Lavinia Goodell put her faith into practice in her daily life

Congratulations to the First Congregational United Church of Christ and Rev. Tanya Sadagopan on the church’s 175th anniversary. The Congregational Church played a robust role in Lavinia Goodell’s life in Janesville. She would be thrilled to know that her church is still serving the Janesville community and would be even more pleased to know that its pastor is a woman. 

Janesville Congregational Church, c. 1870s

Although Lavinia’s father, William Goodell was not an ordained pastor, in the 1840s he founded an independent church in upstate New York comprised of people from Presbyterian and Methodist congregations who had withdrawn from those bodies on account of their complicity with slavery. William Goodell continued preaching intermittently throughout his life and preached in Janesville on at least one occasion. His commitments to racial, ethnic, and gender justice were ahead of his time and were an outgrowth of his Christian faith.

Growing up in a staunch abolitionist household with parents who were also advocates of temperance and women’s rights instilled Lavinia with a desire to help others. She moved to Janesville from New York in late 1871 to help care for her aging parents. If she resented having to give up her cosmopolitan lifestyle, her written records make no mention of it. Instead, she threw herself headlong into the life of her new community. In addition to studying law, she was a founder of the Janesville Ladies Temperance Union. In 1875 she ran for city attorney on the temperance ticket. She advocated for the establishment of a free library.  She circulated petitions for women’s suffrage.  When she began practicing law she became the state’s first female public defender and upon getting to know some inmates at the county jail she established a jail school in the belief that many of the young men incarcerated there had potential. They were just lacking education and moral training. She taught classes at the jail several days a week and enlisted friends to assist her.

The Congregational church was an important part of Lavinia’s life in Janesville. In the 1870s the church, like Lavinia,  was active in the temperance movement and was supportive of women’s rights. It opened its doors to visiting women preachers, including Maggie Van Cott, the first woman licensed to preach in the Methodist church.  Frances Willard also lectured there on temperance.

Lavinia was extremely active in church activities. Her diaries and her letters note that she often attended both morning and evening services. She taught Sunday school. She helped organize oyster suppers and fundraisers, including something called a “pound party” in 1879 where she reported going to the pastor’s home carrying a pound of sermon paper. Three different pastors served the church during Lavinia’s years in Janesville, and it was the young pastor who arrived in 1876 who really forged her connection to the church.

Theophilus Parsons Sawin  was Lavinia’s contemporary. She took to him immediately. In three years of diary entries she mentioned him by name 108 times. He was not only her pastor. He became a confidante, a trusted advisor, a close friend. She socialized with him and his young family. They were both founding members of a literary club called the Round Table. He would often call on her at her office or her home.

Pastor T. P. Sawin

Always looking for new challenges, by early 1877 she had been elected the church clerk, the first woman to hold that position. She took her job seriously. After one meeting, she wrote, “an exciting discussion of church troubles. I was boiling over with indignation at the position of many prominent church members.” And a few days later, “Mr. Sawin called and we had a very frank talk about church matters in which I expressed my opinions.”

After she started her jail classes, she enlisted Pastor Sawin to accompany her to the jail on occasion, and she borrowed reading material for the inmates from him. He also loaned her literature for her own use, including an encyclopedia on insanity during a time when her mother was suffering from dementia, and Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

Lavinia died of ovarian cancer in 1880 at age 40. Pastor Sawin officiated at her funeral. The tributes that he wrote about her soon after her death demonstrate the friendship they shared and offer a glimpse into how she put her faith into practice in her daily life and work.  This is Pastor Sawin on Lavinia:

Physically weak from her very childhood, she succeeded in concealing the fact from all but her most intimate friends. Oftentimes for days confined to her bed in the morning, her friends would find her hard at work consulting authorities in preparing a brief, or an article for the press, or perhaps bent on some mission of mercy to the unfortunate and criminal. She was one who did not wait for an appeal to help.
From her class in Sunday school at the church, she was accustomed to go to the common jail, and gathering together the burglars, thieves and tramps, would teach them the lesson of the day, and then talk with them kindly, drawing out bits of their history and giving them good advice. Whatever she did was done as a servant of God, with an intense feeling of her responsibility to Him. Her faith was no mystical or sentimental emotion but a living, consuming action. The good and the true will mourn her departure, but many who have never entered a church, whose home has largely been spent in haunts of vice or within prison walls, will speak gently when they hear that she is dead.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries, 1876 – 1879; T. P. Sawin, In Memoriam: Lavinia Goodell, taken from from Maria Goodell Frost’s Life of Lavinia Goodell (unpublished biography).

Photo credits: First Congregational Church, UCC.

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