A Call to Political and Social Activism: The Jeremiadic Discourse of Maria Miller Stewart, 1831-1833

By Harrell, Willie J., Jr. | Journal of International Women's Studies, May 2008 | Go to article overview

A Call to Political and Social Activism: The Jeremiadic Discourse of Maria Miller Stewart, 1831-1833


Harrell, Willie J., Jr., Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

This essay identifies the rhetorical strategies of Maria Miller Stewart's Boston anti-slavery discourse as jeremiads that connected her religious, moral, political and social lamentations of the American democratic system and called her audiences to aid in the desensitizing of slavery and America prejudice. When she attempted to establish a common ground, the aim of Stewart's jeremiads was to make her audiences conscious of the numerous social and political grievances within the African-American community.

Stewart's jeremiadic discourse called for the deterioration of American racism and sexism and provided an agency that constituted a form of resistance.

Keywords: African-American Jeremiad, American Jeremiad, Anti-Colonization Jeremiad, Black Women Jeremiah, Ethiopianist Rhetoric

Introduction

Why sit ye here and die? If we say we will go to a foreign land, the famine and the pestilence are there, and there we shall die. If we sit here, we shall die. Come let us plead our cause before the whites: if they save us alive, we shall live--and if they kill us, we shall but die...unless with united hearts and souls you make some mighty efforts to raise your sons and daughters from the horrible state of servitude and degradation in which they are placed. (Maria Miller Stewart, "Lecture Delivered at the Franklin Hall," 1832)

Anticipation surely filled the atmosphere as the attendees assembled at Boston's Franklin Hall No. 16, Friday, 21 September 1832 to discuss their anti-slavery concerns. Located on "Franklin Street," Franklin Hall was the "site of regular monthly meetings of the New England Anti-Slavery Society" (Richardson 45). Included in the roster of speakers was one of the first recognized African-American (2) women to deliver a public address. The lecturer, a native of Hartford, Connecticut who moved to Boston in the 1820s, knew that her radical discourse would be ill supported by American society and by some of her Bostonian associates. "I hope my friends," she previously revealed in October 1831, would "not scrutinize" her message "with too severe an eye" (Religion and the Pure Principles 28). At the onset of her Franklin Hall homily, however, the novice revealed that two years prior to delivering her speech she experienced an "encounter with divinity" (Bassard 3), which she felt had called her to come forth and articulate the "miserable existence" of her brethren to Boston audiences. The "spiritual interrogation" which she encountered posited: "'Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?'" Her heart compassionately replied: "'If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!'" Possessing, then, nothing but "moral capability--no teachings" but those of the "Holy Spirit," she answered the call to political and social activism. That evening at Franklin Hall, the speaker condemned America's so-called "democratic principles" that deprived Black women of education and prohibited their occupational advancement. Emotionally, she revealed to the audience the "condition" her sisters suffered in the North was "but little better than" that of "southern slavery." She announced White America had "long and so loudly proclaimed the theme of equal rights and privileges, that our souls have caught the flame also, ragged as we are" ("Franklin Hall" 45, 47). When she sermonized from the Boston's platform of abolitionism, Maria Miller Stewart (3) delivered her opines to both Black and White Bostonians during her short-lived career as a New England anti-slavery lecturer. Active in the sphere of Black Boston's social reformation from 1831 until 1833, her moralizing employed the rhetoric of the African-American jeremiad, a discourse that has undergone significant social, political, and intellectual changes since its initial conception and has demonstrated by its architects an astounding literary authority, one that the rhetoric itself mirrored and shaped. …

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