Murdock was born in Garnavillo, IA, to Judge Samuel and Louise (Patch) Murdock. She was educated at Evanston College for Women, Fayette College in IA, the University of Wisconsin (1868-1869), and the Boston University School of Oratory and Literature (1875). She taught school in Dubuque, IA and Omaha, NE.
In 1882, Murdock entered Meadville Theological School, which trained men and women for the Unitarian ministry and received her Bachelor of Divinity in 1887. She is said to be the first woman to receive this degree. After her graduation, she was ordained in Humboldt IA, and served Unitarian churches there and in Kalamazoo MI, where she met Buck. Both returned briefly to Meadville. Buck to begin her studies for the ministry while Murdock did post-graduate work. They then spent a semester at Manchester College, Oxford University.
On September 4, 1893, Murdock and Buck were installed as co-pastors of the Unity Chapel. Murdock had given a guest sermon there in June, 1887, getting good reviews in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (PLAIN DEALER). Their installation attracted a large crowd to observe this unique event. Two weeks later, Murdock addressed the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago on “A New Testament Woman,” arguing that women had the right to become ministers.
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 of 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.
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 1896, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote approvingly of the two ministers’ dignified clothing in the pulpit – black silk gowns with white linen cuffs - and their conscientious pursuit of their pastoral duties. But the women 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.
Both women were active in the suffrage movement. Murdock spoke at the 1894 convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Murdock and Buck resigned from Unity Chapel in 1899 to study in Italy and Germany. Murdock then served a congregation in Geneva, IL, until her retirement in 1906. 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 of the American Unitarian Association. After Buck’s death in 1925, Murdock returned to California. She died in Santa Monica. Her publications included The Hermit Thrush and Other Verses.
Cynthia Grant Tucker. Prophetic Sisters: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990).
Morton, Marian. Women in Cleveland: An Illustrated History (1995).