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. Continue reading →