The Early Church in America
African American women played pivotal roles in the development of the North American Church. With nothing left to lose, they spoke with boldness and often served without recognition. While their stories are not prevalent, their influence is immeasurable. Tracing their history is not without difficulties. What follows is a collection of their stories traced throughout early North American history how the Church was and is influenced by their bravery.
In the 1700’s the early North American Christianity began to long for its own identity. For too long, Europe imposed what Christianity should look like. It was time for the New England Church to grow up and move out. The early Puritan movement found itself in chaos and slowly declining after leaving the Church of England to become a “city on a hill.” More and more, American Christianity turned westward while turning its back on the east.
Puritanism had indeed encountered a dark night of the soul and the need for revival was growing. The Great Awakening, North America’s first revival, began in the early 1730s; lasting over a decade. Later, the Second Great Awakening, occurring in the early 19th century, led to revival camp meetings where the Spirit of God fell upon many. Charles Finney, a revivalist, created “revival rules” that in part opened up the floodgates for slaves and women to be a part the established church movement. Although, the Spirit has been moving far before.
The Second Great Awakening made way for the camp meeting. “Those attending the camp meeting responded with conversions— and sometimes with spectacular spiritual manifestations, Contemporaries claimed that when people were overtaken by the Holy Spirit, they engaged in all sorts of bizarre behavior, ranging from involuntary contortions (called the “jerks”) and ecstatic singing to falling down and the “barking exercise.” The unfettered spiritual enthusiasm of the Great Revival provided a king of nascent equality on the frontier: everyone, including women and slaves, was equal before God.”
The charismatic movement created room not only in the pews, but also behind the pulpit. Those who had been without voice in society began to find their voice by preaching the gospel. Slaves, women, and other minorities found a place in which they were seen and heard; the Church. Yet it is important to also note: “The Second Great Awakening attracted black people because the emotive style resonated with their African spiritual heritage and the multiracial worship, in which some revivalists openly agitated against slavery. Yet again, openness to spiritual inclusiveness did not always translate to social inclusiveness.” Simply put, everyone got along as long as it was inside church events. This created a compartmentalization that is still in existence today.
Nevertheless, the pulpit was opened up to the brave minorities and the voiceless who chose to take it, including African American Women. While it is impossible to tell every story, we will start with a few.
Julia heard the voice of God calling her to preach the Gospel at a young age. She was so convinced that despite the disapproval of her pastor, parents, and husband she began holding services in her own home. She was the daughter of former slaves and was born in Schenectady, New York in 1823. Though she sought ordination early on in life she was denied. Six years before her death and after a long preaching career she received ordination a deacon in the AMEZ church. But she was never in ministry for the recognition or the title. She preached so often she ended up losing her voice and took a break from preaching to take care of her dying mother. She did not return to the pulpit for eighteen years. Yet, her presence only grew. After she returned, it is documented she preached to an audience of over five thousand at a holiness meeting in Lodi, Ohio.
After her amazing comeback, she asked her pastor Rev. Jemiel Beman permission to continue to preach. Instead of supporting her, he barred her from preaching and excommunicated her from the church. Unfazed, Julia continued on preaching despite lacking denominational and public support. She not only preached the gospel message, but also spoke out against racism and sexism. She was one of the first black women to speak out against sexism so blatantly. Julia empowered other women to consider the calling to preach; though many were fearful to accept it. Two of my favorite quotes by her:
“ Sisters shall not you and I unite with his heavenly host and this grand chorus? If so, you will not let what man may say or do, keep you doing from doing the will of the Lord by using your gifts you have for the good of others.”
“When Paul said, ‘Help those women who labor with me in the Gospel,’ he certainly meant that they did more than to pour out tea!”
Julia showed what true perseverance in the face of adversity looks like and demonstrated true courage. She also recognized that women need to empower other women. They are not competition, they are teammates.
Amanda Berry Smith
The Holiness movement created a “rich field for gifted black itinerant preachers to ply their vocational calling without being tied to the pulpit of a traditional congregation.” Moreover, the traditional church setting would have never allowed a black woman behind the pulpit. And so the camp meeting liberated the black women. The charismatic outbreak of the spirit bent the rules. The “no creed but Christ” mentality opened doors for many. They now had a voice and a few women chose to use it. One of those few was Amanda Berry.
“Amanda Berry was born into slavery at Long Green, Maryland. She was married in 1854 to Calvin M. Devine and her conversion followed two years later. After her husband died in the Civil War, she moved to Philadelphia and married James Smith, an ordained deacon at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. After visiting Green Street Church in Philadelphia, where she heard John S. Inskip, a prominent Wesleyan holiness leader, preach, she testified that she had received her sanctification there. Following the death of her second husband in 1869, she traveled as a holiness evangelist, becoming a popular speaker in many churches and camp meetings. Smith’s friendships included prominent holiness and prohibition movement leaders such as Hannah Whitall Smith and Frances Willard.”
