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Women's History Guide: Eliza Garrett

March is designated as Women's History Month. This guide is a celebration of the outstanding history of women within Methodism and in Garrett-Evangelical's history.

Eliza Clark Garrett (1805-1855), Founder of Garrett Biblical Institute

Eliza Clark Garrett was born in 1805 to Benoni and Amy Clark on a farm near Middle Hope, New York, not far from the Hudson River. A nearby Presbyterian church nurtured her faith; a log schoolhouse gave her a basic education; and her mother taught her the many arts of women’s life on a farm. In her early twenties, Eliza married Augustus Garrett, a restless and ambitious local farmer who was intent on making his fortune. Looking for opportunities in other parts, Augustus took Eliza first to Cincinnati, then to New Orleans, and finally to Natchitoches, Louisiana. Sadly, all his business ventures in these places failed, and worse, the couple lost two children to disease along the way. They returned home deep in debt, then set off again, this time to Chicago. A swampy little town of about four hundred people in 1834, Chicago was about to boom, and Augustus arrived at just the right moment. In a few short years he had amassed a fortune, most of it in land and real estate, and when he died in 1848 at the unripe age of forty-seven, he was one of the wealthiest men in Chicago and had served twice as the city’s mayor.

Meanwhile, Eliza, like many earnest nineteenth-century women raised in Calvinist churches, was on a spiritual quest for signs that she was one of the elect. Presbyterians of her era required that those seeking church membership appear before the minister and church session and share personal experiences that testified to a true conversion. Eliza never felt confident that she had such proofs to share, and so, while she remained a faithful and active churchgoer, she did not become a member of any church until she attended a Methodist revival in Chicago, had an “experience,” and was admitted to membership in First Methodist Episcopal Church. It was not long before she was seeking what Wesleyans called the “second blessing.” Serious Methodists in her day prayed for “entire sanctification,” and Eliza attended revivals in the hope of a “palpable” experience of this gift. It did not come. It may be that Phoebe Palmer’s “method” of receiving entire sanctification by faith without emotional or physical signs eventually helped Eliza reach a state of peace about her spiritual journey. In any case, people who knew Eliza said that she became even more intensely devoted to things of faith in the last years of her life.

After Augustus died, Eliza made arrangements to devote the whole of her estate to found two institutions of higher learning—a theological school and a women’s college. To ensure the growth of the estate—which was earning little money following a fire that destroyed the rental buildings on the valuable property—she restricted herself to a very small allowance, gave up her house, and moved into a room at the home of Walter and Mary Gurnee. The women’s college never materialized; but the seminary was founded, and Eliza was present at the dedication on New Year’s Day, 1855. She died eleven months later from a sudden illness, but the Garrett Biblical Institute named in her honor lived on and prospered.

- Dr. Charles Cosgrove, Emeritus Professor of Early Christian Literature, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary