19th Century African American Women’s Experience

June 2, 2008

Strange aspects

In the sense that I do not have a calling to preach in any capacity or to seek ordination for any purpose, the experiences of each of these women included in Riggs’ anthology Can I Get a Witness? are unlike my own. They each offered a profound and undeniable supernatural calling to the work they either accepted or resisted. Whether they responded as confidently as Sojourner Truth who lived true to her God-given name (21), or as tremulously as Zilpha Elaw who likened herself to Jonah or Julia Foote who described herself as “so weak and ignorant” (52), these women experienced the Jeremiah-like burning ( 8 ) to speak publicly and with authority regardless of the consequences. Also unlike my own experience as a white woman who has only ever known freedom, these women suffered and fought against not only sexism but racism, many of them being former slaves or the daughters of slaves. Ironically, their prophetic calling to speak against injustice met with opposition not because of their sex but because of their color: “And if I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t spend so much of my time talking to ninety percent white audiences all over the country…because America must wake up and learn the truth about itself and its racism” (Fannie Lou Hamer 171).

Out of Hogan’s article describing Phoebe Palmer’s ministry, the strangest part of her argument was her conservative insistence that the woman’s sphere was separated from the man’s, that women and men had different natures, but that by the baptism of the Holy Spirit God brought spiritual equality to both men and women. As Hogan sums, “Men and women were different, and yet, men and women were called to the same baptism and the same task, proclaiming the good news” (220). Certainly an unusual approach in light of the argument from personhood that is so much more favored in this debate. I have never heard anyone mix their arguments like Palmer does here, certainly a strange choice.

Familiar aspects

More familiar in my experience of the debate about women’s authority to speak in public his Palmer’s own admission concerning the difficulty of women who are called to preach but unable to find a forum in which to do so: “‘And what a dilemma! The will of the church and the will of Christ in conflict!’ (vi). Before women could obey the command of the spirit to speak, they first had to secure the right to speak (218). While her argument may have some contradictions, people certainly would have been hard-pressed to contradict her ultimate claim to God’s authority over both men and women. Hogan notes, “Spiritual equality, as used by Palmer, was grounded in the God-given equality between women and men….All of this was under God’s direction and command. It was God’s doing, not theirs, and this was the final and crucial distinction between personhood and spiritual equality” (221).

More familiar as well is the constant struggle African American women faced in securing an opportunity to be heard at all. Jarena Lee records that in eight years following her call “I had only been allowed to exhort, and even this privilege but seldom” (8). Virginia Broughton narrowly escaped being thrown from a window (37). I admire Julia Foote’s courage to speak regardless of opposition, asserting that “[m]an’s opinion weighed nothing with me, for my commission was from heaven, and my reward was with the Most High” (57). Another common experience is the jealousy that emerges when women’s ministry flourishes, like that of Broughton: “Ministers and laymen…who were jealous of the growing popularity of the woman’s work, as if there was some cause of alarm for the safety of their own positions of power and honor, all rose up from their churches…to oppose the woman’s work and break it up if possible” (35-6). Even when women are promoting daily Bible study and holy, righteous living, the fact that they are women promoting anything at all is cause enough for many men insecure in their own callings to fight the movement of the Holy Spirit.

One Response to “19th Century African American Women’s Experience”

  1. Meredith said

    Nice work, its time women started being recognized for their minds as well and their hands.

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