Some Wild Visions: Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Evangelists in Nineteenth-Century America

By Elizabeth Elkin Grammer | Go to book overview

1
Breaking Up Housekeeping
Female Evangelists and Domestic Ideology

In my very Infancy, I had an awful regard for religion & a great love for religious people, particularly the Ministers, and sometimes wept with Sorrow, that I was not a boy that I might have been one.

Elizabeth Ashbridge, Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge

Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn't for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Ah didn't want to be used for a workox and a brood-sow and Ah didn't want mah daughter used dat way neither. … Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high, but they wasn't no pulpit for me.

Nanny, in Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last… for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. … Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place.

1 Corinthians 4:9–11

In 1855, having joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Amanda Berry experienced a remarkable vision: she saw herself preaching the gospel before a large crowd. It seemed an unlikely notion, and not only because female preachers were rare in the United States in the mid–nineteenth century. She was, for one thing, a backslidden Methodist who felt she had lost most of the grace she received upon conversion; she was also the wife of an irreligious man and the mother of his child—indeed, the vision came to her as she was recovering from childbirth. Her responsibilities to her family would seem to have had a prior claim over any call to go forth and preach. God, it seems, could hardly have chosen a less likely candidate.

But when her first husband, C. Devine, never returned from the Civil War, Berry saw the chance to effect a kind of compromise with God: instead of becoming a preacher, she would marry one—James Smith, a “local preacher” of the Bethel A. M. E. Church—achieving what many Protestant women in the nineteenth century thought of as their best opportunity to do God's work: “One reason for my marrying a second

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