BUCK, REV. FLORENCE  (19 July 1860 -12 Oct. 1925) served with MARION E. MURDOCK, as co-pastor of Unity Chapel (UNITARIAN SOCIETY OF CLEVELAND) during the years 1893-1899.

Buck was born in Kalamazoo County MI, to Samuel P. and Lucy (Reasoner) Buck. She attended Coldwater and Kalamazoo schools and Baptist College in Kalamazoo (now Kalamazoo College). She taught science and became the principal of Kalamazoo High School. Although raised a Methodist, she decided to resign her teaching post and become a Unitarian minister after attending services at Murdock’s church in 1890.   

In 1892, Buck began her ministerial studies at Meadville Theological School, which trained men and women for the Unitarian ministry. Murdock had joined her at Meadville, doing post-graduate work there. Both women then studied for a semester at Manchester College, Oxford University. 

In September 1893, Buck and Murdock were installed as co-pastors of the Unity Chapel. The installation was attended by crowds of Clevelanders attracted by the novelty of women ministers. Two weeks later, Buck was ordained at All Soul’s Church in Chicago during the World’s Parliament of Religions.

Although women filled the pews of Protestant churches, they did not fill the pulpits. When Murdock and Buck took charge of Unity Chapel, only a handful of women had been ordained and only by the most liberal Protestant denominations. Most famously, Antoinette Brown Blackwell by the Congregationalists, Anna Howard Shaw by the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Olympia Brown by the Universalists.

Murdock and Buck shared the multiple responsibilities for their congregation. Both went on pastoral calls to parishioners and managed the church’s financial affairs. They preached on alternate Sundays, but both were on the altar at every service. Their sermon topics were advertised in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (PLAIN DEALER). 

Their Unitarian congregation identified itself as “liberal,” referring to its belief that reason and human experience, rather than the Bible or an established religious hierarchy, should be the primary authority in matters of faith. In October 1895, Buck gave a series of lectures on “The Liberal Christian Movement Toward a Universal Religion.” In 1896, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote approvingly of the two women’s dignified clothing in the pulpit – black silk gowns and white linen cuffs - and their conscientious pursuit of their pastoral duties. But they raised eyebrows when they held joint Thanksgiving services with the Reform Jewish congregation, TEMPLE TIFERETH ISRAEL led by Rabbi MOSES J.  GRIES, and the local Universalist church.  

Inspired by the Social Gospel, Unity Chapel served its neighbors’ secular as well as spiritual needs. Well prepared by their professional training as teachers, the women established a free kindergarten nearby and clubs for boys and girls, as well as Sunday School classes, at the church.

Buck and Murdock were active in the woman’s suffrage movement.  Buck spoke at the 1898 convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Both resigned from Unity Chapel in 1899 to study in Italy and Germany. Buck then did field work for the American Unitarian Association and served a congregation in Kenosha, WI. She and Buck moved to California in 1911 and then to Boston in 1912, where Buck became associate director of the Department of Religious Education. She edited Unitarian publications for children and wrote The Story of Jesus (1917). In 1920, Meadville Theological School awarded her an honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree, the first woman to receive his honor.

Buck died in Boston, MA of typhoid fever.

Marian Morton

Morton, Marian. Women in Cleveland: An Illustrated History (1995).

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