Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word, 1823-1913

Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word, 1823-1913

Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word, 1823-1913

Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word, 1823-1913

Synopsis

In nineteenth-century America, many black women left their homes, their husbands, and their children to spread the Word of God. Descendants of slaves or former "slave girls" themselves, they traveled all over the country, even abroad, preaching to audiences composed of various races, denominations, sexes, and classes, offering their own interpretations of the Bible. When they were denied the pulpit because of their sex, they preached in tents, bush clearings, meeting halls, private homes, and other spaces. They dealt with domestic ideologies that positioned them as subservient in the home, and with racist ideologies that positioned them as naturally inferior to whites. They also faced legalities restricting blacks socially and physically and the socioeconomic reality of often being part of a large body of unskilled laborers. Jarena Lee, Julia Foote, Maria Stewart, and Frances Gaudet were four women preachers who endured such hardships because of their religious convictions. Often quoting from the scripture, they insisted that they were indeed prophesying daughters whom God called upon to preach. Significantly, many of these women preachers wrote autobiographies in which they present images of assertive, progressive, pious women-steadfast and unmovable in their religious beliefs and bold in voicing their concerns about the moral standing of their race and society at large. Chanta M. Haywood examines these autobiographies to provide new insight into the nature of prophesying, offering an alternative approach to literature with strong religious imagery. She analyzes how these four women employed rhetorical and political devices in their narratives, using religious discourse to deconstruct race, class, and gender issues of the nineteenth century. By exploring how religious beliefs become an avenue for creating alternative ideologies, Prophesying Daughters will appeal to students and scholars of African American literature, women's studies, and religious studies.

Excerpt

When I first read Spiritual Narratives, a collection of autobiographies of nineteenth-century black religious women published by Oxford University Press in 1988 (part of the Schomberg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers), I experienced a dilemma. It stemmed from my dual religious upbringing in the South. My mother was a Baptist, my father was a Pentecostal minister, and I participated fully in both churches. Although trying to negotiate the distinct differences in doctrines and styles of both denominations made me experience a kind of religious schizophrenia, one common denominator presented no conflict: the churches' expectations of women. As a girl and young woman, I could sing in the choir, usher, teach Sunday school, and participate in youth ministries. It was not within my conceptional or actual reach, however, to even aspire to be a minister. My brother could, and he did, and he is a minister today. Any preaching impulses that I or other women may have thought we had either were suppressed by negative, abhorring commentary made about other women who were “calling themselves preaching, ” or they were rechanneled into acceptable “female” positions such as choir director or Sunday school teacher.

Thus, when I first read the autobiographical narratives of Jarena Lee, Maria Stewart, Julia Foote, and Frances Joseph Gaudet, my discomfort was overwhelming on several levels. First, these women were all professing to be specifically called by God to preach and spread His word. I had been taught that women do not belong in the pulpit—that a woman's place was in the pews. Even when women spoke at different events at either one of my churches, they delivered their messages from a podium placed on the side of the pulpit. Although this practice is slowly changing, rarely, when I was growing up, did women stand behind the actual pulpit. And here were these women saying—over a century ago—that . . .

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