Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Lillian Sammons Sellers, 1879-1928
By Benjamin Thomason, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI. Prepared for History 5200/7200, "Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Modern America," Prof. Liette Gidlow
Clubwoman, Christian Temperance Activist, and Suffragist
Lillian Sellers was born Lillian Sammons in 1879 in Michigan City, Indiana, along the coast of Lake Michigan, and died in West Point, Mississippi in 1928 after succumbing to influenza. Her parents sent her to school to learn to read and write and her family moved to Indianapolis before she turned twelve. Between 1892 and 1893 she moved back to Michigan City and then East of Indianapolis, to Connersville, Indiana. In Connersville, The Indianapolis News reported in 1892 that she studied voice culture under professor James S. Black from Purdue University of Indianapolis and sung at a concert for the Congregational Church of Michigan City. In December of 1893, The Indianapolis Journal announced that Sammons conducted a "Kindergarten and Mother Goose" show for the local "A Dozen of Us" ladies literary club. In Indianapolis, she met the Reverend Elmer E. Sellers (also known as Luther) and on October 3rd, 1894, they married. Luther graduated in 1891 from Butler University with a major in religious studies, a field in which he eventually earned a doctorate.
From her marriage onward, Sellers devoted her life to the Disciples of Christ, Central Christian Church in Terre Haute and then Indianapolis. Lillian and Luther moved to Harrison and later Terre Haute, Indiana where they had two children, a son named Edwin, born in 1896, and a daughter named Helen, born in 1897. Sellers soon started administrative and public speaking work for her church and other Christian organizations. Between 1901 and 1906, The Indianapolis News, as well as Star and Democrat, reported that Sellers moved to Indianapolis and worked as superintendent of the intermediate department of the Christian church networking organization, the Indiana Christian Endeavor Union.
Sellers showed an early interest in promoting women's activism in the church. At the July 1900, Bethany Assembly in Indianapolis, covered by The Indianapolis Journal, Sellers spoke on "What a Missionary Woman Should Be." In June 1909, according to The Elwood Call Leader, Sellers acted as president at the monthly meeting of Christian Women's Board of Missions (CWBM) of the Christian Church where she spoke on the "Centennial." By the mid-1910s, Sellers spoke as an activist in the women's suffrage movement of Indiana.
According to the Palladium-Item newspaper in March 1915, Sellers spoke for the Richmond Branch of the Franchise League on the "Importance of Church Work" and "Endorsements of Ministerial Associations." At the convention, according to The Indianapolis News, Sellers criticized ministers for refusing to support women's suffrage and in her speech said, "Take the church out of the world and there was little left, but take woman out of the world and there was nothing left... Women raised the minister's salary, comprised four-fifths of the congregation and nine-tenths of prayer meetings. Ministers do not want women to have suffrage because they fear they will lose something of their power, because woman has lime in her back bone and not gristle."
She stated further that "if suffrage were discussed in churches, even women who did not believe in it would become suffragists. . . . The church is rendering some service on child labor work, but it does not take a stand on suffrage . . . . Indiana needs to blush and hang her head in shame at the stand she has taken on the subject of prohibition and suffrage." Sellers was likely reacting to two developments in Indiana politics at the time: the state had failed to pass a prohibition law, and in 1911 the Legislature shelved a bill, passed by a state House Committee, that would have removed the word "male" from the state constitution. In June, 1916, The Indianapolis News reported that Sellers spoke for the Equal Suffrage Association on the progress of suffrage in Indiana at the Indianapolis suffrage convention, organized in cooperation with the Woman's Franchise League.
Sellers continued her work for woman suffrage for another year when, in February of 1917, The South Bend News-Times announced that she worked as chairman of the suffrage activism group, the Woman Legislative Suffrage Committee of the Indianapolis district, and spoke on a bill that gave partial suffrage to women of Indiana. She urged her audience not to be content with partial suffrage and to keep fighting until full woman suffrage was achieved. Three months later, the same newspaper reported that Sellers spoke at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce on the "Importance of Registration and the New Constitution" for the South Bend Franchise and Suffrage Leagues. That same year, in April, the U.S. joined the Great War in Europe and Sellers made her voice heard on this issue as well.
In May of 1917, The South Bend News outlined Sellers's talk for the Franchise league where she addressed the importance of the public knowing the basic facts of the war while commending President Wilson for his leadership in the conflict. She then had to defend her speech to reporters when some accused her of having "socialistic tendencies." In March of 1919, after the war ended, The Indianapolis News reported an event where Sellers helped draw up a petition against the release of conscientious objectors from prison. She was part of a council that sent the petition to Secretary of War Newton Baker and Senator Harry New of Indiana. They condemned the releases as an insult to the brave men who answered the call to fight and were economically struggling after being discharged.
Sellers made her voice heard on a number of issues but a major passion in her life was promoting temperance and prohibition of alcohol. Historian Jack Blocker, in his 1985 article on the WCTU, wrote that, just a few years before Sellers was born, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union organized in 1873 as a narrowly focused group promoting the prohibition of alcohol. But, since women were the greatest supporters of temperance, the group threw its support behind getting them political power through suffrage, starting in 1881. A scholarly article from 1920, written by a Mr. Canup, asserted that the temperance movement received great support from churches and as Indiana's church membership and wealth grew in the early twentieth century, so did their contributions to temperance activism, especially after 1912. The movement reached its peak support in the state by 1918.
