Posts Tagged ‘black women preachers’

Those who trust in the Lord are as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but abides forever. Psalm 125:1.


Last week we began the story of Zilpha Elaw, an early nineteenth-century black female evangelist. Zilpha had married in 1810, had a daughter the following year, and was widowed in 1823 at age 32. We now pick up our story at that point.

Zilpha Elaw continued to work to support herself after both her husband and her sister died. She had long ago received a call from God to go out and preach the Gospel. She kept putting it off because she did not feel worthy to do so. She was uneducated compared to other ministers who had been to seminary. Zilpha was also worried about the fact that she was black. She prayed to God, “Lord! Send by whom thou wilt send, only send not by me; for thou knowest that I am ignorant; how can I be a mouth for God! — a poor, coloured female; and thou knowest we have many things to endure which others do not.”

IICor.3-5Zilpha had not yet learned the lesson from 2Corinthians 3:5 (“Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.”). God answered her objection, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me.”

Placing her child with some relatives, Zilpha began her journey of preaching salvation to lost souls. She would travel to many states including the slaveholding states in the South. Here she ran the risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. The Lord protected her; she preached to both black and white folks. Some wealthy white people put her under their wings, caring for her even when she got ill.

Many people came to the Lord because of her preaching and at least one person was healed. Though Zilpha was worried that being black and a female would be detrimental, those factors are actually what attracted people to come and hear her. Some came out of curiosity; a few even came to mock her, but most were genuinely convicted and came back to hear her preach again. More than a few women would weep and beg her to pray for them at the meetings. Some of these women would become life-long friends.

Zilpha encountered many obstacles throughout her ministry. Besides young men who would come to the meetings specifically to hassle her, there were other church members and church leaders who opposed her because of her gender or color. Often these turned out to be people who were jealous of the reception that she got wherever she went. Sometimes after they heard her preach, they would repent of their attitude, ask her forgiveness and encourage her to continue on.

One example of this was a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Mr. House, who declared that he would have her stopped when she came to his city of Hartford. While in that city, Zilpha visited a very sick man and prayed for him. He immediately got so much better that his attending physician declared that he would like to go and hear Zilpha preach. After hearing her, the physician visited Rev. House and told him all that he had witnessed. Rev. House changed his mind about stopping Zilpha exclaiming, “Well, if God has sent her, I bid her God’s speed.” A revival broke out in Hartford among the people of every denomination.

Zilpha also encountered those who were skeptical of traditional, Evangelical Christian beliefs. Universalism was taking hold in the Northeastern United States at this time. The Universalists not only believed that everyone would be saved, thereby denigrating the cross of Christ, but they behaved as Deists, denigrating the immanent power of our Sovereign God. Many of these people came to hear her preach and she was able to exhort them in the whole Gospel including repentance for sin and genuine faith in a crucified Redeemer. She preached that mankind was lost and in need of a Savior. She warned them to flee from the wrath to come. Some did turn and believe.

By the nineteenth century the different denominations had separated themselves from each other. There was a group of women however who held monthly union prayer meetings Eph. 4  4-6together. This brought them into closer contact with each other as well as allowed them to share Christian love free from bigotry. Zilpha loved these meetings and was delighted to hear Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists sharing the Gospel truth as one. She said, “The Christian church should manifest one fold and one shepherd; one body and spirit; one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism; and one God and father of all who is above all, and through all, and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Of course, Zilpha missed her daughter. Eventually her daughter married and had two sons. Zilpha was very close to her daughter and grandsons.

Zilpha had received a vision some years before this promising her that she would travel to London. Zilpha was never sure how this could come about, and she argued the matter with the Lord in prayer, pleading her ignorance, her sex, her color, and her inability to minister the Gospel in a country “so polished and enlightened, so furnished with Bibles, so blessed with ministers, so studded with temples; but the Lord said, ‘say not, I cannot speak; for thou shalt go to all to whom I send thee, and what I command thee, thou shalt speak’.” (Jeremiah 1:7).

The Lord opened the way for her in 1840. She went home for a short time and spent some time with her daughter and two grandsons. The parting was tearful when it was time for her to leave for New York. From there she traveled to Philadelphia, then went by ship to London. Zilpha preached over one thousand sermons over a five-year period in England. She lived on the edge of poverty and endured “a thousand privations, hardships, targetfires, vexatious anxieties and deep afflictions, to which my previous life was an utter stranger.” She was occasionally ill, even near death, but the Lord sustained her.

While in England, Zilpha published her memoirs. Nearing the end of her life, she exhorts all her readers to stand fast in their faith. “Dear brethren, the time is short, it is ominous, and it is perilous; be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” Truly, Zilpha Elaw practiced what she preached. She is a model for us of a courageous woman who put aside all of her own feelings and wants and made herself totally available to God.

There is a hint near the end of her memoirs that she wants to return to the United States, but we don’t know whether or not she did. There is up to now no further information about her life after 1845. We can be sure that she is in Heaven rejoicing with all of the other saints including many that she had the privilege to lead to Christ.

