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Safford, Mary Augusta
(December 23, 1851–October 25, 1927)

–known as "Queen Mary" of a group of women Unitarian ministers known as the Iowa Sisterhood—was born near Quincy, Illinois. In 1855 her family moved to Hamilton, Illinois, where she was educated at home and in public school. At age 17 she entered the State University of Iowa, but due to health and family problems did not graduate. She continued on her own to prepare to become a teacher, and taught in Oakwood and Hamilton, Illinois. While teaching, she organized and held all offices in the Hawthorne Literary Society in Hamilton, and was a school director in Oakwood. Meanwhile, under the tutelage of the Unitarian minister Oscar Clute in Keokuk, Iowa, across the river from Hamilton, she began her preparation to realize her lifelong dream of being a minister.

    While she was studying, Safford began preaching in Oakwood and Hamilton, where she organized a Unitarian church in 1878. It was the beginning of her missionary work, which would result in the formation or revitalization of several Unitarian churches. Already a popular preacher, she was asked to speak at the annual meeting of the Iowa Unitarian Association in Humboldt in 1880. There the assembled ministers ordained her, and the Humboldt church called her to be its minister, while she also served a small group in Algona. Her lifelong friend Eleanor Gordon accompanied her to Humboldt. Gordon served as high school principal and helped out in the church, especially in religious education for the children.

    Over the next five years, the Humboldt church became a large and successful congregation, and Algona was ready to call its own minister. A group of business leaders in Sioux City wanted to start a church there. Safford and Gordon accepted the challenge, and soon that church had a new building and a large and enthusiastic congregation engaged in many social, literary, educational, and philanthropic activities. The church served the community at large and demonstrated ways for churches to be more vital and involved. In 1893 Jenkin Lloyd Jones, the secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, called the Sioux City church "the best pastored church in the West."By then, Gordon was studying for the ministry, and between them they helped organize nine churches in northwestern Iowa and Nebraska. Gordon left in 1897 to take her own church, and two years later Safford and her new assistant, Marie Jenney, moved to Des Moines.

    In addition to her ministerial and missionary work, Safford served as president of the Iowa Unitarian Association for seven years and its field secretary (missionary) for six, and she edited its monthly magazine, Old and New. She was also a director of the Western Unitarian Conference and the American Unitarian Association. She spoke at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. In 1900 she went to Europe for six months for her health, but also to preach, lecture, and study. By 1910 the strain of traveling across Iowa to speak, cajole, and support small congregations who could not find permanent ministers endangered her health, so she retired to Orlando, Florida. She bought a home and an orange grove, which she managed herself, profitably. Her missionary zeal was still alive, so she started a Unitarian church in Orlando.

    Safford had great influence in Iowa, especially. She was passionate about social justice issues, and her ardent preaching, managerial skills, and radical idealist outlook doubtless had an impact on the state's development, as many of her congregants in Des Moines were judges, legislators, and prominent business leaders. She also served as president of both the Iowa and Florida Woman Suffrage associations and was on the board of directors of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Her way, in all areas, was to educate and inspire others to become involved and work for the greater good.

    Her last public appearance was at the dedication of the high school auditorium that she funded in Hamilton. Two weeks later at age 75, she died in Orlando. A memorial service was held in the new auditorium, and she was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Hamilton. Her obituary in the Des Moines Tribune said: "No death could possibly stir kindlier memories in Iowa than that of the Rev. Mary Safford.... She helped to shape the thinking and living of everybody who knew her, and always on a higher level. When the world has reached the plane she would have put it on, and struggled to put it on, we shall have a much kindlier, a more hopeful, a much more livable world."
Sources Very few of Safford's sermons were printed. The best source for her writings- sermons, editorials, speeches, and articles- is the journal of the Iowa Unitarian Association, Old and New (1895–1908). There are letters and handwritten sermon fragments at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. Secondary sources include Pearl Avis Gordon Vastal, "Rev. Mary Augusta Safford, Unitarian Minister," typescript (n.d.), State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City; Cynthia Grant Tucker, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Woman Ministers on the Frontier (1990); Catherine F. Hitchings, "Unitarian and Universalist Women Ministers," Journal of the Universalist Historical Society 10 (1975), 3–165; and Sarah Oelberg, "Fire Across the Prairie: A History of Unitarianism in Iowa from 1875–1910 (doctoral diss., Meadville Lombard Theological School, 1991).
Contributor: Sarah Oelberg