“Sisters, shall not you and I unite with the heavenly host in the grand chorus? If so, you will not let what man may say or do, keep you from doing the will of the Lord or using the gifts you have for the good of others. How much easier to bear the reproach of men than to live at a distance from God. Be not kept in bondage by those who say, “We suffer not a woman to teach,” thus quoting Paul’s words, but not rightly applying them.” -Julia A. J. Foote, A Brand Plucked from a Fire, 1879
In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the United States underwent great societal upheaval largely surrounding the issue of slavery. This resulted in the end of the Civil War and began the Reconstruction Period when preconceived notions of the proper “place” of the former slaves continued to be worked out throughout the country. At the same time, the women’s suffrage movement continued to grow as, increasingly, women fought to be allowed to work alongside men in the workplace and, ultimately, to vote. It was against this backdrop that African American women saw their roles evolving. These changes involved not just changes in the secular world, but also in the African American church.
Understanding the experiences of African American women during this period, and their relationship to their churches, is foundational to understanding the controversial, yet still expanding area of womanist theology.
Womanist theology is the area of theological thought that looks at African American women in light of their roles with regard to religious thought, Black churches, feminism, and society as a whole. It has its beginning in the late twentieth century and continues to expand in its acceptance among African American women involved in religious studies.
As African American slaves tried to adapt to life in captivity in the American South, one of the mainstays in their daily lives was religious practice. This practice, sometimes in shack churches on plantation property, served multiple purposes as they worked to adjust to this new life in a strange land.
Whilst White women in the late eighteenth century were dealing with issues related to being women in a society run by men and having their roles relegated to the home, Black women were dealing with issues related to being oppressed not only because of their gender, but also because of their color.
Despite the basis of their different concerns, women in churches, regardless of color found their roles restricted. Because of their ineligibility for ordination in many denominations, women created aid societies, aimed at raising funds to be used for philanthropic purposes in the missionary field.
One example of this kind of society was The Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Started in 1880 in response to the fact that a young missionary bride was unsuccessful in having her concerns for the newly freed slaves in the South, the stated purpose of the society was “the improvement of the conditions of the freed-woman in the South.” This group later expanded its scope to include Native Americans, the people of Appalachia, and the Hispanics in the Southwest. Interestingly, the first president of this society was Lucy Webb Hayes, the wife of US President Rutherford B. Hayes.
In the African American Churches, women were still subject to restrictions against women preaching, although in some cases they were permitted to be “exhorters,” lay people allowed to teach the scriptures but not to preach.
These women found the outlet for their call to God’s service by becoming incredible fundraisers for the cause of missions and education.
The fundraising was critical to the continued operations of the church, support for traveling pastors, funding overseas missions. [Many of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) owe their existence and continued support to women’s societies from the AME, AME Zion, Methodist Episcopal, and Colored Methodist Episcopal churches. Often these schools were founded for one of two reasons: to educate teachers or prepare the students for ministry. Schools like Spelman and Morehouse, perhaps two of the best-known HBCUs, were originally seminaries, though they went on to be among the top liberal arts institutions. Both of these schools also enjoyed long- term support from the American Baptist Home Mission Society.]
Another outlet for women was to become teachers in Sabbath schools, the precursor to Sunday Schools. These women brought textbooks and bibles to the children and adults in the south in order to provide them with education and “proper moral training.” The preferred candidates for these positions in the South were single, childless, had the proper “spirit” for missionary work, “good health, energy, culture, and common sense.”
While some black women worked within the system of the church to reach the community with the message of the Gospel, others felt that nothing less than preaching the message throughout the country would satisfy the calling they fervently believed came from God. Their passionate, dramatic call stories, often recorded in their autobiographies and diaries are evidence that they received their instructions directly from God, and that no husband, no children, and no admonitions from men were going to keep them from doing what God told them to do.
Among the women who felt a strong calling of God to preach were Jarena Lee and Julia A.J. Foote. Of the latter, Thomas Doty wrote in the introduction to her biography,
Our dear sister is not a genius. She is simply strong in common sense, and strong in the Lord. Those of us who heard her preach, last year, at Lodi, where she held the almost breathless attention of five thousand people, by the eloquence of the Holy Ghost, know well where is the hiding of her power. This is a simple narrative of a life of incidents, many of them stirring and strange. We commend it to all; and with it, the soundness of the doctrine and exhortation with which Sister Foote enforces the sublime cause of Holiness.
That a woman of color would speak to five thousand people on matters of religion and doctrine was no small feat. That she would be as highly respected as she was is evidence that she was fulfilling the calling that compelled her.
Two major African American, AME and AME Zion churches dealt with the question of ordination of women in different ways during their denominational meetings. At first, both sought to mollify their female constituents. The AME briefly allowed for ordination of women and then rescinded that decision and the AME Zion went on to create an arbitrary role of supportive leadership for women called ‘stewardess.’
Against all odds, the women in African American churches during Reconstruction found ways to reach their goals of power and authority inside and outside the church, while simultaneously meeting the needs of education and fundraising. This is a testament to their concern for making sure they did what God called them to do, their concern for their people, and their persistence in the face of odds stacked squarely against them.
–Regina (Gina) Pollard
[This article is an excerpt from Gina Pollard’s Sytematic Theology paper, “From God and a Woman: African American Women in Reconstruction America” written in partial fulfillment of her theological studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, December 2008]
Gina Pollard is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist® and a Life Transition Coach. Her focus is in helping people deal with grief and loss, past abuse issues, and moving into new life stages. Her experience in leading Mending the Soul abuse support groups, and providing pastoral care gives her a deep understanding what it means to feel deep pain, need a glimmer of hope, and do the work to have a fulfilling life.
A self-described “hope junkie,” Gina loves to journey with others, helping them to validate the whole of who they are in the world and in their lives.
Gina earned her Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and is ordained by the National Association of Christian Ministers. In addition to her coaching and recovery practice, she also works at Fuller Seminary Arizona helping to provide spiritual formation for seminary students.
To retain her professional services, please contact her at 623-217-7459; www.ginapollard.com; Facebook: Gina Pollard; Twitter: @GinaPollard; Instagram: @ginadpollard
- Anthony B. Pinn Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 106.
- Dorothy Sterling, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), xiv
- Maxine West, “Tell Me the Stories: United Methodist Women Past and Present,” Global Board of Global Ministries. http://gbgmumc.org/global_news/full_article.cfm?articleid=3247 [accessed May 5, 2008].
- Susan Hill Lindley, You Have Stept Out of Your Place: A History of Women and Religion in America (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.)
- Cynthia L. Jackson and Eleanor F. Nunn, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, ed Danny Weil (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 8-9
- Dorothy Sterling, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), 261-267
- Foote, J. A. J., A Brand Plucked from a Fire. Cleveland, Printed for the author by Lauer & Yost. http://digilib.nypl.org/dynaweb/digs/wwm978/@Generic__BookView [accessed November 23, 2008]