Meet Lucy Rider Meyer: A Vermont Educator And Missionary

By Cookie Steponaitis

Every local town has its hidden heroes lurking in the annals of history that changed and often revolutionized some part of American life. One such unique individual was Lucy Jane Rider Meyer, who was born on a farm in 1849 on the New Haven/Weybridge town line.  A teacher by trade, she not only founded many high schools in Vermont but went on to teach chemistry at McKendree College, at a school for freed blacks in North Carolina  and pioneered the concept of female professors.

    Lucy Rider possessed equal passion for social reform and her commitment to the Methodist Church and quickly presented to the world a plan that was far from the norm for her time. After attending local schools, she opened a high school in Fairfax, Vermont, studied in Canada and finally at Oberlin College in Ohio, graduating in 1870 with a degree in literary studies. Criss-crossing the nation, she taught high school in Illinois, attended a Woman’s Medical College in Pennsylvania and returned to her native Vermont to teach high school at Poultney Academy. Always driven by a passion for learning, she also attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and accepted a position as one of only a handful of female professors of Chemistry at McKendree College.

    While continuing to amass incredible credentials that finally included a medical degree in 1887, it wasn’t until her church work was recognized that she began to attract national attention. She served as the Field Secretary of the Illinois State Sunday School Association from 1881 to 1884 and began to promote health and social training for women as well as children and elderly needs. She married Josiah H. Meyer in 1885 and founded the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions. In educating the female students who attended, she endorsed a combination of missionary work and high academic achievement.  Traveling frequently to receive honorary degrees from universities of the time, she went on to found high schools and preparatory programs for women and children around the county. Never one to shy away from publicity, she would openly address large and small groups about the needs of women, children and the elderly, while also championing the concept of female deaconesses in the church structure.

    Her first set of graduates took up her charge and not only opened clinics and missions in the poorest parts of the cities, but formed the first house of deaconesses in the United States. One local professor of her time wrote, “In the days of her strength, she was a remarkable speaker, and profoundly swayed the life of multitudes by her clear thought and impassioned appeals.” Lucy stayed at the helm of her Chicago Training School for thirty-two years and graduated hundreds in religious studies and social and missionary work around the world. At her retirement, it was noted that some thirty-six hundred social workers stationed in twenty-four countries had graduated from her programs under her tutelage.

    An accomplished speaker, Lucy also went on to write three books championing her causes. She wrote Deaconesses: Bib­li­cal, Ear­ly Church, Eur­o­pe­an, Amer­ic­an in 1889, Everybody’s Gos­pel Songs, The Chi­ca­go Train­ing School of Miss­ions and finally Mary North in 1903. Teaching not only the Bible, music and the classics, Lucy also specialized in teaching nursing lessons to those who were in the position of being care givers. In order to earn the title of “Deaconess” from her program, a young woman had to be not only a healer but a scholar as well. Perhaps one of her longest lasting legacies was her founding of a magazine with a world-wide circulation entitled, Deaconess Advocate. When she passed away in 1922, several of the local hospitals and papers named wings of buildings and scholarships for her incredible impact around the world.

    Lucy wrote the hymn Ho, Everyone that is Thirsty in 1884 and encouraged her flock by stating, “I will pour water on him that is thirsty, I will pour floods upon the dry ground; Open your hearts for the gifts I am bringing; While ye are seeking Me, I will be found.” Challenging the roles of the times Lucy argued that women needed intellectual training in order to mend the hearts, souls and minds of Americas’ youth and elderly. She was a force to be reckoned with and left a mark that was still felt long after her death. While none questioned the power of her vision, many of her time threw up road blocks and scoffed at the capabilities of a woman from Vermont who challenged the norms of her time and established new ones of her own. Rooted in her Vermont heritage and her personal faith and passion for learning, Lucy Meyer changed the vision of the world for women and today is honored by programs, schools and charitable organizations that bear her name and the imprint of her zeal for change, well ahead of her time.


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