Beverly Flather Edwards
Minister of United Congregational Church from 1979 to 1991, the Rev. Beverly Edwards has ministered to a variety of communities over a life that has witnessed “eye opening” changes personally and professionally. Bev had deep connections to the area long before she came to UCC, having spent summers at Westport Point, and, at age 18, marrying her summer companion, John Charles Edwards (Chaz). After stints in Cambridge, MA and Honolulu following Chaz’s career, they returned to Providence with a growing family. When their youngest, Amy, was 3, Bev had an “aha moment” realizing that she would be more effective in her volunteer work if she educated herself. So she resumed classes at Pembroke College as a part-time student in 1963.
There she encountered ideas and disciplines which helped form the basis for life-long habits of mind and questioning of assumptions. Drawn to anthropology, she was struck by the concept that “every culture has its rituals and its myths, and they shape everything about how people’s lives go.” This prompted her to reflect on her own culture and values, which she described as “‘behave yourself and be Christian’ in a very Protestant and non-evangelical way.” Her courses, as she remembered, “challenged all my beliefs…widened my perspective [that] there were other ways of being.” One of these different ways of being was influenced by the Womens’ Liberation movement which “gave [her] a language” to imagine different choices and paths for herself in addition to the traditional role of wife and mother. She graduated in 1969 with a degree in Anthropology just as co-education and protests were exploding on campus.
Hired by the Brown Chaplain’s Office, which for the first time sought to add a woman to their staff in order to counsel female students, Bev found herself at “the center of it all” on the frontlines of campus activity amidst the anti-war movement and calls for sexual and racial equality. A period of marches, “sit-ins, and lie downs, and pretend you’re dead downs,” she recalled the period as an “amazing time” for herself and her family who participated alongside of her. Through her pastoral and counseling work, she became aware that she spoke from a specifically Christian perspective of hope and transformation. Always “religious and religiously inclined,” she had another “aha” moment: she could investigate her faith further and “find out what it’s all about.”
Thus while still at the Chaplain’s Office, Bev began commuting to Andover Newton Theological School and found a stimulating atmosphere where professors and students were challenged by the new ideas of the Women’s Movement and Liberation Theology with calls for inclusive language and thought. Though they were a diverse group of students with diverse perspectives, she found that together “we were all on the same path of trying” – and, personally, she “found a lot of happiness in it.” During this period, she continued to participate in clinical pastoral education classes and serve as a chaplain in local hospital settings – and was centrally involved in the founding of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center at Brown and “liberating” the University Club to allow female professors to eat lunch with their male colleagues. She received her degree from Andover Newton and was ordained in 1976, thereby becoming the first woman ordained in the United Church of Christ in Rhode Island.
After ten years at the Chaplain’s Office, she felt it was time to leave the circularity of the college calendar, and in 1979, was offered a summer position as minister at United Congregational Church in Little Compton. At the end of that summer, she was asked to stay for the winter, and thus returned to the community as a pivotal year-round member. Assuming the post at a small community church in Little Compton was a significant change from her life on a university campus and in Providence; it also marked a change in her marriage, with Chaz now commuting and Bev becoming a public figure. They moved into the parsonage on the Common and Bev described the period as “a wonderful time” for the family and “a very interesting time in town.”
She found a community church with a very diverse congregation with different experiences and expectations, and some members uncomfortable with a female minister. As she had as a counselor and in clinical pastoral education classes, she led the congregation in “good conversations” with values clarification and lectures, thus facilitating understanding among differing viewpoints and helping bind the diverse communities in town. “It was really, it was really wonderful,” she recalled.
Over her decade as minister, spanning the 1980s, the two most polarizing issues that marked her term were same sex unions and the prospect of a major film production in town. Bev guided the congregation through both controversies. Having agreed to bless the commitment ceremony of two women in the church, Bev faced an uproar from some members of the church. After much discussion, the commitment ceremony was deemed “a counseling situation” and therefore acceptable, rather than a marriage, which was not. Looking back, Bev remarked “only by the grace of God and the fact that I had been in the church long enough to build a lot of trust…they [did] not fire me.”
Perhaps the greatest furor was that in 1986 over the proposed filming of “The Witches of Eastwick” in town and in particular in the interior of the Church. The sides were drawn between those residents eager for the opportunities and publicity the film might provide and those adamantly opposed, using the frequent refrain “Little Compton. Keep it Little.” The dispute over granting permission to film garnered national attention, and ultimately came to a vote by the whole congregation. On the day of the vote, Bev, having lost her voice, preached the value of listening and understanding other members of the community. After her sermon, the church voted to allow the filming to go ahead. Fatefully, however, the filmmakers had by then decided to film in Cohasset, leaving some still-sensitive bruises in town. In 2017 Bev was interviewed for a documentary,“When the Witches Came to Town,” about the making of the film. Recounting the events of the controversy, she noted that “all this time later those feelings [are] still very strong for me.” Bev continually sought to bridge divisions through community discussion and counseled listening and sensitivity to different viewpoints, and the examination of one’s assumptions, continuing the practices she had learned all those years ago.
Having preached through three, three-year cycles of the lectionary, she felt her term at the church had come to a natural conclusion. As a parting tribute, several members of the congregation produced a volume of her sermons with illustrations by Meredith Cornell, On Holy Ground: Reflections in A New England Town. She retired from UCC in 1989.
Retirement for Bev also included being coordinator of pastoral care at Charlton Hospital in 1991 and several stints as interim minister at several churches. Her example continued to resonate in the community and also closer to home. Her youngest daughter, Rev. Amelia (Amy) Edwards, “a product of Little Compton too, and of the Church,” followed her into the ministry becoming the minister of the Federated Church in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard before her death from cancer in 2016.
Following Chaz’s death in 2011, and sixty years of marriage, Bev retired to Adamsville near family and friends, where she continues to be involved in the essential life of the community and to challenge her assumptions. Reflecting on her life, she said “I have lived [in] the most remarkable times and my eyes have continued to be opened, which is really a wonderful thing – that I was able to have my eyes open and not resist. That was such a blessing.” Bev has not only preached hope and transformation, her own life has embodied them.
. Interview with Keith Crudgington, 10/1/20. LCHS.
. All quotes unless otherwise noted from Interview, 10/1/20, LCHS.
.David Fresina directed “When the Witches Came to Town,” 2017. https://cohasset.wickedlocal.com/news/20180420/cohasset-sneak-preview-saturday-of-when-witches-came-to-town
. interview, 10/1/20, LCHS
.Beverly F. Edwards, On Holy Ground: Reflections in A New England Town(Little Compton: Awashonks Press, 1991).
.She held interim posts at churches in Slatersville. Swansea, and on Benefit St. in Providence. Bill Hall, “Church has interim minister,” South Coast Today, posted 11/18/2009. https://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/20091118/PUB05/911180424
. She continues to participate in conversations on current issues and currently serves as co-chair of United Congregational Church Outreach. https://www.ucclittlecompton.org/outreach-committee.html