Poor, black, and female: Amanda Berry Smith preached holiness in the teeth of racism

What follows is this week’s talk in the series I am doing at Messiah Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN, on people from my book Patron Saints for Postmoderns who model aspects of social justice:

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Christian revival kindled on the American frontier, drawing new strength through camp meetings and circuit riders. By the mid-1800s, however, the Victorian era was in full swing, and evangelical churches founded in the white heat of frontier enthusiasm were building lavish faux-gothic facades and enjoying the refined preaching of educated, citified ministers.

In reaction, many Victorian Americans yearned to experience again the fiery devotion of their parents and grandparents. Out of this impulse to recapture the old-time religion emerged the single most influential American religious movement of the nineteenth and possibly the twentieth century: the holiness movement.

We may have a hazy image of holiness folk as holy-rollers: a bunch of experience-seekers content to revel in the presence and power of their Lord. The truth is far different. The holiness believers’ pursuit of a “higher Christian life” led them onward into a dynamic practice of social holiness. As the late Dr. Timothy Smith argued some 50 years ago in his book Revivalism and Social Reform, the holiness movement was in fact the seedbed of the “social gospel” in America—a new, Christian grounding for social justice.

Holiness believers among the Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Quakers, and many other churches—as well as new holiness denominations such as the Salvation Army and the Free Methodists—preached, certainly, and thousands were converted. But more than this, they established urban missions—and inner-city churches—to provide for the physical as well as the spiritual needs of America’s most destitute. They fought the many social ills that kept the poor in the cycle of poverty. And they established a new urban structure of social ministry that still thrives today.

Today’s “patron saint for postmoderns,” Amanda Berry Smith, was one of these holiness people.

Smith’s life was complicated from the very beginning by race. Born Amanda Berry in Long Green, Maryland (just north of Baltimore), on January 23, 1837, on a dairy farm. At her birth, she and all of her family were enslaved. She was to be the oldest of 13 children, only five of whom would be born in slavery.

Slavery in the upper South was sometimes of a less harsh variety than that in the Deep South. In the upper South, there were fewer blacks in a larger population of whites. Instead of gigantic plantations with hundreds of slaves picking cotton, the upper South’s economy was based on smaller farms growing crops like tobacco, which required fewer slaves and allowed for much more interaction between the races. These relationships also tended to be more personal. Smith attended the Presbyterian Church with her masters and described herself as “spoiled” by them—they gave her delicacies, but as she later realized, “they were getting me ready for market, but I didn’t know it.” [Mendiola, 22; find citation in Autobio] While still enslaved, Smith’s father, Sam, worked for other farmers in the area after hours to earn the money that would eventually free his family. But after he had earned his freedom, these farmers were ready, on at least one occasion, to make him a slave again over the fact that he had broken a discriminatory travel law.

Praying together across the color line

Despite the obvious barriers, Amanda, like many Southern blacks, experienced a certain degree of racial mutuality and even a sort of spiritual equality in biracial church settings. She often heard, growing up, the story of how her mother, Mariam, had been instrumental in the conversion and Christian life of her white “mistress” (that is, her master’s daughter), Celie. As the girl grew up, Mariam had prayed for Miss Celie’s conversion. When Celie was in fact converted, at an “old-fashioned, red-hot Camp Meeting,” her “staunch Presbyterian” family deeply disapproved, and ordered her not to return to the “hollerin’” Methodists. Mariam supported Celie during this time, meeting with the girl in secret, in an old dairy, praying and singing with her. Soon, however, Celie fell ill. On her deathbed, the girl first requested that Mariam sing, and then demanded of her family that Mariam and her children, be released to the children’s father. This the family later did.