Smith was one of the most well-known Holiness Evangelists and was known to address white congregations as often as she did black. Not only that, but she also began to travel internationally and became the first black woman to work as an international evangelist. Her travels took her across the world to India where she held large “camp-style” meetings where she preached the Gospel. “Her ministry in India was curious not only because she was a woman minister within this highly male-dominated culture but as also a black former slave within a highly stratified caste system.” An already oppressed woman went to an even more oppressive environment to preach the Gospel. Her incredible boldness led her into rooms where everyone would stare blankly at her. She would stand behind the pulpit knowing most did not want her to speak. Yet, she preached on….knowing God had called her to those hard places.
She later worked in Liberia and Sierra Leone to help establish temperance societies. Throughout her travels she earned the nicknames “The Singing Pilgrim” and “God’s Image Carved in Ebony.”
She was not supported everywhere she went, however. Amanda Berry Smith would not take no for an answer. Her missionary work was supported primarily by donations from friends and supporters. Despite her attempts, she was never ordained/appointed by her AME Church, despite her major contributions to growing the movement. Many opposed her as female preacher and missionary and were not hesitant to tell her so. Several judged that she was compelled to preach to white people. She often struggled with bouts of depression and her call was often lonely and uncelebrated. Today’s modern woman can certainly relate.
Ida B. Wells
The Second Great Awakening certainly ushered in a new spiritual realm of authority for black women. However, it never really translated into positional authority. As educational requirements for clergy grew and the revival movement simmered down so did the the black woman’s voice; at least, behind the pulpit. Women started to find their voices outside of the church speaking into social reforms. Since there was not space within the walls of the church, black women chose to rise and shout from the rooftops.
Maternal piety was at an all time high and the allure of the “cult of domesticity” for women was rampant. Gender roles grew more distinct and women grew in volunteerism. While men were are work women became involved in social clubs and bible studies. These type of gatherings led to the temperance movement of the early nineteenth century opened doors for women to lead at a civic level. Enter, Ida B. Wells.
She was born a slave prior to the Civil war. When she was fourteen, both of her parents were killed by an outbreak of yellow fever. She rallied the family together and supported them through teaching and continued her education at Rust College. From an early age she took on the role as caretaker.
While riding a train she was asked by the conductor to give up her seat and moved her to the “Jim Crow car” When she refused to move she was removed from the train. When asked about the event she shared, “I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”
She filed a suit against the railroad company that went before the Supreme Court. After going through a devastating and long trial process that eventually was overturned she began to write and fight for justice for women and people of color. She began writing for newspapers telling her story.
A few years later three of her friends were lynched: Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart. She bravely spoke out against the crime and ended up leaving town as she encouraged her readers to do as well, as it was unsafe for any person of color to stay. “In Chicago, she helped develop numerous African American women and reform organizations, but she remained diligent in her anti-lynching crusade, writing Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She also became a tireless worker for women’s suffrage, and marched in the famous 1913 march for universal suffrage in Washington, D.C. Not able to tolerate injustice of any kind, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, along with Jane Addams, successfully blocked the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago.” She also was passionate about her last name. When she was married her wedding made the front page because she did not take her husband’s name.
While the suffragist movement was primarily white, Ida B. Wells found her voice at the table. She was one of the first women to speak out against the explicit racism that still existed despite the 1875 civil rights act. She was only twenty-five when her career as an activist began and she led masses to speak out against racial tensions and sexist propaganda. If there was not a seat at the table for Ida, she simply created one.
Anna Julia Cooper
Another suffragette (among many other titles) around the same time was Anna Julia Cooper was born in 1858 to her enslaved mother Hannah Haywood. At the early age of nine, she petitioned to take classes traditionally only taught males. It should be noted that she got into the private school on a scholarship. As well, she protested that preferential treatment was given to boys for the ministry. From an early age, Cooper understood education to be the key to a black woman’s freedom. She continued her studies earning an a bachelor’s degree and an M.A. in mathematics in 1887. She went on to earn her doctorate at the University of Paris, making her the fourth black woman to receive such a high degree. All the while, she was teaching and raising five children. When she was asked to speak to the predominately white World’s Congress of Representative Women in chicago in 1893 she shared,
“The colored woman feels that woman’s cause is one and universal; and that not till the image of God, whether in parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won–not the white woman’s, nor the black woman’s, nor the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong. Woman’s wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with all undefended woe, and the acquirement of her “rights” will mean the final triumph of all right over might, the supremacy of the moral forces of reason, and justice, and love in the government of the nations of earth.
Anna Cooper not only fought for educational rights for women and African Americans, but she also joined the suffragist movement. She lived to be 105, living through slavery, the Civil War, the women’s movement, lynchings, segregation, and the revived feminist movement of the 60’s.
I am forever grateful to have learned these stories. I hope they inspire each of you to deepen your voice and commitment to listen to the voices often silenced. That is often where Jesus speaks the loudest.
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