In its 157-year history Lake Erie College has been the home of many students who have later on continued to become experts in their fields, and who have been recognized for their accomplishments all around the world. Sometimes, however, the recognition could take a little longer. This was the case of Elizabeth Bartlett Grannis, who attended LEC from 1859 to 1862 as one of its first students.
In 2011, a then-PhD candidate in American history at the Texas Christian University Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Tex. by the name of Lisa Barnett was looking for a topic for a research paper she had to write for a women’s history class. One of her professors, an instructor of church history, mentioned to her the story of one Elizabeth Bartlett Grannis, a story his wife had encountered recently in the New York Times while doing research on something else. Ms. Barnett took the suggestion, and started digging deeper. Soon, she recognized the potential in the story.
Liza Barnett uncovered the incredible story of a woman well ahead of her time, "an editor, social reformer, humanitarian, and pioneer woman suffragist,” as she later describes Elizabeth in her award-winning work "Piety and Power: The Life and Work of Elizabeth B. Grannis.” and thanks to Ms. Barnett’s work the name of a woman, committed to social reform and her community, was brought back into the light after more than a century.
In April 1906 Mrs. Grannis was separated from the church she had attended for decades, the First Church of Disciples of Christ, currently located in new location at Manhattan, New York and under the name Park Avenue Christian Church, often referred to simply as The Park. It was not until her story was uncovered by Ms. Barnett that the community of The Park had the opportunity to recognize everything that Elizabeth Grannis had done for their community. But who was Elizabeth Bartlett Grannis, and what happened in 1906 that prompted her congregation to separate themselves from this so-called progressive-thinking woman?
Born Elizabeth Coggeshall Bartlett on March 27, 1840, in Hartford, Conn., young Elizabeth spent majority of her childhood in Windsor, Ohio where her family relocated after the death of her father. It was in Windsor that she fist became involved with the Christian Church, after joining the local congregation and being baptized at age fourteen.
Even before that, however, she had shown interest in many of the issues that would define her later life – while still living in Connecticut, at age eleven, she asked to teach Sunday School, but was declined due to her age. She remedied that by starting her own Sunday School, and teaching a young impoverished child she found pulling a box in which she had placed a ragged doll, and two other poor children who she found in a haystack. Her passion for teaching continued – at age seventeen she taught public school for a year in Windsor, before moving on with her own education.
Elizabeth Bartlett attended Lake Erie Female Seminary, beginning with the first class to attend in 1859. She stayed at Lake Erie Seminary until 1862, but did not graduate, something common for women in the 19th century since so few professions which would require degrees were open to women. Soon afterwards she moved to Brooklyn, New York, and continued teaching for a few years before meeting and marrying Frederick W. Grannis in 1966. Elizabeth was 26 at the time. It was not to be a smooth sailing for the newly wed couple, however. As Grannis herself writes in a biographical sketch submitted to The Phrenological Journal in 1895, "My husband, after a few years, failed in business, and it became necessary, according to my best judgment, for me to earn money.”
Taking her fate in her own hands, Elizabeth began writing for the Church Union magazine, and soon bought it out in the fall of 1873, when the publication was just a few months old. She would go on to serve as the editor of the nationally published, non-sectarian magazine for 23 years, before selling it in 1896, and the entire time she signed her editorials as E. B. Grannis, thus concealing her gender. Becoming a successful entrepreneur in the last decades of the 19th century was not simple for a woman, yet Elizabeth did not let that stop her. Her editorials were honored by the Federal Council of Churches, and her work with children led her to become the editor of another magazine as well, The Children’s Friend and Kindergarten.
Among the causes dearest to Elizabeth’s heart were women’s suffrage, social reform and gender equality. She was a self-styled "radical” suffragette, and for decades before the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women in the United States the right to vote, she sought to register to vote annually as a "female man.” She maintained that, as stated in the Bible, God "created man, male and female he created them.” In a newspaper story recording her attempt to register to vote in 1892, she said to a reporter, "I have seen nothing in the Constitution of the United States that forbids me from voting because I am a woman.” When attempting to register, she was always prepared to answer all the questions that were asked of male applicants. "I have in every instance replied that I came not as a woman, but as a fully equipped citizen,” she said.
