, toward which she worked many years and which finally received presidential sanction under Abraham Lincoln.

Her work, in both the women’s and national spheres, was exemplary for its conciliatory nature, its concern for the unity of the nation, and for her desire to honor the work and influence of women in society.


I  Gracious God, we bless thy Name for the vision and witness of Sarah Hale, whose advocacy for the ministry of women helped to support the deaconess movement. Make us grateful for thy many blessings, that we may come closer to Christ in our own families; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II  Gracious God, we bless your Name for the vision and witness of Sarah Hale, whose advocacy for the ministry of women helped to support the deaconess movement. Make us grateful for your many blessings, that we may come closer to Christ in our own families; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Jeremiah 30:17–19,22

Philippians 1:27–2:2

Matthew 5:1–12

Psalm 96

Preface of a Saint (2)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

To post a comment, your first and last name and email address are required. Your name will be published; your email address will not. The first time you post, a moderator will need to approve your submission; after that, your comments will appear instantly.

30 thoughts on “April 30: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, Editor & Prophetic Witness, 1879

  1. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  2. Subtitle. She was a ‘Prophetic Witness’ of … women in ministry? What does that mean?
    Collect: ‘whose advocacy for the ministry of women’ Other than being a woman what ‘advocacy’ did she participate in?
    Readings. This group makes her out to be a long-suffering prophet. Is this supportable?
    Bio. Paragraph 2. ‘… aimed at the Sunday school market …” I guess Sunday School should be capitalized (though I am not sure) as it was new in her day … but using the word ‘market’ seems out of place in the bio.
    Proper Preface of a Saint (2). Again, we need a new Proper Preface for Holy People.

    • Everyone has said what I meant to say at 6.30 this morning. The collect says she ‘helped to support the deaconess movement’ … that was my point and I forgot it this morning. The bio, as everyone else has noted, has nothing to say about deaconesses. Thanks to Steve we know why the collect’s author included it … but why didn’t the bio’s author?
      And let me add my agreement that she was not even a church-goer – let alone a Saint worthy of Proper Preface (2).

  3. The collect refers to the ministry of women and the role of deaconess, but the bio mentions neither of these things. There’s no way to tell from the bio that she was even a Christian. In fact, thinking that ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ would be good Sunday School material might argue otherwise. Even the information hinted at by the collect doesn’t explain her inclusion in HWHM.

    As an aside, the sentence ‘although the editor of Godey’s instructed her to avoid party politics in the publication, she dedicated much energy to causes which could unite North and South across party lines’ doesn’t make sense. ‘Although’ implies a contrast between the clause attached to it and the information that follows, but in this case there is no contrast. The first could even explain the second: ‘Because the editor of Godey’s instructed her to avoid party politics in the publication, she dedicated much energy to causes which could unite North and South across party lines.’

  4. I am baffled as to why she is proposed for inclusion. She seems to have been a general do-gooder, with an emphasis on women. Wearing black for the rest of her life after her husband died? Isn’t that a little neurotic? First novel by an American woman? Really? I missed that one in grad school. Leave her out.

  5. Thre is an extensive biography at wikipedia – I know, I know. It does give a lot more information than the entry above. She helped found Vassar, and helped get a national Thanksgiving Day established. She and her husband were married in a tavern that was near a church. The bio does not disclose a denomination. for whoever presided at this ceremony. There is not one single reference to her religious beliefs, worship habits, or church affiliatio, if any, in this extensive entry. Several other sources do credit her novel as being ‘one of the first’ written by an American woman, so I’ll withdraw my snide comment above. I still ask why she’s proposed for commemoration.

  6. How is she a saint ? What, besides being a famous person who wrote a bit of poetry and who perstered
    the hierarchy for a national day of thanksgiving, did she contribute to a community of faith ? Which one?
    Where ? What did she have to do with deaconnesses (Episcopal or otherwise)? I am very much from Missouri on this one !

  7. Yikes! I hadn’t bothered to read the collect. The extensive bio on Wikipedia did not mention deaconesses.

  8. As far as one can tell from the write-up, this formidable woman related to the church only in so far as it provided a market for her books. She rates a sentence or two in HWHM’s write-up on Thanksgiving Day, a paragraph or so in any decent American history textbook, and a couple of pages in a history of American publishing or women’s issues, but nothing I’ve read here or elsewhere persuades me she meets the criteria for inclusion in HWHM.
    Her distant forerunner Christine de Pizan (1363 – c. 1430) — widowed single mother, poet, allegorist, hagiographer, woman’s advocate, and writer of a military manual — seems even more worthy of a date in the calendar, as she actually offers theological as well as historical and moral arguments for the equality of the sexes. And she eventually entered a convent, so you could tag her as a nun in the title.
    Or if you want a woman who sought to preserve the Union, what about Anna Ella Carroll (1815-94), who was even an Episcopalian?
    Instead of stretching “holy” to include more feminist idols, perhaps we could get to the same place by breaking up the suffragette’s ghetto on July 20. By comparison with other “saints” HWHM commemorates, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman should each have a date of her own.

