Posts Tagged ‘female preachers’

Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? (Zechariah 3:2).

In the past few weeks we have told the stories of remarkable black women of the nineteenth century. Some were born slaves and some were born free. All of these women were courageous examples of what can be done by a woman who does not let her circumstances dictate to her. These women rose above many hardships including poverty, illness, prejudice, internal conflicts, and the limitations of their times to follow their call from God and affect the lives of many other people for good.

Julia Foote bookDuring the nineteenth century many black and white women published their autobiographies. There are also many fine diaries from that century when women wrote about their thoughts, dreams, and ideas that they could not express publicly because of their gender. It was acceptable for women to write and so many availed themselves of the opportunity to express themselves using this medium.

An outstanding example of such a woman was Julia A. J. Foote (1823-1900). Julia Foote intendedJulia Foote to leave her story so that she could “testify more extensively to the sufficiency of the blood of Jesus Christ to save from all sin.” Her autobiography was published in 1879.

She was born in 1823 in Schenectady, N.Y., a child of former slaves. Her mother had been born a slave; her father was born free but was kidnapped and enslaved as a child. Julia’s father endured many hardships but worked hard and purchased his freedom along with that of his wife and their only child at that time.

A nearly fatal accident for Julia’s mother caused her parents to turn to God and they became committed Methodists. Julia’s parents wanted their children to be educated, but the schools were segregated, so they sent Julia to work as a servant and the white family she lived with used their influence to put her in a country school. Julia wanted to read the Bible and so she studied hard in school and learned to read.

Julia attended many church meetings and was converted at age fifteen. Her experience was very profound and left her with a strong desire to serve Christ for the rest of her life. It also left her with a desire to be holy. She eventually embraced the Methodist idea of “sanctification”. This doctrine has been debated for centuries, but some Methodists believed in “total sanctification” where one is freed from sin completely and empowered to lead a life of spiritual perfection. Most Christians believe that sanctification is a gradual process, the Christian becoming more Christ-like as the years go on, and only becoming “perfect” when they die and go to heaven. Julia believed that absolute perfection belonged to God alone. However, Christian “perfection” was moving toward a life of love and peace with God.

In 1841, Julia married George Foote, who was a sailor, and moved to Boston with him.  There she joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. She made friends and studied the Bible. Convinced that she was fully sanctified by the Holy Spirit, she also believed that she was called to preach. When she tried to tell others, including her husband, she met with disapproval. It was all right for her to work with the neighborhood wives and children, but as a woman she was not supposed to speak in public.

Julia had always been opposed to women preaching and had spoken out against it, but she began to have strong feelings toward preaching the Gospel and seeing many people come to Christ. God seemed to be calling her, but she felt unworthy of the task and said, “No, Lord, not me.”  The impression that God was calling her increased daily, yet she tried to shrink from it. One day she received a visitation from an angel who told her that she was to go and preach the Gospel. She tried to shirk this call for two months and became very sick. Her friends advised her to obey God. When she got well, Julia realized that God had been gracious to her. God sent another angel and this time, Julia bowed her head and said, “I will go, Lord.”

Julia met with opposition from her minister when she explained her divine calling to him. She and other like-minded brothers and sisters began to meet in her home. She was told to quit these meetings or else face discipline. She responded that she had to obey God, and she was turned out of her church.

There were other heartaches for Julia. Her husband did not agree with her and drifted away from her, literally, as he spent most of his time at sea, eventually dying there. Her parents did not approve of her activity, but her father gave her his blessing on his death bed saying to her, “My dear daughter, be faithful to your heavenly calling, and fear not to preach full salvation.”

Of course, there were the “indignities” that were shown to her as a “nigger”. All of these things Julia endured as she went about the work of her Master.

A Christian sister joined her as her traveling companion and they went throughout New England, the Mid-Atlantic States, Michigan, Ohio, and Canada. Julia was welcomed in Churches, homes, and revival camps. She was part of the holiness revivals that swept through the Midwest in the 1870’s. Julia served as a missionary for the A.M.E. Zion Church.

