Low social status = high spiritual power: the power of the poor, black, female holiness evangelist among white holiness folk

You can see other posts on this blog for biographical information about Amanda Berry Smith, the well-known post-Civil War holiness evangelist. At noon today I’ll be down at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis to talk to the Twin Cities Emergent Cohort about Smith and the holiness movement’s treatment of racism and other social ills. During my graduate years at Duke University, I took a course with scholar of African-American history Laurie Maffly-Kipp and wrote a paper that asked why Smith was so successful in white campmeeting holiness circles.

The paper is much too long to post here, but here is a section that gets to the heart of some interesting gender and race attitudes that shaped the largely middle-class white devotees of the late 19th-century holiness movement (which started and retained its greatest strength within white Methodist churches, but spread well beyond this, to Christians of many denominations, black as well as white). I think an understanding of these attitudes as they impacted Smith’s life is important for evangelicals–especially but not exclusively those in the holiness and Pentecostal movements. The “gender essentialism” and “romantic racialism” examined here are still very much in play.


How did [Amanda Berry] Smith operate in white circles?

Victorian gender essentialism

Smoothing [Amanda Berry] Smith’s integration and eventual success in white holiness circles were a pair of intrinsic advantages she possessed by virtue of her status as a black woman. The first of these had to do with the essentialist views of womanhood prominent in the white America of her time. “The dominant thought of the age embraced an essentialist understanding of gender; it ascribed to womanhood a feminine essence that was virtuous, patient, gentle, and compassionate, while it described manhood as rational, aggressive, forceful, and just. Unlike man, woman was considered naturally religious, bound by greater emotionalism, and with a greater capacity to sympathize and forgive.”[i]

Victorian gender-essentialism made women peculiarly able to represent certain aspects of “holiness” religion: its commitment to relationality, affectivity, subordinate union with Christ, absolute dependence on God for everyday matters, and so forth. As Higginbotham notes, this essential feminine spirituality was most closely associated with the maternal role. Not surprisingly, then, a number of key nineteenth-century female holiness leaders were mothers manqué, whose children had died young, freeing them to “expand the circle” of their maternal attentions to the church at large. Phoebe Palmer, Amanda Berry Smith, Maria Woodworth-Etter…all lost most or all of their children before entering upon their public ministries. And all played expertly upon the notions of feminine essence current at the time, presenting to their audiences a curious but compelling combination of maternal authority and feminine susceptibility to the influence of the Spirit. The feminine hand that rocked the cradle of evangelicalism—went the argument—was in turn nurtured by the Spirit, in intimate and emotional ways not usually avowed (if experienced) by men of the time. This appears to be true for Smith and Truth[ii] no less than for the whites Phoebe Palmer and Maria Woodworth-Etter.

Nor was this association something that sprang forth in the nineteenth century. It was not Victorian essentialism alone that brought feminine spirituality to the fore in the holiness movement. In fact, we may suspect that the causality ran in reverse—that developments in 17th- and 18th-c. evangelical spirituality contributed to the apotheosis of the Victorian woman. Consider Charles Edward White’s observation that “extra-biblical mysticism” seems to have been accepted as the peculiar preserve of women (rather than men) in early Methodism. He speaks of “a line of benign mysticism running through female Methodism, while the males contract a malignant strain,” and connects this tradition to the holiness movement: “Phoebe Palmer is in that line of female spirituality which runs through Hester Rogers, Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, and Lady Maxwell.[iii]

Holiness feminism

However, holiness religion also supported the ministry of women in ways that ran counter to Victorian gender essentialism. Included in holiness folks’ radical reordering of earthly priorities towards Godly goals was a presumption that a woman belonged to God first, and to her husband (if she was married) only second.[iv] Thus such holiness and Pentecostal ministers as Maria Woodworth-Etter, Aimee Semple McPherson, Amanda Berry Smith, and many other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century holiness preachers found themselves supported by their peers where their Christian callings butted up against their spousal responsibilities. Smith laced her autobiography with frustrated asides about the barriers placed in the way of her religious vocation by her second husband, James Smith. These are phrased in a subdued but defiant manner, and their presence in the account bespeaks her confidence that her holiness constituency will accept her preeminent dedication to ministry. In short, the holiness movement brought a large number of women to the fore of ministry, borne upon an ideological tide of equal-opportunity spiritual empowerment and radical obedience to God,[v] in uneasy alliance with notions of gender essentialism.

