Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Word, like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Word, like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans

Article excerpt

Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans. By Valerie C. Cooper. Carter G. Woodson Institute Series. (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Pp. [xiv], 209. $39.50 ISBN 978-0-8139-3188-3.)

"What if you did the work of a theologian and no one noticed?" (p. 1). Valerie C. Cooper's Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans opens with this provocative question. Cooper examines the public life of the free African American woman Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879), who was a lecturer--to both men and women, black and white--an abolitionist, and an activist for women's rights. Stewart was the first African American woman to have her speeches published, in two editions (1835 and 1879) of her Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.

Cooper focuses on Stewart's religiosity, with Stewart "doing the work of a preacher in her proclamation of scripture [andj ... the work of a theologian in her interpretation of the same" (p. 12). Cooper describes Stewart as an evangelical, one using the Bible as authoritative source to argue in a performative mode. Stewart moved dialectically, between her experiences and the Word, in what Brian Blount calls "the interpersonal" method (p. 33). Cooper notes that this Second Great Awakening model created new social interactions and opportunities for Stewart. With this baseline Cooper, in chapter 1, does a close analytical reading of Stewart's "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality (which is reprinted in full), annotating biblical usage and theological formations.

The remainder of the book rests on this analysis. Cooper argues that, for African Americans, literacy was "proof of their humanity in the face of Enlightenment" racism (p. 92). "Doing" biblical theology, Stewart created countemarrative: manipulating "the words themselves" and their "semiotic webs" (p. 96). Speaking biblically, Stewart theologized transgressively, in an African American mode--but she simultaneously spoke the language of the oppressor in a potentially transformative way. …

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