We are not sure what she was doing during the 1880’s and early 1890’s, but by the end of the last decade of the nineteenth century, Julia became the first woman to be ordained a deacon in her church. Later she became only the second woman to hold the office of elder. Julia died around 1900 after sixty years of ministry.

Julia protested against racism and other social abuses during her lifetime. Her special cause however was to encourage her Christian sisters to serve God in spite of their gender or color. Though slavery was long ended by the time she died, there was still much prejudice against blacks. Julia encouraged all believers to remember that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth ” (Acts 17:26). There is no room for prejudice among Christians.

Joel 2-28

All Christians have the responsibility to tell others about the love of Christ. Julia believed that women could be anointed to preach publicly because “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). God’s praise should be on everyone’s lips!

Those who heard Julia preach believed that she had the gift and the anointing of the Holy Spirit as she spoke with such power. At one meeting there were over five thousand people listening intently as she explained the way of salvation. Other ministers attested to the soundness of her doctrine and exhortation and commended her for it.

Julia was faithful to her calling. She was grateful for her redemption, “a brand plucked out of the fire” and her life has been an inspiration for Christian women since then.

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And it shall come to pass. .  . that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons, and your daughters shall prophecy. (Joel 2:28)

Jarena Lee was born on February 11, 1783, in Cape May, New Jersey. Her parents were free blacks but were poor so they hired Jarena out at the age of seven to be a servant Jarena1girl. We don’t know much else about her childhood.

At the age of twenty-one Jarena was converted to Christianity. Up to this time she had undergone a long process of wretchedness and guilt, convinced that she was such a horrible sinner that God had forsaken her.

In 1804 she went to hear a Presbyterian missionary speak. Jarena tells in her autobiography what happened next, “At the reading of the Psalms, a ray of renewed conviction darted into my soul. These were the words, composing the first verse of the Psalms for the service:

Lord, I am vile, conceived in sin,
Born unholy and unclean.
Sprung from man, whose guilty fall
Corrupts the race, and taints us all.

This description of my condition struck me to the heart, and made me to feel in some measure, the weight of my sins, and sinful nature.”

But Jarena had no one to tell her what she should do. Months went by. After undergoing temptations by Satan to destroy herself and a prolonged illness, Jarena had the opportunity to hear Rev. Richard Allen, a bishop of the African Episcopal Methodist Church. Up to this time she felt that she knew the wretchedness of her sinful condition but had not heard what to do about it. She decided to continue to worship with the Methodists and after about three weeks she was “gloriously converted to God.”

Jarena was enjoying the wonderful feeling of being right with God for some months when she began to realize that there was still much pride, anger, and self-will in her nature. She had not yet learned how to deal with this. God graciously sent “a certain colored man, by name William Scott” to visit her. William explained the way of sanctification to Jarena which she embraced. Now Jarena felt that she was able to resist Satan and lead a godly life.

About four or five years after this Jarena received her call to preach the Gospel. At first she thought that it was either her own imagination or the devil speaking to her. She decided to go and tell Rev. Richard Allen that she felt it was her duty to preach the Gospel. He replied, “But as to women preaching… our Discipline knew nothing at all about it — that it did not call for women preachers.”

Jarena was actually glad to hear this because it removed what she felt was a burden from her. However, later she wrote in her memoirs, “I found that a love of souls had in a measure departed from me; that holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered.” Jarena had let the “by-laws of church government and discipline” prevent her from following her calling. It would be eight years before she would again apply to become an official preacher.

In 1811, Jarena married Mr. Joseph Lee, Pastor of a Colored Society at Snow Hill. This town was about six miles from Philadelphia. As a wife, Jarena conformed to the marital mores of nineteenth-century American society. Therefore, though she was sad to leave her friends, Jarena moved with her husband who had charge of the congregation in Snow Hill. They had two children. Sadness filled Jarena’s life during this time. In the space of six years she lost five family members to death including her husband.

Now Jarena was left with two small children, aged two years and six months. She depended on God’s promise, “I will be the widow’s God and a Father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5). Friends came to her aid and she and the children were taken care of.