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Those who trust in the Lord are as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but abides forever. (Psalm 125:1).

Zilpha Elaw was born in 1790 to free black Christian parents near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Zilpha was one of the only three surviving children of the twenty-two babies her mother gave birth to. She was twelve years old when she lost her mother who died in her twenty-second childbirth.  Her father then put Zilpha with a Quaker family where she lived until she was eighteen years old. Her father died eighteen months after placing her with the Mitchel family.

In her father’s house devotions had been held morning and evening often with hymn singing. Though Zilpha appreciated her new Quaker foster parents she was surprised at how little outward devotion they paid to the Lord. Because of this her own earnest desire to follow God waned. She followed the childish pleasures that were all around her, but occasionally had feelings of guilt.

During this time the Methodists were evangelizing strongly in their area. Zilpha was allowed to attend their services once a fortnight on Sabbath afternoons. She loved the preaching and the message of God’s love and began to deal with her feelings of shame and guilt for her sin. She gradually came to accept Christ’s forgiveness and assurance of her salvation. She studied the Word and increased in knowledge daily, but she lacked full assurance. She prayed that God would send her such assurance and in her memoirs she tells how God answered her prayer.

Phil. 4-6,7One day while milking a cow, Zilpha saw the figure of Jesus coming toward her. He opened his arms and he smiled at her. She knew it was not her imagination because even the cow turned her head and bowed her knees and cowered to the ground. After this wonderful manifestation, the peace of God which passes understanding was communicated to her heart with the joy of the Holy Spirit. She said that from that day on she “never entertained a doubt of the manifestation of his love to my soul.”

In 1810, Zilpha married Joseph Elaw. Joseph was only a nominal Christian and did not appreciate Zilpha’s zeal for Christ. In fact, he often chided her and tried to keep her from going to religious meetings. Zilpha regretted having become unequally yoked with a non-believer, but she did her best to be submissive to her husband. She warned girls that because they must be in subjection to their husbands it was of utmost importance to marry a Christian. Otherwise the believing wife must either sin by obeying her husband or cause discord in the family when she won’t follow him into sin.

Zilpha gave an example of the trials of being married to an unbeliever with the story of a time when her husband insisted that they go dancing. In those days ballroom dancing was seen as worldly. Zilpha attended the “vaporous bubble of worldly gaiety and pleasure” but sat on the side weeping. Her husband found that it wasn’t as pleasurable as he thought and he never made her go again. Zilpha gave the praise to God for protecting her.

Joseph’s trade caused him to move to Burlington, New Jersey in 1811. Zilpha went along with him and bore him a daughter the following year. She was happy there because the Meeting House was only a short distance from their home. She studied and grew spiritually throughout the next few years.

In 1817, Zilpha attended her first American camp meeting. She described camp meetings as heaven on earth, with the singing of praises to God in the midst of HIs beautiful creation. Meetings went on day and night with thousands in attendance. Hundreds of souls came to Christ daily.

At one of the camp meetings, Zilpha received her call to preach. She did not think herself a likely preacher since she was black and a woman. She did not seek to lead meetings or preach formally, but she did begin to share the Gospel by going into people’s homes and telling them of forgiveness and salvation in Christ. In this manner she led whole households to Christ.

Zilpha was comfortable sharing the Gospel in this manner until the time that she visited her only sister, Hannah, who was dying. Hannah had a vision of Heaven and angels and insisted that they told her that Zilpha must preach the Gospel. Zilpha had a hard time believing this prophecy and she kept it to herself for a long time.

Finally, God used other means to convince Zilpha. He allowed her to be very sick, almost to death, for nearly two years, and then the He marvelously healed her and after many more months she was able to go to Meetings again.

Zilpha could not imagine that God could use her but eventually she humbly accepted the fact that “God hath chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the mighty” (I Corinthians 1:27). She began her public ministry.

When her husband found out, he was troubled in his mind about it. Zilpha was pleasantly surprised that he did not completely object; his concern was that they would become a laughing stock to their neighbors because his wife was preaching. He asked her to stop preaching publicly, but Zilpha felt that the call from God was so strong that she needed to obey it.

About this time her husband became ill with consumption. He grew worse and so Zilpha’s ministry duties lessened as she cared for him and her daughter. Her biggest concern however was that he was not yet saved. A short time before his death he seemed to change his mind and soften toward religious things and asked for Zilpha’s forgiveness. He finally went to be with the Lord on January 27, 1823.

At this time Zilpha needed to support herself and her daughter and pay all of their debts including funeral expenses. Zilpha went to work as a servant and put her daughter out to servitude as well. This nearly ruined Zilpha’s health, so she eventually started a school, which was greatly appreciated by the black people in their neighborhood.

