Mary Ely Lyman


Mary Ely Lyman (1887-1975) graduated with a B.D. from Union Seminary in 1919, and was also was the first woman to receive the Traveling Fellowship for the highest academic honors in the graduating class that year. This award sent her to Cambridge, England, for one year. The work she did there was applied toward the Ph.D. in New Testament, which she received from the University of Chicago in 1924. She had two separate appointments at Union. She became the first of 2 women (with Sophia Lyon Fahs) to teach on the faculty and be counted among their number (1927). She 'retired' from that position in the 1940s when her husband and professor of the philosophy of religion, Eugene Lyman, retired. She then became dean of Sweet Briar College for Women in Virginia, until her appointment to Union in 1950 as Jesup Professor of English Bible. Dr. Lyman was the first woman to hold a full professorship and an endowed chair. She also held the inaugural deanship for women students until her resignation from both positions in 1955. She remained in close contact with Union until her death in 1975.

Lyman was the author of several books, including Paul the Conquerer and The Fourth Gospel, and numerous articles. Her published dissertation, "Knowledge of God in Johannine Thought," is in The Burke Library, as well as Jesus, a commissioned book from the Hazen Foundation. "The True and Lively Word of God," her inaugural lecture as Jesup Professor of English Bible, was published in the Union Seminary Quarterly Review. Lyman was a meticulous exegete whose focus was interpretation of biblical texts in their contexts and the relevance of biblical texts for contemporary lives and communities. An ordained Congregational minister (1949), she also wrote many articles in support of the Social Gospel movement and women's inclusion in church leadership.

Mary Ely Lyman was the only woman student at Union during her time (1916-19). All of the classes were open to women by that time, and she believed that she had caused as little trouble as she possible. However, upon her commencement she discovered that she had, "unconsciously, caused the Seminary all the trouble I had sought to avoid." President McGiffert called her into his office and informed her that she would not be allowed to walk or sit with her class at commencement—despite her academic standing as first in her class and her reception of the Traveling Fellowship—because she was a woman. She sat with the faculty wives in the balcony of the old gymnasium (adjacent to McGiffert Hall and now a part of Riverside Church) where commencement was held, away from her classmates and the alumni (who were invited to the ceremony at the time).

Lyman recalled Cambridge, where she went for study on her fellowship, as being not as gracious as Union. Cambridge did not even award degrees to women in the early 20th century, and would not agree to send a transcript to the University of Chicago as a part of her Ph.D. application—as the administration did not want to admit that women were taking courses at the university. Each professor of hers at Cambridge, though, wrote personal notes certifying her completion of her coursework and suitability for Ph.D. study. Lyman doubted that these "slips of paper" would work as a transcript, but the University of Chicago accepted them and regarded her Union education as reason enough to reduce her residency requirement from two years to one. She received the Ph.D. in 1924, magna cum laude.

During her first appointment at Union, Lyman was only allowed to teach one course a semester—a very light load in contrast to the four or five per semester that her male peers taught. Despite her attainment of the Ph.D. degree, she was listed as "Mrs. Lyman" in every class photo and bulletin (with the exception of the class photo in 1938).

When appointed to Jesup Professor of English Bible and Dean of Women Students in 1950, Mary Lyman brought to her job an openness, sensibility, and unending passion for women's full participation in the activities of church and academy. She maintained a graciousness about her that was compelling. She participated in various committees and gave numerous lectures in the U.S. and abroad with the message of women's inclusion. She also convened the first national College Women's Conference, held at Union and designed to give an opportunity for American college women to come together and talk about their vocational aspirations.

lyman2 Mary Ely Lyman and Eleanor Roosevelt, speaker at the third annual College Women's Conference, 1953
blyman Article detailing the College Women's Conference held at Union Seminary.

Dr. Lyman resigned from Union a second time in 1955, citing her closeness to retirement age as a reason. She took another post and filled her calendar with speaking engagements for much time after her departure from Union. Nevertheless, she maintained contact with the alumnae/i office and her former students.

She was one of the few women in her day (1958) to challenge Billy Graham concerning his ministry or message.