  9. Here’s what little there is on Hale’s tie to deaconesses: she thought they were a good idea for women without other prospects. She was also active — albeit in a stay-at-home, administrative capacity — in foreign missions for women.
    Hale always believed that matrimony and maternity were the proper and preferred roles for women, but by 1854 she was ready to concede that “every young woman in our land should be qualified by some accomplishment which she may teach, or some art or profession she can follow, to support herself creditably, should the necessity occur.” She praised charitable societies and “the deaconess movement (which in this period was beginning to spread to the United States from Germany)” as “suitable pursuits for women.”
    Hale was secretary of the Ladies’ Medical Missionary Society of Philadelphia and head of the Philadelphia branch of the Women’s Union Missionary Society after the Ladies’ Society became part of the Women’s Union Society in 1860.
    Quotes and basic facts from Notable american women: a biographical dictionary (Harvard U. Press, 1974) http://books.google.com/books?id=rVLOhGt1BX0C&pg=RA1-PA113&lpg=RA1-PA113&dq=sarah+hale+deaconesses&source=bl&ots=mauGgTQbbl&sig=y3aF0OFeBBteDKsA-3yIKUOpH6Q&hl=en&ei=eSe8TaXzKsKgtwe64bm0BQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

  10. I have little to add to what already has been said about the addition ot Sarah Josepha Buell Hale to the calendar. Though I wish there were many more women in HWHM, Mrs. Hale does not seem to be an appropriate addition. She is important as a figure in American and women’s history. I would not even call her a feminist, especially if her editorship of Godey’s Lady Book magazine is to be used as a measure.

  11. I second Steve Lusk’s suggestion re the suffraget’tes ghetto. I still see no claim that she was an Episcopalian.

    • On second thought….
      No question but that this was one extremely sharp observer and even “critic” of the social inequities inhibiting people, particularly women, from living life to the full extent of their giftedness. She achieved a lot, and especially so given the fact that widowhood often hobbled and discounted women in time of their greatest vulnerability and need. I like what I read about her. The problem isn’t her contribution to the socio-economic (and blind) sexist mindset of the times — she deserves great praise for that, in my view. The problem is this volume is HWHM, not Who’s Who, and even our narrative makes no pretense at a life nourished or guided in any particular connection with Christianity per se. (I’m guessing Unitarian, but I haven’t found any direct validation of that guess.)

      So, again, I have to question the use of the phrase in the title, “Prophetic Witness.” It’s being used so loosely that I think it has NO meaning in HWHM. We need at least an operational definition that says “THIS is what we mean by “prophetic” and “THIS is what we mean by witness.” In my book, the prophetic needs to have an overt connection with “Thus spake the LORD” (not necessarily textual or Bible referenced — it could be ecclesiastical or theological), and the witness part needs to witness to God, Jesus, or the Gospel (understood as the Way of for fullment of God’s purpose in creation, redemption, and eschatological fulfilment).

      Bottom line: SHE’S NOT!

      • That rascally typist of mine. Drunk at the keyboard again! That last parenthetical bit is supposed to say, “…(understood as the Way of OR (not “FOR”) fullment of God’s purpose in creation, redemption, and eschatological fulfillment).”

  12. I read the bio and prayed the collect this morning, but didn’t have a chance until now to check your comments, which all seem very appropriate. Mrs. Hale certainly seems to have been an admirable person, but if we put every admirable person we know about into HWHM, it will be 20 volumes long. The relationship to deaconesses seems remote and contrived. I’m afraid for me, the question is “Why?” and the answer is “No.”

  13. I agree with the comments above, but wanted to put ALL the words of the “Little Lamb” song on line. For some reason, the “punch lines”–the last couple of lines–were never part of what I heard when I was little, and I wondered about whether they were omitted for others, too. I didn’t read them until I was an adult. They make the rhyme meaningful, not just playful.

    Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow;
    And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.
    It followed her to school one day, which was against the rule;
    It made the children laugh and play, to see a lamb at school.
    And so the teacher turned it out, but still it lingered near,
    And waited patiently about till Mary did appear.
    “Why does the lamb love Mary so?” the eager children cry;
    “Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know” the teacher did reply.

  14. Maybe that’s why the lines were left out–a limited understanding of the word “love.”

  15. Line 1, first paragraph: add “Newport,” after the first “in”.

    Line 1, first paragraph: substitute “on October 24,” for the second “in”.

    Lines 5 & 6, first paragraph: delete “Buell Hale”: since Sarah is the sole object of the bio, the extra names are redundant.

    Line 8, second paragraph: substitute “her” (or “Sarah’s” for “Hale’s”. (Sure, Journalism 101 teaches that 21st century women, as well as men, should always be referred to by their last name after the first mention, but we aren’t preparing a trendy newspaper!).

  16. Too bad about more lambs and stew. –I still like that last line and think it was a good way to help children be aware of “why the lamb loved Mary so.” I’ll never forget a classmate in first grade who was unfailingly nice to everyone, especially people others made fun of or didn’t choose as a partner, etc. We noticed our classmate’s kindness and commented on it, young as we were. I remember a friend’s telling me that our classmate’s mother taught him to be like that. I’m imagining she did it by example.

  17. I agree with the comments that there not enough evidence that Sarah Hale is a Christian witness. In today’s Morning Prayer I used the collect for the really abbots of Cluny instead.

  18. I ran this by my partner, who’s an Americanist. She was puzzled by the bio — especially by the untrue assertion that Hale wrote the first American novel from a female author. Susanna Rowson’s novel ‘Charlotte Temple’ usually gets prior claim (she was born in England and came to America, so all of this depends on what one calls “American”). Hannah Webster Foster’s epistolary novel ‘The Coquette’ came out in 1797, and she was born in Massachusetts, so she definitely beat Hale to the “American novel” punch.

    The more important question for me, though, is whether the people we include in our calendar — lay or ordained — are exemplars of a “godly” (however you define that) and kenotic way of life.

    HWHM places far more emphasis on fame and professional success — values mainstream American culture in particular needs no encouragement to cultivate, having exalted them alongside “family values” as supreme — than I’d like. Is there nothing that a lay person can do that’s “saintly” but is NOT about achieving in a career? And when we celebrate clergy in the calendar, are we celebrating their achievements as professionals?

  19. She sounds like an amazing woman but there is no mention of her even being a Christian, nor if her faith had anything to do with her life choices. How do we define “holy” these days?
    I’d leave her out unless there is something I can’t find in her Biography.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s