Both gender essentialism and feminism seem, however, to have been much more prominent in the white than the black holiness movements. Unlike such white holiness groups as the Salvation Army (within which over 50% of ordained ministers were and are female), there remained prevalent in the black religious establishment a strong aversion to allowing women to take on preaching roles. “‘Preaching is the most masculine aspect of black religious ritual’ and ‘preaching remains overwhelmingly a form of male discourse.’“[vi] Of course the black church heritage included the likes of Julia Foote, Zilpha Elaw, and Jarena Lee, but subjectively speaking black women seem to have been proportionately less prominent in black holiness—both in number and in influence—than the likes of Phoebe Palmer, Martha Inskip, Hannah Whitall Smith, and Mary Boardman.

This is not to say that Smith was barred from preaching in black churches. At the outset of her early years ministering in A.M.E. churches in Brooklyn and other new York locales, her pastor “found a way to preserve the order of the church, while he at the same time loosed Sister Smith and let her go. He gave her a letter of recommendation to any pastor who would be willing to accept her services. She speedily found more calls for service than she was able to fill, and had little use for the recommendation given her.”[vii]

Once she had begun to move in white circles, however, her role was often more prominent. “In 1876 Anna Oliver, a young pastor of a Methodist Episcopal church in Passaic, New Jersey, invited Smith to help build the membership of her floundering congregation,”[viii] apparently with some success. In Liberia, too, she was able to preach formally under the auspices of the MEC. On the other hand, at the General Conference of the A.M.E. church in Nashville, Smith found herself ignored or opposed “as a woman preacher, which was to be dreaded by the majority, especially the upper ten [percent].”[ix]

Romantic racialism

Clearly by the time Amanda Berry Smith sat down in 1893 to write her autobiography, she had made a deep impact on white holiness leaders. In her preface she related the usual formulas the pressure put on her by friends—most white—to write down her life. Included among these friends was the co-founder of the National Camp meeting Association for the Promotion of Christian Holiness, Methodist minister John S. Inskip, a powerful figure indeed in the white holiness networks. Inskip was influential in the white Methodist Episcopal Church, and quite possibly responsible, with his holiness brethren in that denomination, for securing for Smith denominational support for her twelve years of missionary work abroad. It is in the portrayals of Smith penned by such white contemporaries as these that we begin to glimpse another resource available to Smith in the white holiness movement­—one even more powerful than gender essentialism or Spirit-empowered feminism.

Take for example MEC Bishop J. M. Thoburn’s introduction to Smith’s autobiography:

“I saw the colored sister…kneeling in an upright position, with her hands spread out and her face all aglow. She had suddenly broken out with a triumphant song, and while I was startled by the change in the order of the meeting, I was at once absorbed with interest in the song and the singer. Something like a hallowed glow seemed to rest upon the dark face before me, and I felt in a second that she was possessed of a rare degree of spiritual power.”[x]

Here we find a clue to the extraordinary support Smith and other black women received from white religious leaders. We see it too in the writing of William Taylor, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church for Africa, with whom Smith worked in Africa. Taylor told in his memoirs of a March, 1887 surf-boat trip in Liberian river country, on which Smith “and her companion, Sister Fletcher” accompanied Taylor, his two interpreters, and seven Kroomen sailors. Upon reaching the mouth of the Cavalla River, the party encountered a “dreaded” sandbar. Taylor and his crew were shaken: “It seemed impossible for us to get over it, but probable that we would get under its fearful surf.” In this frightening situation, Taylor took special note of Smith’s response: “Amanda could not bear to see the recoil of the river current and the swell of the Atlantic Ocean, and so buried her face and hands in her lap; but I knew she would hold on hard to God, and we all believed in the power of Amanda’s prayers.”[xi] In Thoburn’s and Taylor’s accounts, weakness and spiritual power are mysteriously combined in the person of a black female.

What we are seeing here are traces of what George Frederickson has termed “romantic racialism.”