Sellers was already involved in political and church activism so she fit well into this group and, according to The Indianapolis Star, in February 1919, she worked as president of the Broad Ripple district of the WCTU in Indianapolis. Sellers talked "on reconstruction work" by the WCTU and "the campaign on world prohibition." The same newspaper reported, in May of that year, that she was also the key woman organizer for the million-member million-dollar drive in Indianapolis where the Marion County branch set a fundraising quota of $5,000, and Sellers spoke on "Teaching Women to be Self-Supporting."
In February of 1923, the Logansport Pharos-Tribute announced that Sellers had moved to Horrodsburgh, Kentucky in 1921 for a short time before moving back to Indianapolis, and she continued her activity in church groups and community clubs for several years. The Indianapolis News, Indianapolis Star, and the local journal Topics, all reported in 1920 that Sellers was elected director of the Local Council of Women and spoke on "Federated Clubs of Women" for the Zetathea club of Indianapolis, which was a women's intellectual club that discussed religion, politics, and economics. In 1925 Sellers was elected club historian for the Zetathea and in 1926 she joined the intellectual Monday Club for women.
Sellers moved to West Point, Mississippi in 1928 but, according to The Franklin Evening Star, she soon fell ill with influenza and nephritis and died on December 7 at age 49 before much of her extended family even knew she was sick. The newspaper reported that Sellers's funeral in Indianapolis was attended by so many friends, family, church members, and ministers from around Indiana that some had to be turned away due to lack of space. Her husband's brother, Robert, who officiated the marriage ceremony for Lillian and Luther, said at the service, "she could perform any service that her husband could perform in his duties as a minister. She could lecture, preach a fine sermon, or conduct a business meeting of the church." Throughout her life, Lillian Sellers had the bravery and tenacity to always make her voice heard. Through her oratory and administrative skills, she gained the respect of her community and congregation. Her voice continued to be heard, however, through the records of her work as well as the family she built, which at the time of her death included two granddaughters as well.
Blocker, Jack S. "Separate Paths: Suffragists and the Women's Temperance Crusade." Signs 10, no. 3 (1985): 460-76.
Canup, Charles E. "The Temperance Movement In Indiana." Indiana Magazine of History 16, no. 2 (1920): 112-51.
"Christ Church Convention" Star and Democrat. September 7, 1906, 4.
South Bend News, May 31, 1917, 3.
"Club Calendar." The Indianapolis Star. October 11, 1920, 8.
"Club Digests." The Indianapolis Star. April 12, 1925, 54.
"Daily City Statistics." The Indianapolis News. December 19, 1901, 6.
"Delegates to Attend Suffrage Discussions." Palladium-Item. March 2, 1915, 8.
"Denies Reported Attack on Wilson" The South Bend News, May 31, 1917, 3.
"Disappointed over Suffrage Conference: Reports of Progress," The Indianapolis News, June 20, 1916, 3.
"Federation of Clubs Calendar." Topics. Vol. 1, no. 23, November 24, 1920.
"Federation of Clubs Calendar." Topics. Vol. 1, no. 25, December 4, 1920.
"Friends Pay Final Tribute to Memory of Mrs. L. E. Sellers." The Franklin Evening Star. December 11, 1928, 1.
"General State News," The Indianapolis News, October 6, 1894, 6.
Indiana. Vigo County. 1900 U.S. Census, Population Schedule. Digital images. Ancestryheritagequest.com. Accessed October 17, 2017.
"Local News Notes." Logansport Pharos-Tribute. February 15, 1923, 2.
Mississippi. Clay County. 1930 U.S. Census, Population Schedule. Digital images. Ancestryheritagequest.com. Accessed October 17, 2017.
"Monday Club Will Greet New Members," The Indianapolis News. January 9, 1926, 21.
"Mrs. L. E. Sellers Dies in West Point Miss." The Franklin Evening Star. December 8, 1928, 1.
"News in and About Town: To Talk to Women on New Constitution, The South Bend News-Times, May 26, 1917, 1.
Pennsylvania. Philadelphia County. 1910 U.S. Census, Population Schedule. Digital images. Ancestryheritagequest.com. Accessed October 17, 2017.
"Personal and Society: Irvington Items," The Indianapolis Journal, September 30, 1894, 13.
"Personal and Society: Society Events." The Indianapolis Journal, March 2, 1890, 3.
"Protests Against the Release of Objectors," The Indianapolis News, March 5, 1919, 7.
S. R. Artman. "W.C.T.U. Calendar." The Indianapolis Star. February 1, 1919, 7.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. History of Woman Suffrage Volume 6. [LINK to IN state report.]
"W.C.T.U. Calendar." The Indianapolis Star. May 10, 1919, 8.
"Slim Bethany Crowd." The Indianapolis Journal. July 23, 1900, 3.
"Splendid Meeting: Held by the CWBM at the Country Home of Mrs. Michels." The Elwood Call Leader, June 3, 1909, 1.
"Society: Connersville," The Indianapolis Journal, December 31, 1893, 3.
"Tells of Efforts to Pass Suffrage Bill." The South Bend News-Times, February 9, 1917, 2.
"The Musicians." The Indianapolis News, January 8, 1982, 8.
"Will Seek Aid of Church Members: Women and the Church." The Indianapolis News, March 9, 1915, 1.
"Women's Council Hears Talks on Public Library." The Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1920, 7.