When these arguments failed to convince the officials, Grannis resorted to a different strategy – voting by proxy. It started with her brother coming with her to the polls, having her fill the ticket and then passing it back to him so he could deposit it. Later on she enlisted other men in her voting practice, including Rev. Joseph R. Wilson, the father of President Woodrow Wilson, who was a close personal friend of hers. "Dr. Wilson called for me in a carriage and escorted me uptown to the polling place,” she said, recalling one instance of voting-by-proxy in 1894. "I entered the booth, prepared my ballot, came out, handed it to him and he dropped it into the box amid the amazed stares of the officials.” She continued voting this way for about 20 years, even though she often said that she would rather be allowed to cast the ballot for herself. "[But] I am willing to do this,” she said. "Influencing politics is not a new thing for women. We have been working for years.”
Her support for women’s rights led her to participate in the National Council of Women in the United States, organized in 1888 in Washington D.C., and also in the World’s Congress of Representative Women, a week-long convention held in May 1893 in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At these gatherings Elizabeth encountered some of the great women of the time: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Carrie Chapman Catt.
Grannis also undertook a number of other causes that paint her as a progressive activist and thinker and way ahead of her time – she actively spoke and wrote against the sale of tobacco to minors, capital punishment and corporal punishment for students.
In 1886 Elizabeth Grannis established the National Christian League for Christian Purity, an organization that had as a mission to promote the notion of purity, but also to "teach the same standard of social purity for boys and men as ought to be maintained for women and girls” – an idea not often heard during the time when most reformers were focused solely on women’s chastity. "We believe that men and women ought to be associated as co-workers in seeking a higher and equal standard of purity for both sexes in and out of the church,” she said in 1893. "The cooperation of men and women as workers in this cause has accomplished far better and greater results than either men or women could accomplish separately.” Because of her influence, the League actively fought for the right of married women to hold salaried positions, something that they were forbidden by law in many states. Grannis was re-elected as a president of the League from 1887 onwards.
So, with her association with the League and her far-too-progressive-for-the-times views, the stage was set for the events of 1904-1906. At the time Elizabeth had already been a member of the First Church of the Disciples of Christ for a number of decades, and was viewed by many of her admirers as the humanitarian social reformer that she was. Many others, however, did not approve of her opinions and wished she would not be so vocal about them.
Namely, it was Elizabeth’s outrageous opinion that the church’s pastor, a man by the name of Rev. Benjamin Q. Denham, should not be making unwanted advances on women, or men, by exposing himself to them. The pastor was very popular among the congregation, and his charismatic preaching had attracted many new members. When he was arrested and arraigned on the charges of indecent exposure in February 1904, Grannis spoke out against him. A few months later, in June of the same year, the charges were dropped, but that did not appease the president of the League for Christian Purity—she continued to openly speak out against him and spread the story. The tension grew, and a year later, in June of 1905, Denham submitted his resignation. The board, however, backed him up and asked him to reconsider his resignation while at the same time they asked Elizabeth Grannis to withdraw her membership from the church. She refused in a speech before the entire congregation, and Rev. Denham left the church, moving to Florida to grow oranges instead. Disappointed, the board continued their actions against Elizabeth.
Maintaining that she had done nothing wrong but speak the truth, Grannis continued to attend worship at the church, despite the fact that many in the congregation had turned against her. A former pastor even said that instead of the president of the Christian Purity League she would be better described as "president of social nastiness.” It was also not the first time Elizabeth had had run-ins with many in her congregation – they seemed to disagree on the topic of who should be allowed to worship there as well. In 1984 Elizabeth had adopted a three-month-old African-American baby girl she had found in the street with her mother, and once the little girl was old enough she had brought her to the church with her. Elizabeth had named the girl Christian League, after the League she was the president of, and had the girl sit next to her in the pew. Many church members were completely outraged, and accused the child of "rolling her eyes, wriggling, and smiling throughout the service.” Some even asked Grannis to move with the child to the back pew so that "the southern members would not take offense.” She refused.