By 1818 eight years had gone by since Jarena had first received her impression that she was called to preach. Returning to Philadelphia, she approached Bishop Richard Allen again and asked for permission to hold prayer meetings in her house. Bishop Allen granted her the permission and her house was filled when she began her meetings.

At this time it was allowable for women to exhort if they were invited to by the licensed preacher. This was to be done after the preacher completed his sermon and the preacher was to give the exhorter the text to be used.

Jarena got her chance to exhort a few months later. There came a time in 1819 when she attended a service at Bethel Church. The Rev. Richard Williams was to preach. Here in her own words is how Jarena began her preaching ministry:

“He (Rev. Williams) entered the pulpit, gave out the hymn, which was sung, and then addressed the throne of grace; took his text, passed through the exordium, and commenced to expound it. The text he took is in Jonah, 2d chap. 9th verse, — ‘Salvation is of the Lord.’ But as he proceeded to explain, he seemed to have lost the spirit; when in the same instant, I sprang, as by an altogether supernatural impulse, to my feet, when I was aided from above to give an exhortation on the very text which my brother Williams had taken.

I told them that I was like Jonah; for it had been then nearly eight years since the Lord had called me to preach his gospel to the fallen sons and daughters of Adam’s race, but that I lingered like him and delayed to go at the bidding of the Lord, and warn those who are as deeply guilty as were the people of Ninevah.

During the exhortation, God made manifest his power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labour according to my ability and the grace given unto me, in the vineyard of the good husbandman.”

Jarena sat down, frightened at what she had done. She was sure she would be expelled from the church. But instead, the Bishop rose up in the assembly and told how Jarena had called on him eight years before asking to be permitted to preach and that he had put her off. Now, he said, he believed that she was called to the work of preaching as much as any of the ministers present.

Now realizing the sureness of her call, Jarena began to exhort in public places though not in a church at first. She began in the home of a sister in her society with five congregants. Eventually Jarena would preach throughout New England, using Philadelphia as her home base. Her travels took her to Canada and out west to Ohio.

Jarena JournalIn 1836, Jarena wrote her first autobiography out of the conviction that others might benefit from hearing how the Lord had worked in her life to help her to lead others to Christ. She spent her own money to have a thousand copies printed, which she distributed at camp meetings, church meetings, and on the street. Later a second autobiographical work was completed in 1849, Religious Experience and Journal, which recounted events up to her fiftieth birthday. Unfortunately, after this nothing is known of her activities.

Like Maria W. Stewart, Jarena saw herself as an evangelist. She was concerned with the souls of lost human beings. She did not let her gender or her color keep her from preaching the gospel. It was her sense of purpose, strength of will, and integrity that led Jarena to be a part of the social reformation that was begun in the nineteenth century.

Nearly two centuries later Christians still question whether or not women should preach or speak in public places. Next week in Jarena Lee – Part 2, we will talk about how Jarena saw her calling from God, and why she believed that women should share the Gospel.

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Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”   Jeremiah 23:29


MariaStewart_Not until many years after her death was Maria W. Stewart recognized as an underappreciated black female theologian and speaker of the early nineteenth century.

She is believed to be the first American woman to have given a speech before a mixed audience of men and women. It is possible that there were other women speakers before her, but we don’t have copies of their speeches as we do for Maria.

Maria Miller was born in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut. Other than their last name, we don’t really know anything about Maria’s parents. She was orphaned at the age of five and became a servant girl in the home of a minister. While there she learned to read and became very familiar with the Bible. She understood it so well in fact that one she would later incorporate it into her speeches in very intelligent and appropriate ways.

At about age fifteen, Maria left this family and took a job as a domestic servant in order to support herself. She further educated herself by attending Sabbath schools.

When she was twenty-three, Maria Miller married James W. Stewart at the African Baptist Church in Boston. Maria took not only James’ last name but also his middle initial and thereafter she called herself Maria W. Stewart. James was forty-four years old. He was a veteran of the War of 1812. When he and Maria married he was a successful businessman earning a good income by outfitting whaling ships and fishing vessels. At this time, blacks or colored persons (as they were called then) made up only three percent of the Boston population. The Stewarts were also members of an even smaller society – the black middle class. They had no children and James died only three years later in 1829.