“During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, both blacks and whites subscribed to theories of innate characteristics and behaviorism that captured the soul of each race. Within the human family, so romantic racialists theorized, black people embodied an essence that was musical, emotional, meek, and religious. In contrast, the white race was perceived to be intellectual, pragmatic, competitive, and with a disposition to dominate.”[xii]

Nowhere do we find this attitude more effusively espoused than in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s redemptive (and highly influential) portrayal of Uncle Tom, and of slaves in general. Here blacks as an aggregate attained redemptive, even messianic status, owing to their “natural religiosity,” tenderness, and sympathy: “The negro is naturally more impressible to religious sentiment than the white,” wrote Stowe.(259) When Tom’s agnostic but feminine-souled master, St. Clare, asked him “How do you know there’s any Christ, Tom? You never saw the Lord,” Tom answered,

“Felt Him in my soul, Mas’r,—feel Him now! O, Mas’r, when I was sold from my old woman and the children, I was just a’most broke up.…and then the good Lord, he stood by me, and he says, ‘Fear not, Tom;’ and he brings light and joy into a poor feller’s soul,—makes all peace; and I’s so happy, and loves everybody, and feels willin’ jest to be the Lord’s.…I know it could n’t come from me, cause I’s a poor, complainin’ cretur; it comes from the Lord; and I know He ‘s willin’ to do for Mas’r.”[xiii]

Stowe continued, “Tom spoke with fast-running tears and choking voice. St. Clare leaned his head on his shoulder, and wrung the hard, faithful, black hand.” (336) Upon hearing Tom pray, at his request, “St. Clare felt himself borne, on the tide of his faith and feeling, almost to the gates of…heaven.…” (337)

The romantic race-image upon which all of this is based is made clear by Stowe towards the end of the book: “Of all races of the earth, none have received the Gospel with such eager docility as the African. The principle of reliance and unquestioning faith, which is its foundation, is more a native element in this race than any other.”[xiv] The implication which remained to be drawn, and which many did draw, was that by getting closer to this more primitive, gentler, nobler race, one might be restored to the true, primitive New Testament religion, threatened by all the trappings of modern society. Certainly, if this was only latent in Stowe, it had blossomed by the inception of the National Camp meeting Association for the Promotion of Christian Holiness in 1867, under Methodist ministers John S. Inskip, John Allen Wood, George Hughes, Bishop Matthew Simpson and others, into an evangelical (or at least holiness) article of faith. The association sought to reach back to the vibrant, pure affections of early Methodism (romantically conceived), through the highly-charged and interracial environment of the camp meeting—held not coincidentally in the primitive woodland glades of God’s pure and natural countryside.

Stowe’s book everywhere rang with this yearning for affective redemption, and everywhere tied it to contact with blacks. Though a Congregationalist-cum-Presbyterian in the mold of her father, Lyman Beecher, Stowe was also, like her father (though more unequivocally), influenced by the heated revivalist spirituality made famous by the “new revivalist” of New York’s burned-over district, Charles Grandison Finney, and communicated to the Reformed wing of the American holiness movement through Finney’s “Oberlin theology.”

To summarize and simplify, in the Victorian America of Charles Grandison Finney and his radical evangelical heirs, the old Calvinist anthropology magnified to a painful degree the baneful, sinful, humanly destructive character of much of the “enterprise” which was beginning to define the American landscape. Thus evangelicals in the marketplace found themselves simultaneously fascinated with and afraid of the potentiality of human creativity and self-willing. Finney, among other “new divinity” evangelists, sought to break through this inner conflict, with (among other techniques) a set of emotional experiences that would “license” forthright action. Finney anchored this defense against the charges that his evangelistic methods were based on a too-human assertiveness by identifying the involuntary emotions so typical of revival conversions with the work of the Holy Spirit.[xv]

Naturally then, those considered “more susceptible” to emotion could, by relating certain experiences, lay special claim to the ownership of a divinized will, and achieve a credibility not available to white males, who as Higginbotham has said were considered to possess an essentially sinful “disposition to dominate.” Finney himself—no shrinking violet—was lampooned by querulous Calvinists as “Mr. Bold,” and responded in his memoirs with tales not only of his own emotional susceptibility to the moving of the Spirit, but of “strong men broken down” in the uncontrollable throes of Spirit-born emotion during his revival meetings. Thus we read the colorful tales of “Jowles, a man of strong nerves and of considerable prominence…[who] fell, and seemed as if he was in a fit. He writhed in agony for a few moments, and groaned with deep feeling; but afterwards became still, and nearly motionless, but entirely helpless”; and “Buck…a stalwart man, very muscular, a man of great force of will and strength of nerve, and physically a proud specimen of humanity,” who, having been “torn to pieces” by Finney’s evening sermon, “went home in a terrible state of mind, his convictions and distress increasing till it overcame his bodily strength; and his family feared that he would die.”[xvi]