Upon their emancipation, Amanda’s family moved North to Pennsylvania. There they worked tirelessly on the so-called “underground railroad,” with the knowledge and help of their white landlord, John Lowe, helping escaped slaves reach safety in the North. And Amanda continued to experience the spiritual crossing of racial boundaries. Her own initial “trip to the altar,” though she did not call it her conversion, took place at the age of thirteen, in a white Methodist church in Pennsylvania. The person who led Amanda forward was a white girl, Mary Bloser. Smith reminisced: “she came to me, a poor colored girl sitting away back by the door, and with entreaties and tears, which I really felt, she asked me to go forward. I was the only colored girl there, but I went. She knelt beside me with her arm around me and prayed for me. O, how she prayed!”[1]

As a young woman Smith continued to spend much time in a multiracial (largely white) setting: her mother and family “arranged to keep a boarding house during the camp meeting time.” She associated those times with food, friends, warmth, and bustle. “It was white people’s camp meeting,” she recounted, “but colored people went as well.”[2] Despite all of the well-documented use of Bible and church by ruling whites in the slave South as tools with which to control the black population, still, many pre-Civil War blacks received their salvation, sanctification, and Christian nurture as did Smith, in largely white church and camp meeting settings.

Yet, on the other hand, in the period of reconstruction, racist attitudes persisted even in those integrated settings. Smith related numerous stories of such prejudice, and admitted she especially struggled to accept the reality of “full sanctification” (on which, more in a moment) against evidence of racism even in supposedly sanctified folk. For example, in the months after her first commitment to Jesus at thirteen, she attended a largely white Bible study. There, the leader made it a rule to speak to all the whites before getting to her—no matter in what place Amanda sat in the order. This meant that Amanda was kept late from her duties to the white household in which she was working at the time. Finally, her employer demanded she give up on this religious exercise or lose her job. Needing the money, Smith left the Bible study, and she soon drifted away from the church altogether.

Northern whites’ antislavery sentiments were also at times as much politically motivated as born of real compassion and a sense of equality of blacks with whites. Many whites who fought against slavery felt the final solution to the issue was to send all the Africans back to their native lands—never mind that they had worked to improve huge swathes of American land by the sweat of their brow, and had put down roots in this country—into which many had in fact been born, never having seen Africa in their lives!

In ways like these, Smith’s experiences continued to teach her that although whites could sometimes be genuinely solicitous and helpful, their underlying motivations were often tainted by racism. And although she was later able to overcome these early experiences and form true friendships with whites, she often had to do so in the face of lingering racism. Not surprisingly, even as she went on to a ministry career in white circles, she would always feel the black community was her true home.

Saved amidst the storm

As Amanda grew into womanhood, she faced many trials. She was married to two difficult husbands—the first one spent much of his time drunk, and finally went away to join the Union army and never returned, and the second one lied about wanting to become a minister so he could convince her to marry him, then spent much of his time arguing with her, and finally died of stomach cancer. She also bore five children, of which only one, her daughter Mazie, survived into adulthood. Her second husband died early, and she lived the remainder of her life as a single mother.

In 1856, after the birth of her first child, and a year after she had had a near-death experience in which she envisioned herself preaching at a campmeeting, Amanda was converted while struggling in prayer in the basement of a Quaker family for whom she was working. Her response was immediate and characteristic: “Hallelujah!” she cried out, “I have got religion; glory to God, I have got religion!” She soon joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in York, Pennsylvania. Though she would spend much of her ministering life in other settings, she retained membership in the AME until her death.

When she moved with her husband James to New York City, so he could take a hotel job, Smith began a stretch of domestic work. New York had once been a land of opportunity for blacks, but by the time James and Amanda moved there, opportunities were dwindling, race riots had erupted, whites were accusing black workers of being scabs and union-busters, and many jobs that had traditionally been held by blacks (for example, barber, caterer), were now being taken by European, immigrants such as the Irish.

In 1866, as Amanda and James were struggling to make ends meet in this setting, they were evicted from their rooms and were forced to spend time in the public Colored Home. From there Smith—now separated from James—moved to a damp basement apartment, advertised as furnished, from which her landlord began swiftly to remove all the furniture. In those conditions, her new baby, a boy, sickened and died.

Though James was sporadically helping with her rent, in order to keep going financially Smith began to take in others’ washing. Sometimes she worked twenty-four hours at a stretch, stopping only to lean occasionally on the windowsill. Soon, too, she was pregnant again, but with no hope in sight for an improvement in her living conditions.

