0 Celebrating Susan B. Anthony’s 200th Birthday with Campus-Wide Cake and a Story

Celebrating Susan B. Anthony’s 200th Birthday with Campus-Wide Cake and a Story

February 21, 2020

What does the celebrating of Susan B. Anthony’s 200th Birthday, or the passing of the 19th Amendment, have to do with Houghton University? In lieu of her yearly Valentine’s Day-themed chapel talk, Houghton University President Dr. Shirley Mullen took to the podium in Wesley Chapel on Friday, February 14th, to answer that question, and to invite all students, faculty and staff to join her for birthday cake after chapel.  “Professor Sarah Derck and I will be cutting cake in the dining hall to honor this special day,” said Mullen. “And tomorrow (Saturday, February 15—Anthony’s actual birthday) we will not have classes here at Houghton to celebrate!” Mullen took a beat, looked at the audience, and then about her second statement said wryly, “I was just checking to see if you were awake…”

“You may wonder why I would forgo my usual February chapel talk on some aspect of Love to commemorate Susan B. Anthony’s birthday,” Mullen continued. “For one thing, 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment to the Constitution that allowed women to vote. Second, this is an opportunity to talk about an aspect of the story of the road to women’s suffrage that often does NOT get mentioned in the history books and that every Houghton University student needs to know.”

Mullen began with the assumption that most students, “especially if you are from New York State, may have heard of the Seneca Falls Convention that, in 1848, brought together women (and some men) in support of gaining women the right to vote.  What you may not know is how deeply intertwined the Wesleyan heritage is with this story of the 19th Amendment. I know that many of you in this room are not from the Wesleyan tradition—but as Houghton is a Wesleyan school—you might want to know something of the history and the roots of this place.”

For those unfamiliar with the Wesleyan denomination, Mullen, a historian, explained how “in 1843, five members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, including Orange Scott and Luther Lee, left the Methodist Episcopal Church primarily over the issue of slavery and formed the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in Utica, New York. In addition to abolition, they included in their initial concerns, temperance (limits on alcohol) and an anti-hierarchical view of church governance. These are not random concerns,” emphasized Mullen. “Each of these issues, in one way or another, interfered with the freedom of individuals made in the image of God from being fully empowered to carry out God’s purposes for their lives. They believed that the Gospel of the Kingdom is Good News for the liberation of individuals and the liberation of society from anything that would threaten the work of God in our lives.” She went on to explain that another pressing concern was the equality of men and women. The early Wesleyan Methodists believed that women should have the right to preach, and that women should have right to vote.

“So, it should not be strange that in 1848, just five years after the formation of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, there would be a gathering of women under the invitation of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, to meet in the Wesleyan Methodist Hall in Seneca Falls to discuss women’s suffrage,” she continued. “It should also not be strange that among this gathering, nearly 20% of those people (both women and men) were Wesleyan Methodists.

“Right in the middle of this story—between 1848 and 1920—in the middle of Western New York—a small educational institution was founded in 1883 by a local farmer, Willard J. Houghton. Houghton was a Wesleyan Methodist, and shared the belief that when the Holy Spirit got hold of a person, the person inevitably would want not just to sit around with their friends and be pious themselves, but they would want to do something about God’s work to ‘fix up the world.’ In fact, he used to sign his letters that way: ‘Yours for fixing up the world.’” Mullen added that “while Willard J. Houghton himself was not educated beyond the lower grades, he believed that if you really wanted to make a difference in the world for God’s kingdom, you needed an education. You had to be grounded in the word of God, and you had to know something about the world.”

Wrapping up the story, Mullen continued, “Susan B. Anthony died in 1906 and did not live to see the 19th amendment passed. But her persistence changed everything. And so, we are here today, 100 years after the passing of the 19th Amendment, and 200 years after Susan B. Anthony’s birthday, to say thank you for HER commitment to ‘fixing up the world.’ But even more important than that (and I do want you to come and eat some of the cake…), but MORE than celebrating Susan B. Anthony’s birthday, what I really care about—and why I really told you this story—is to remind ourselves as part of Houghton University that WE are part of that Wesleyan Methodist story. It is a story grounded in the commitment to fixing up the world so that every person made in God’s image is free and empowered to pursue God’s purposes for that person in the world. And in reminding ourselves of this story, my biggest hope is that each of you today will feel the invitation to consider how YOU might join the story and write one of the chapters of this great story out of which we come—so that you too may join with our founder, Willard J. Houghton, in the mission of fixing up the world for our Lord Jesus Christ.”