Zilpha was able to care for herself and her daughter in this way, but she wasn’t getting ahead with2Pet. 1-10 the debts. Here “Satan bound me down for two years” and then she remembered her call to the ministry. She sought the Lord with prayer and decided to trust Him completely and step out in faith and pursue her calling. She put her daughter under the care of some relatives and set out to follow where the Lord led her. She believed that God would bless her and help her do what was right.

(End Part 1. Part 2 next week.)

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“Go preach the Gospel!”

These are the words that Jarena Lee distinctly heard one day a few years after she was saved and “sanctified”.

It is not my purpose to discuss theology at this time. Jarena Lee held to a view of sanctification that was Wesleyan Methodist. Many have debated John Wesley’s view of “perfectionism”, but at the very least, Christians are called to live “in the world” but not be “of the world”. This takes a commitment on the part of believers and reliance on the Holy Spirit to do the sanctifying work. Some believe that sanctification comes all at once as a “second blessing” and others believe that there may be an initial blessing from the Holy Spirit as He causes the Christian to realize that, though saved, she still sins and needs more help. Thus begins a process of “progress sanctification”.

In any event, Jarena knew that she was called to a purpose that involved more than justJerenaLee.2 her own personal comfort. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to men and women alike. All are called to exercise those gifts to build up the Kingdom of Christ. How are women to exercise their gifts? In the early nineteenth century as well as today there are many who restrict women to using their gifts at home only. For example, women may teach their children at home, but women may not exercise the gift of teaching in public. Some say they may never exercise the gift of preaching because that is for men only.

Again, this is a discussion that I would like to continue at another time. I invite you, readers, to jump in here with your thoughts. What gifts does the Holy Spirit give to women? When may they use them?

Recall that the last posting, “Jarena Lee – Part 1”, I recounted the story of the first time Jarena approached Rev. Richard Allen and told him about her call to preach. He turned her away. He told her about a woman who was given permission to lead prayer meetings and to “exhort” under a licensed preacher, but that women should not preach.

At first, Jarena was a bit relieved to hear this. Later she acknowledged though that it was her own fear of following her call that made her glad to hear Rev. Allen’s reply. However she found that not heeding her call made her lose her burning desire to tell others of Jesus Christ.

Jarena married, had children, and was widowed over the space of six years. She had occasions to speak to others about their souls, warning them to flee from the wrath to come. She still longed to preach the Gospel but was obedient to God in her present calling of wife and mother.

After eight years had gone by since the first time she applied to Rev. Allen, she received a fresh impression in her mind “as a fire shut up in my bones” to go and preach. She approached the now Bishop Richard Allen and simply asked for permission to hold prayer meetings. He granted that to her. This she did for some time.

Jarena’s account of her first opportunity to preach in public was given in Part 1. This was the story of her impromptu preaching from the book of Jonah. She was not sure of how she would be received, but actually she was well received and began her public ministry.

It was important to Jarena that her call was truly of God. She did not want it to be of her own desire or to be a temptation from Satan. She recognized the devil could “transform himself into an angel of light for the purpose of deception.” The first time Jarena heard her call she was very careful to make sure it was from the Lord. She immediately “went into a secret place, and called upon the Lord to know if he had called me to preach, and whether I was deceived or not; when there appeared to my view the form and figure of a pulpit, with a Bible lying thereon, the back of which was presented to me as plainly as if it had been a literal fact.” In other words, Jarena had a vision. That night she had a vivid dream. She took a text and preached in her sleep. This convinced her of her call and she approached Rev. Allen for that first time.

When she began her public ministry, Jarena defended her right to preach on three grounds. First was God’s direct call to her (recounted above). Secondly, she could point to the results. There was no doubt about the support she received from men and women. And third, there were the Scriptures.

Along with other black and white women who wanted to serve by using their call to preach, Jarena pointed to many Scriptures in support of her ministry. Here in her own words is her defense:

“If a man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died for her also.”

“Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity — hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St. Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? for she preached the resurrection of the crucified Son of God.

But some will say, that Mary did not expound the Scripture, therefore, she did not preach, in the proper sense of the term. To this I reply, it may be that the term preach, in those primitive times, did not mean exactly what it is now made to mean; perhaps it was a great deal more simple then, than it is now: — if it were not, the unlearned fishermen could not have preached the gospel at all, as they had no learning.”

Some might reply that only men are inspired to preach the gospel. Jarena replied, “If then, to preach the gospel, by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened; must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and accompany it too, with power to the sinners’ heart. As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labour according to what I have received, in his vineyard. If he has not, how could he consistently bear testimony in favour of my poor labours, in awakening and converting sinners?”

How indeed?

sisters:19thcenturyJarena’s story is one of a series of four women (including Maria W. Stewart) that I want to explore over the coming weeks. Was Jarena’s call real, or only the product of a vivid imagination? If a woman’s call to preach is real, how should we deal with it? This is not as easy as it sounds, for we must define “preach” and also “where” a woman may “preach”. Is the call to share the Gospel with others for all Christians?

More in the weeks to come.

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