The holiness experience

It was at this point that Smith, having heard holiness preaching in various settings, began to seek entire sanctification. This was a teaching forged in the 1700s by John Wesley, out of his reading of Scripture. It was revived in the 1820s and 30s by teachers such as Methodist laywoman Phoebe Palmer. The central experience of entire sanctification meant two things for holiness believers. Entire sanctification or ‘Spirit baptism’ in the holiness movement could be thought of as a sort of ‘negative’ event—that is, an event that removed something from a person; sin. But holiness folk spent a lot more time talking about sanctification as a ‘positive’ event. For holiness folk, entire sanctification meant recapturing the ‘first love’ of your conversion, and reorienting and stabilizing your affections towards God.

This was the experience for which Smith began to yearn. Entire sanctification had been considered the special emphasis of Methodism in its early years both in England and America. However, times were changing. From the 1840s on, Methodists seeking holiness began to charge that many of their denomination’s churches were becoming too wealthy and spiritually sluggish to preach the doctrine. In fact, by Smith’s day, two major “come-outer” churches had already separated from the main body of Methodism over the issue (the Wesleyan Church and the Free Methodist Church). And as white Methodism had gone, so too black Methodism. American Protestants on both sides of the color line seemed bent more on respectability and comfort than on spiritual growth. And the holiness movement, including Smith as one of its key spokespeople, brought the message of a loving, active God who waited like the father of the prodigal son to take his children in his arms, cleanse them of their sins, and give them the inheritance that was rightfully theirs.

This is all very well, but what about the obvious barrier that Smith faced as a poor black woman in a holiness movement that was, in these early decades, overwhelmingly middle-class and white, and that only grudgingly gave women a place of leadership—despite the fact that its most famous and influential leader was a woman, Phoebe Palmer? The answer to this question is that even then, before she experienced it, Smith saw the experience of sanctification as a balm for the heart-wounds of racism. She wrote,

“[My] hunger [for sanctification] went on, and when I read, ‘Rejoice when men persecute you,’ I felt that was not my experience; there was a feeling of retaliation. And when they spoke about me and blamed me, I wanted to justify myself instead of leaving it all with God. Then I read, ‘This is the will of God, even your sanctification.”


Then at last, in 1868, Smith received the desired experience, while visiting the church of the white Methodist holiness leader John Inskip. Inskip had just co-founded the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness. This was a rapidly growing organization whose annual summer camp meetings had already begun to draw thousands of seekers.

Campmeeting ministry

Smith later said that once she was in the service, she felt Inskip was “preaching right to me.” And she began to feel the Holy Spirit working in her, like waves rolling over her. “‘The vacuum in my soul began to fill up; it was like a pleasant draught of cool water,’” she wrote. Three times this sensation welled up in her, and three times she felt like shouting right there in the service. But “just as I went to say ‘Glory to Jesus!’ the Devil said, ‘Look, look at the white people, mind, they will put you out,’ and I put my hands up to my mouth and held still, and…I felt the Spirit leave me and pass away.”

When Smith at last gathered the courage to shout, however, “Brother Inskip answered, ‘Amen, Glory to God.’” Then, upon leaving the church, one of her first thoughts was, “O,…if there was a platform around the world I would be willing to get on it and walk and tell everybody of this sanctifying power of God!”[3] This was clearly a turning point. Up until now, she had worked for whites as a washerwoman, and had often been mistreated by white landlords and neighbors. She testified, “I always had a fear of white people—that is, I was not afraid of them in the sense of doing me harm, or anything of that kind—but a kind of fear because they were white, and were there, and I was black and was here!”

But now, standing on the street outside of Inskip’s church, with his “Amen” ringing in her ears, she heard other words, seeming to come from the northeast corner of the church, slowly, but clearly: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And as she looked at the crowd of white people leaving the church—the people she had always been afraid of, “they looked so small. The great mountain had become a mole-hill. ‘Therefore, if the Son shall make you free, then are you free, indeed.’ All praise to my victorious Christ!”