Of course, the icon of yielded divine usability in Finney’s day was Stowe’s Little Eva, a figure important to evangelicals, as Anne Douglas has said, “not for what she does, not even for what she is, but for what she does and is to us.…”[xvii] The feminine figures, infantile figures, and feminized, infantilized African-American figures beloved by holiness believers acted as visible demonstrations of God’s power overcoming and operating in a human being—in short, possession. Divine immediatism operated as the lingua franca of pietistic evangelicals, and what better demonstration could one ask that a person’s actions were “of God” than that that person was of a class considered to exert less native power or “self-will” themselves: a woman, a child, or an African American? Such symbolic identifiers served the particularly powerful function of shifting the attention of the audience from the will (and willfulness) of the “vessel” to that of God Himself, and thus of valorizing (indeed divinizing) the speech and actions of the subject so identified. Since the line was fine between acceptable evangelical forcefulness and execrable self-will, any symbolic or rhetorical device which could weigh in the scales of a holiness evangelist’s identity on the side of passivity, receptiveness, yielding, and “usability” as a channel of God’s power was eagerly exploited. This symbolic value of “lowly” status in the holiness ethos of yieldedness goes a long way, I am convinced, towards explaining the high percentage of women ministering in holiness and early Pentecostal groups—it is not coincidental that the most influential holiness figure of Smith’s day, Hannah Whitall Smith, was not only a woman but a Quaker.

Early roots of romantic racialism and its tie with gender essentialism in Methodism

This lifting of powerless groups (women and blacks) to special spiritual status had been with American Methodists since their movement’s first years. Donald G. Mathews speaks of “the difference between those of low estate and high in conveying the grace of God,” in early Methodism. From the beginning, the camp meeting created a new kind of social reality in which “women and Africans came from restricted groups reserved for their own gender or kind into shared space where they created a new bonded sensibility that transcended difference even as it relied upon that same difference to establish the authenticity of divine action.” To penetrate the roots of this phenomenon, says Mathews, is to “call…attention to something that every historian of Methodism knows but which few have actually discussed.…the way in which religious responses by persons of low, marginal, or ambiguous social rank in meeting conveyed to the rest of the assembly the love, salvation, perfection, and grace of God.…” And more explicitly: “Asbury was frequently affected by the response of people whom he considered powerless—weak according to the rules of the world: Africans, women, the poor in spirit.”[xviii]

“Gender was a means of reminding Asbury of the spiritual power of the “weak” [in structural terms]; that is, gender and marginal status were fused in the world; gender and status remained in worship but were transformed as a means of grace through concessions made by the powerful [Asbury] to those who acted as ritual persons when they expressed the spirit. Methodism—at least in movement—thrived on this symbolic inversion.”[xix]

“In worldly society, poverty and weakness were deplored, yet the logic that demanded this attitude was confounded by the power of God, for those who were poor and weak in the world were rich and strong in the spirit. Such liminal people were the means of grace within the sacred precincts of worship. Those who embodied poverty and weakness according to the logic of the world—blacks and women—therefore, were important to achieving communitas in worship with whites and men.”[xx]

The magnetism of African communality for whites

The ingredience in white “romantic racialism” of a high regard for the intensive communality of African-American religion was developed by Lawrence Levine. Levine put his finger on “the presence of a compelling communal ethos at slave religious meetings,” and went on to elaborate its effect on whites “which threatened continually to transform white observers of black services into participants.”[xxi] For the next few pages, Levine detailed that impact of the black “communal ethos” on white observers. One such account records the reaction of a white woman, Elizabeth Kilham, and her party, who witnessed freedmen at worship shortly after the Civil War. “As they stamped, groaned, shouted, clapped, shrieked, and sobbed, the black congregation embroidered chorus after chorus of an ‘utterly indescribable, almost unearthly’ spiritual.” Then,

“’A fog seemed to fill the church,’ Miss Kilham wrote, ‘an invisible power seemed to hold us in its iron grasp; the excitement was working upon us also,…a few moments more, and I think we should have shrieked in unison with the crowd.’ Pushing their way through the worshippers, she and the other whites rushed outdoors and inhaled the evening air, but the mood was not broken easily: ‘More than one of the party leaned against the wall, and burst into hysterical tears; even strong men were shaken, and stood trembling and exhausted.’”[xxii]

Levine added:

“In 1868 John Mason Brown listened to the freedmen sing a slave revival song filled with the imagery of the Apocalypse and commented: ‘The effect can hardly be overstated.…Such a chorus, sung with the energy of a people of simple and literal faith and strong and inflammable emotions, has often quickened the pulse and set aglow the heart of those whose social position or philosophy made them ashamed to acknowledge the effect.’” [xxiii]