Tension continued to build up until in April 1906 an ecclesiastic court was convened, in itself a very rare occasion, and the out-of-town elders who sat as judges were presented with evidence and listened to a variety of witnesses testify against Elizabeth Grannis. It did not take them long to hand down a verdict of "guilty of being a disturber of the peace of the congregation of the First Church of the Disciples of Christ,” and giving Elizabeth two weeks to resign her membership and cease to attend worship at the church with the child Christian. Once again, she refused. On May 13, 1906 the presiding elder J. H. Banton read a notice withdrawing the congregation from Mrs. Grannis. "The communion of the church is open,” he said, "and it will not be denied to Mrs. Grannis, or anyone else. But the members of the church will have nothing to do with her.”
Elizabeth Grannis continued to worship at First Church until her death in 1926, despite being cast out from the congregation. She also continued to care for Christian League and her mother, even helping the girl get formal education. She enrolled her at the Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, now Tuskegee University.
Elizabeth B. Grannis died in her home on March 22, 1926 at the age of 85, just five days away from her 86th birthday. At her funeral, the then-pastor of the First Church, Rev. Dr. Finis Idleman, remarked, "She belonged to a more vigorous age than ours seems to be. She saw equal suffrage coming and she worked for it and delighted in its coming.” In fact, before her passing, Elizabeth Grannis was able to cast a vote under her own name. At age 80, in 1918 after the state of New York had granted women the right to vote the year before, she went to the polls in a wheelchair to cast her first official ballot.
At the polls she split her ticket, voting for "more than a half a dozen Socialists, three Democrats, one Prohibitionist, and one Republican,” while also scratching the name of a female candidate on the Republican ballot because her given name was in diminutive form. "No woman who pet names herself could possibly have sense enough to hold public office,” she remarked scornfully. Later on, as she was wheeled back to her home, she added, "I have waited long for this day. (…) I pray that every woman in the land may soon have the same privilege.”
Upon her death, the New York Times ran an obituary that described her as "humanitarian, editor, reformer, pioneer suffragette,” who "never stopped trying to make the world a better place according to her lights.” Thanks to her, the Park Avenue Christian Church, the current address of the First Church of the Disciples of Christ, can claim to have been interracial for more than a century. Yet it was in 2011 that The Park said the final word on the Elizabeth Grannis case – after her story had been unearthed by Lisa Barnett, the congregation made a decision to posthumously readmit her into the church.
"The church is chagrined that this is a part of its history,” said Rev. John Wade Payne, the church’s pastor from 1979 to 1999. He discovered the story of Elizabeth, Christian and Rev. Denham while he had been researching the bicentennial history of the congregation. After Ms. Barnett’s paper was published in 2011, the current congregation found out the full story, which was not to be found in the church chronicles. "There was apparently a consensus of silence,” he added.
Once they had heard it all, however, there was no question on their next action. In March 2012 Elizabeth’s membership was reinstated, and in honor of her achievements the Elizabeth Grannis Award was established, to be given to women in the community and beyond who have made outstanding contributions to church and society. The inaugural Elizabeth B. Grannis awards were given out on March 11, 2012, in celebration of Women’s History Month, and among the first recipients was the very person whose work revived the story of this incredible woman – Ms. Lisa Barnett.The woman, who fought for equal rights regardless of sex and race, who spoke out her own truth without regards for consequences and who stood by her congregation even after they had abandoned her, will from now on support other women who, just like her, seek to change the world and make it a better place through the annual Elizabeth B. Grannis award. She is an alumna every institution would be proud to call its own, and she traces her roots back to a small town in Ohio and Lake Erie College.