“A tall black woman in Quaker dress”

Despite this triumphant experience, Smith went on after her sanctification to struggle in a number of white holiness services where she wanted to raise her hand or speak out but felt social pressure not to do so in front of the whites. It took her some time and a great deal of courage, but increasingly she was able to break through and to minister, first in black and even white churches, and then at the holiness camp meetings that were spreading all over the country under Inskip’s leadership. At those meetings she was a commanding presence—nearly six feet tall, dark brown skin, deep contralto voice, and a disarming smile. When she spoke, it was with humor, picturesque illustrations, and clear, biblical presentation of her message.

We get a sense of the impression she left on so many of the thousands who attended these camp meetings from the white Methodist bishop James Thoburn, who in his introduction to Smith’s Autobiography recalled the first time he had seen her, at a camp meeting in the mid-1870s. Kneeling near her at a prayer meeting, on a rainy night after a relatively unsuccessful day at the camp, Thoburn was sinking under the general mood of discouragement. Suddenly, he was startled by the sound of singing. “I lifted my head, and at a short distance . . . 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. . . . 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.”

“Grace to be a gazing-stock”

As a barrier-crosser, Smith would need every ounce of that spiritual power. Her first experience as a featured camp meeting speaker would be at the Kennebunk, Maine camp meeting in 1871. When she arrived at Kennebunk, Smith found herself followed by crowds of curiosity-seeking whites. . “The people followed me about,” she later remembered, “and just stared at me. Sometimes I would slip into a tent away from them. Then I would see them peep in, and if they saw me they would say, ‘Oh! Here is the colored woman. Look!’” Then they would rush to see her. Upset to the point of wanting to leave, Smith had to pray herself through: “I told the Lord how mean I felt because the people had looked at me. I prayed, ‘Help me to throw off that mean feeling, and give me grace to be a gazing stock.’” Sure enough, by the end of her prayer, the Lord had dealt with her feelings and allowed her to be comfortable in that setting. It was such a huge relief, “I laughed, and cried, and shouted.”

Locked out of leadership within her own denomination, which wanted no part of having women serve as ordained ministers, frequently snubbed among both blacks and whites for her relative poverty and plain dress, Smith would become the only black and the only woman member (that is, leader) of the National Camp Meeting Association. From that position, she continued her ministry for years within the largely white setting of the holiness campmeeting circuit, singing, exhorting, testifying, and leading meetings.

Eventually she became so well known that opportunities opened to her to travel abroad and minister in England, India, and Africa. This she did for several years, before returning home to found an orphanage and “industrial school” for abandoned children in Chicago.


And then, in her mature years, she settled down to write her Autobiography. This book, which she sold in support of her perpetually near-insolvent orphanage (like many powerful evangelists before and since, she was no administrator!), exemplifies Smith’s unique ministry.

I want to end with a few words about, and from, her autobiography, because it exemplifies Smith’s unique ministry. She not only preached, both from pulpits and in her book, about the born-again, sanctified, experiential faith of the holiness movement. She also spoke frankly and directly to her reading audience as well as her live audiences about the realities of racism in postbellum America.

For example, she recorded in her book a conversation with a white lady who asked her one day if all blacks wanted to be white. Smith replied that she had only wanted to be white once in her life, at a white Methodist church meeting in Lancaster, Pa., where she got stirred up and felt like shouting, but was conscious that she would open herself to criticism should she do so. She concluded her story about this meeting by affirming the God-given dignity and nobility of her people, “No,” she wrote, “we who are the royal black are very well satisfied with His gift to us in this substantial color.” Then she concluded with another reminder to her largely white reading audience of the results of their racism, “I, for one, praise him for what He has given me,” she wrote, “although at times it is very inconvenient.”[4]

Sometimes her stories along these lines could be even more pointed. She related, for example, a time when she was asked bluntly by another white lady at the Ocean Grove, NJ, camp meeting whether, if she could be, she would rather be white than black. Answered Smith, “‘No, no,…as the Lord lives, I would rather be black and fully saved than to be white and not saved; I was bad enough, black as I am, and I would have been ten times worse if I had been white.’” Her interrogator proceeded to “roar laughing,” showing perhaps that she was aware of the foolishness of her own question.[5]

