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Universalism's First Missionary

Caroline Augusta White Soule had many "firsts" to her credit. She was the first president of the Universalist Women's Centenary Aid Association and the first president of its successor organization, the Women's Centenary Association. She was the first Universalist missionary and the first woman to be ordained in Europe.

Caroline Augusta White, born September 3, 1824 in Albany, New York took academic honors in her hometown on graduation from the Albany Female Academy; she won a gold medal for her essay, "The Goodness of God Not Fully Demonstrated Without the Act of Revelation." Following graduation, she took an unpaid position as principal of the young women's department of the Universalist Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York. There she met and married the Rev. Henry Soule, head of the young men's department.

The couple soon left Clinton. Henry was called to serve churches in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Always suffering from ill health, Henry Soule died of smallpox in 1852 at the age of 37, leaving Caroline with five young children. To support her family, Soule turned to teaching, writing, and editing. To live more economically, she moved them from Connecticut to a log cabin in Iowa.

In 1863, with her children grown, Soule returned to New York to seek treatment for her failing eyesight. She remained in the east, and in 1869 became one of the founders of the Women's Centenary Aid Association (WCAA) and its first president, traveling extensively to raise funds for the centennial celebration of Universalism in the United States. When the celebration was accomplished, Universalist women who had established a voice and a presence in the denomination through their work voted to continue the organization permanently. In 1873, the Women's Centenary Association (WCA) was chartered, with Caroline Soule as its first president. Soule's 11-year presidency of the two successive organizations included duties such as fundraising, writing, preaching, lecturing, and spreading the word about Universalism. Although it was required by her position, public speaking was a challenge for her. She wrote of her struggles in a letter to her friend, the Rev. A. B. Grosh, "After our W.C.A. began its work, I was necessarily obliged to speak to our women; but my sufferings were intense always, and only my love for the cause carried me through."

One of the WCA's goals was to raise funds for foreign mission work, so when Soule vacationed in Scotland in 1875 to restore her health it was natural that she should take an interest in the Universalist congregations that had existed in that country since the early 1700s. While in Scotland, Soule preached, helped to found the Scottish Universalist Convention, and dedicated a new church building in Larbertt—a moment of joyful celebration for a working class congregation that had shoveled piles of snow from the interior of the former building in winter and moved from pew to pew to avoid raindrops in summer.

After returning to the United States, Soule became minister of the Universalist church in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1876. Her time in Elizabeth was short, however, as the WCA elected to send her as their first missionary to Scotland the following year. Arriving in 1878, Soule spent her first year traveling throughout the country, preaching in Dumfernline, Larbert, Braidwood, Lochee, Dundee, and Glasgow. Soule considered herself a conservative "Bible Universalist," and was pleased to find little theological difference between the Universalists and the Scottish Unitarians who, unlike their American contemporaries, held to a belief in revealed religion. After touring the isolated and largely poverty-stricken Universalist congregations of Scotland, Soule concluded that Universalism was spreading satisfactorily, but that a lack of organization was hampering its growth. She chose Glasgow as the new center of Scottish Universalism and helped organize St. Paul's Universalist Church of the informal group of Universalists that had been gathered in the city since the early 1870s. Some of Soule's worship innovations, such as hymn singing and Christmas celebrations for children, were seen as highly unorthodox and reeking of "popish festival," but when her missionary tour was done, the congregation of St. Paul's petitioned to have her stay another year.

Soule returned to the United States to serve the congregation of Hightstown, New Jersey for four years, then returned to Glasgow and St. Paul's in 1886, staying until her retirement six years later. In 1894 Soule wrote of her career of firsts, "I was always tired, for there was never a chance to rest... but fatigue in the cause of Universalism is infinitely better than inaction." Caroline Augusta Soule died in her adopted homeland of Scotland in December of 1903.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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