All of this is quite consistent with Donald Mathews’s observation that the early Methodist “quarterly meeting,” after which the holiness camp meeting would be modeled, contained elements very much at odds with the structure and hierarchy characteristic of Methodist conference polity. “In such meetings, conference meant not jurisdiction, order, or plan but receptivity to the Spirit in love; it meant bonding people across lines that would separate them in the world beyond worship and preaching.”[xxiv]

In short, by the end of the nineteenth century the evangelical ethos of yielded will and raised affections had resurged from its roots in early Methodism, made its way through Wesleyan and Oberlin conduits alike, and found its chief repository in the holiness movement. Not surprisingly then, Stowe’s romantic reverence for the “natural” meekness and emotionality not only of golden-haired maidens but also of African Americans also coursed through that movement’s veins.


[i]Evelyn Higginbotham, “The Feminist Theology of the Black Baptist Church,” Religion and American Culture, ed. David G. Hackett (New York: Routledge, 1995), 353.


[ii]In one case, before a hostile group of hecklers (in an otherwise respectful white audience) who accused her of being a man impersonating a woman, Truth bared her breasts while humiliating them with an account of her own past maternal care of white as well as black infants.

[iii]Charles Edward White, “What the Holy Spirit Can and Cannot Do: The Ambiguities of Phoebe Palmer’s Theology of Experience,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 20:1 (Spring, 1985), 116.

[iv]In this way holiness women represented a tradition of independent female spirituality running back not just to early Methodism, but to medieval mysticism, represented by such women as Margery Kempe.

[v]Lucille Sider Dayton and Donald W. Dayton, “‘Your Daughters Shall Prophesy’: Feminism in the Holiness Movement,” Methodist History XIV:2 (January, 1976), 66-92.

[vi]Nancy A. Hardesty and Adrienne Israel, “Amanda Berry Smith: A ‘Downright, Outright Christian,’“ Spirituality and Social Rresponsibility: Vocational Vision of Women in the United Methodist Tradition, ed. by Rosemary Skinner Keller (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 65.

[vii]Marshall W. Taylor, The Life, Travels, Labours, and Helpers of Mrs. Amanda Smith (Cincinnati: Cranston & Stowe, 1886), 26-7, cited in Hardesty and Israel, “Amanda Berry Smith,” 66.

[viii]Hardesty and Israel, 66.

[ix]Smith, Autobiography, 199.

[x]J. M. Thoburn, “Introduction,” An Autobiography: The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith the Colored Evangelist, v.

[xi]William Taylor, Story of My Life, edited by John Clark Ridpath, “with Engravings and Sketches by Frank Beard” (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1896), 717.

[xii]Higginbotham, “Feminist Theology,” 357-8.

[xiii]Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 335-6.

[xiv]Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 336, 337, 436.

[xv]Charles Grandison Finney, The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney: The Complete Restored Text, ed. Garth Rosell and Richard Dupuis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 190-1, 195, 196.

[xvi]Finney, Memoirs, 235, 271.

[xvii]Anne Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977), 3.

[xviii]Donald G. Mathews, “Francis Asbury in Conference: Women and the Spirit,” unpublished paper, 1, 4, 13.

[xix]Mathews, “Francis Asbury,” 21, my emphasis.

[xx]Mathews, “Francis Asbury,” 22.

[xxi]Lawrence W. Levine, Black culture and black consciousness: Afro-American folk thought from slavery to freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 27.

[xxii]Levine, Black Culture, 28, my emphasis.

[xxiii]Levine, Black Culture, 28, my emphasis.

[xxiv]Mathews, “Francis Asbury,” 3.

2 responses to “Low social status = high spiritual power: the power of the poor, black, female holiness evangelist among white holiness folk

  1. I can’t get over how the most amazing/unexpected topics turn up on blogs – – although of course that’s the whole point.

    I first bought Amanda Smith’s book so many years ago at my late friend Bill French’s University Place Book Shop in NYC.

    For your bibliog., she’s also in my reference work, Black Women and Religion (G.K. Hall).

    • G.K., thanks for coming on and sharing my pleasure in Amanda Berry Smith. She is just one of the neatest people in American history. I remember discovering her while I was doing my grad work and just being bowled over by her “voice”: so blunt and down-to-earth, tactful and compassionate at the same time, and so attuned to the spiritual “. . . and then the devil said to me . . . and then I said to the devil . . . but then the Lord said . . .” I will look up your book.

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