At times in her personal dealings with whites, and very often in her Autobiography, Smith used such moments to pierce her white audiences with an awareness of racism and its effects. Warm memories and positive relationships with whites notwithstanding, she ministered always in the face of prejudice, and she continued, even after her fame, to know the pain of racism. To those whites who remarked to her how well she was treated by all, Smith replied, “‘If you want to know and understand properly what Amanda Smith has to contend with, just turn black and go about as I do, and you will come to a different conclusion.’” Driving the point home, she concluded: “I think some people would understand the quintessence of sanctifying grace if they could be black about twenty-four hours.”

As one student of Smith’s life remarked, those white readers who bought her Autobiography in droves must have been more than a little discomfited by such reminders that the problem of racism still loomed in their own society—indeed their own churches! Though they were no doubt expecting something in the familiar genres of “ministerial biography, travel narrative and success story,” what they found was also “an unfamiliar story about what it meant to be black in America.” What a wonderful use of the genre of story this was, to challenge whites with their own presumptions about blacks—to show them the realities of the situation, from the perspective of a black person whom many of them were learning to trust and love as a spiritual leader.

Healing for racism

Where, then, did Amanda Berry Smith get the courage and strength to persist in talking about this painful subject? To the end of her evangelistic career, Smith taught that sanctification was the way out of the personal effects of racism, classism, and other corrosive prejudices, for both the perpetrators of prejudice, and their victims. Sanctification had taken away both her own fear of whites and her desire to be white. She had also seen it completely remove the racism of whites. One example of this was a man naed Jacob C. Jacob. He had seen Smith at the Kennebunk camp meeting and was overcome by feelings of prejudice against her. But in that holy setting, Jacob recognized his sin and retreated to the woods to pray about it. Smith rejoiced to tell her readers what happened next: “It was a wonderful meeting that afternoon. The first thing Jacob saw when he got up and stood on his feet, he said, was the colored woman standing on a bench with both hands up, singing ‘All I want is a little more faith in Jesus.’ And he said every bit of prejudice was gone, and the love of God was in his heart, and he thought I was just beautiful![6]

In Amanda Berry Smith we have someone who could easily have nursed resentment against those who throughout her life “put her down”—in her case, for her race, her class, and her gender. Having been treated poorly throughout her life, she could have descended into bitterness. But through, as she believed, the work of the Holy Spirit in her heart—her sanctification—Smith was able to transcend her anger. And Amanda Smith found her calling in working for the greater good of all people, including her oppressors, reaching out to them with a universal message. That message was the blessedness and irenic power of sanctification.

Did her message ultimately “heal all ills”? Not demonstrably, in any historical sense. We can’t point to American race relations after her life and say “her ministry changed everything.” But we have plenty of individual people’s testimony that her very presence, as a sort of barrier-crossing “exilic prophet,” worked a change in people—gave them a compelling vision, rooted in Christ, that promised the possibility of better ways of relating to each other.

And one may also say that she left a concrete legacy in the dynamic holiness movement that exploded across America and fed the even more explosive Pentecostal movement. Though of course this cannot be attributed to her influence alone, she was constantly mentioned in the white holiness newspapers as a key figure in the movement. Smith was clearly a special person, whose tenacity of vision and clarity of purpose led her to persevere through a life of suffering under the prejudices of other people, yet who poured back into the lives of her persecutors a worthy balm.

Was she naïve in thinking that people can change? It doesn’t seem so: on many occasions she communicated frankly, though tactfully, the brutality, small-mindedness, and deceptiveness of the human heart. Yet she also preached a better, higher way, which her oppressors could and should reach out for, because it had been made available by the grace of God.