Heartbreak helped to fuel Maria’s zeal for God and His Word and freedom for women and blacks. But first, before she started her remarkable foray into politics, Maria had to try and get her inheritance. James Stewart had left her substantial property, but she was defrauded by the legal machinations of the unscrupulous white businessmen who were the executors of the estate. After a long court battle they took everything from her.

In 1830 Maria underwent a religious conversion that led her to begin to proclaim the Gospel along with social justice. She made a public profession of her faith in Christ and dedicated herself to God’s service. Being black and female did not stop this remarkable woman. She believed that the Scriptures were the authority of God and she could proclaim them as a servant of God no matter what her gender was. She also believed that it was an act of obedience to God to work for freedom for oppressed people. Throughout her life she would be criticized for speaking out, but Maria would point to the authority of God and say that she was simply following God’s will. This was an incredibly bold stance for a black woman to take in 1830. It would be a few years before other women would follow in her footsteps and now there is a great “roll call” of black and white women who boldly proclaimed the Word of God.

Maria’s first published work was entitled, ” Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build”. This appeared as a twelve-page pamphlet, priced at six cents, published in 1831. Soon after this, Maria began her public speaking.

The main thrust of Maria’s speeches was to encourage black women to turn to God. She also urged them to stand up for their rights and not remain silent. She showed that free black women were little better off than the slaves. The only employment they could get was as servants to white people and many were as mistreated as she was. After all, she should know because she was cheated out of her inheritance. Being black and female was the bottom of the totem pole.

While speaking out against the unfairness of the white man’s world, Maria also boldly lectured the blacks themselves for doing little to better their own plight. “It is useless for us any longer to sit with our hands folded, reproaching the whites; for that will never elevate us,” she said.

Maria continued to write articles for publication. In 1832, the famous publisher William Lloyd Garrison published another article entitled, “Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.” He also printed transcripts from all of her speeches, but going along with the social requirements of those days he put them in the “Ladies” Department” of the paper.

Maria Stewart continued to speak and write for only two more years. She had encountered so much opposition that she decided to leave Boston. She delivered her last speech on September 21, 1833 announcing her decision. She was truly sorry that even people who agreed with her did not like her speaking in public.

She did not just fade away. Maria refused to go quietly, asserting that women activists had divine sanction: “What if I am woman; is not the God of ancient times the God of these modern days? Did he not raise up Deborah, to be a mother, and a judge in Israel? Did not Queen Esther save the lives of the Jews? And Mary Magdalene first declare the resurrection of Christ from the dead?”

Maria moved to New York where she became a teacher and taught in Manhattan public schools. She continued her political activities, joining many women’s organizations. She did lecture occasionally, but none of these have survived.
In 1852, Maria moved to Baltimore. Here she earned a living as a teacher. In 1861, she moved to Washington D. C. where she operated a school. By the 1870’s she had been appointed a matron at the Freedman’s Hospital and Asylum in Washington. Maria continued to teach even as she worked at the hospital caring for patients.

Finally, in 1878, a year before her death, congress passed a law granting pensions to widows of veterans of the War of 1812. (Big of them, wasn’t it? How many widows could there be sixty-six years after the end of the war?) Anyway, this money enabled Maria to publish a second edition of “Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart”. It also included new sections, an autobiographical essay and an introduction calling for an end to tyranny and oppression of underprivileged peoples.

Maria died in 1879 at the Freedman’s Hospital at the age of 76. There was an obituary in The People’s Acvocate, giving this recognition to Maria Stewart: “Few, very few know of the remarkable career of this woman whose life has just drawn to a close. For half a century she was engaged in the work of elevating her race by lectures, teaching, and various missionary and benevolent labors.” Maria was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Washington on December 17, 1879—50 years to the day after her husband’s death.
(Continued in Part II, next week.)




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