I’d like us to think for the last few minutes of this time, about what this story of Amanda Berry Smith can teach us about the need for change in our churches and our society, and about what it takes to make real change. If we as a church are to address areas of need in the church and world—areas of what we call “social justice,”—then these are likely also to be areas where we feel the brunt of sin’s power to wound and to destroy lives. We don’t have the privilege of living above this reality. It’s all very well to talk about changing the world for Christ. It may be quite another thing to step into the arenas where God is actually calling us.

Addendum: a story

As we close, I want to give you just a small taste of Smith’s voice. In her autobiography, she tells of a sequence of events involving a New York stockbroker named Mr. Palmer (no relation to Phoebe Palmer), who was one of the many Christians to seek out Smith for her prayers and spiritual advice. Here’s how she tells it:

That night there was a Mr. Palmer there. He was a very nice man, and a very consistent Christian. When the meeting was over, these gentlemen went to put me on the Sixth avenue cars. He said, as we walked along, talking, “Sister Smith, for years I have been seeking the blessing of heart purity, and your testimony tonight helped me. But why is it I do not seem to get out into the full light? The Lord has blessed me,” he added, “and I have some means. I am a broker on Wall Street. But I have consecrated all to the Lord. And any time you need any help, you must just let me know.”

“Well, sir,” I said, “I never tell anybody but the Lord about my needs. He knows all, and I always tell Him to put it into the hearts of people to help me when I need it, and then I leave it.”

Now, somehow, I felt that the Lord wanted that brother to give me some money, for I did not have quite enough to go to Kennebunk. So I said good night, and got on the car and on I went. But I prayed all the way, and after I got home, that the Lord would trouble that man’s heart, for I felt that he was disobeying the Spirit, and that was one reason why he could not come out into the light of full salvation. You must not keep back the full price of loyal obedience to God, and yet expect Him to bless you. And yet how often do we find persons doing this very thing. Then they wonder why they do not get on. The Lord help someone who reads this to see the truth.

I felt somehow all the time that that man was the one that was to help me out. So next morning I got down and prayed again. And then I got up and began to get my things ready. I was doing some ironing. All at once I heard someone come running upstairs very quickly. When he got to the foot of the stairs he called out, “Sister Smith!”

“Yes,” I said. Who should it be but this very brother.

“I had an errand uptown this morning,” said he, “and I thought I would run in and see you.”

Now he had never been to my house before in his life. So I said, “The Lord sent him.” I said to him, “Sit down, Brother Palmer.” “Well,” he said, “I haven’t much time.”

But he did sit down a few minutes, and then he said, “I wanted to give you a little money.”

“Amen,” said I. “You might as well have done it last night. That’s what the Lord told you to do.”

“Well, yes,” he said.

It was just enough, with what I had, to get me a round trip ticket to Kennebunk Camp Meeting. Praise the Lord!

Then we got down on our knees and prayed. I said, “Now brother, you might just as well settle this thing. The Lord is willing to bless you. Why don’t you let him? Why not be obedient now? The Lord can do it now if you will just trust Him.”

So while kneeling it came to me to sing a verse or two of that old hymn of Charles Wesley’s:

“Come, O, Thou traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold but cannot see.
My company before is gone,
Am I am left alone with Thee,” etc.

After singing I said to him, “Now, Brother Palmer, pray and let go.”

So he did. My! How he prayed! The Lord broke him all down. He got blessed while he was praying. I prayed a little and then I sang the next verse:

“In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold;
Thou art the man that died for me,
The secret of Thy love unfold.
Thy mercies never shall remove,
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.”

Then the blessed Spirit fell upon him, and he launched out into light and liberty. Oh! How he praised the Lord. What a morning that was in that little attic room on Amity Street.

And, indeed, what a ministry this “washerwoman evangelist” had in the service of her Lord. And how winningly she tells it in her Autobiography, which is well worth the read and in fact is now available online. I can share the web address with you if you ask me. [http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/smitham/smith.html.]

[1]Smith, Autobiography, 27-8.

[2]Smith, Autobiography, 32-3.

[3]Smith, Autobiography, 79.

[4]Smith, Autobiography, 117.

[5]Smith, Autobiography, 118, my emphasis.

[6]Smith, Autobiography, 184-5.

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