Saturday, August 9, 2014

Forgotten Women in Church History: Amanda Smith

www.wheaton.edu
Amanda Smith (1837-1915) was an African-American evangelist and missionary of remarkable spiritual power, affiliated with the Wesleyan Holiness movement of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Amanda Smith's entire autobiography is available online here. She was born in Maryland to slave parents, but her father was enabled by his relatively kind masters to purchase the family's freedom.  Their new home in Pennsylvania became a station on the Underground Railroad.

Amanda's first husband was a Union soldier who was killed in the Civil War.  Her second husband was a deacon through whom she converted to Christianity. Four of her five children died before reaching adulthood; only one daughter, Mazie, survived.

Smith became active in the Holiness movement and followed Phoebe Palmer's doctrine of "entire sanctification," seeking a direct religious experience of God's love and grace.  She received this experience in 1868, accompanied by a beautiful revelation:
And when they sang these words, "Whose blood now cleanseth," O what a wave of glory swept over my soul! . . . I don't know just how I looked, but I felt so wonderfully strange, yet I felt glorious. One of the good official brethren at the door said, as I was passing out, "Well, auntie, how did you like that sermon?" but I could not speak; if I had, I should have shouted, but I simply nodded my head. Just as I put my foot on the top step I seemed to feel a hand, the touch of which I cannot describe. It seemed to press me gently on the top of my head, and I felt something part and roll down and cover me like a great cloak! I felt it distinctly; it was done in a moment, and O what a mighty peace and power took possession of me! I started up Green street. . . .

Somehow 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 that morning on Green street, as I stood on my feet trembling, I heard these words distinctly. They seemed 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.) I never understood that text before. But now the Holy Ghost had made it clear to me. And as I looked at white people that I had always seemed to be afraid of, now 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."
This brief article summarizes Smith's life after this experience:
Following her second husband's death in 1869, Smith began preaching in churches and at Holiness camp meetings in New York and New Jersey, becoming a popular speaker to both black and white audiences during the 1870s. Although she was not ordained or financially supported by the AME Church or any other organization, she became the first black woman to work as an international evangelist in 1878. She served for twelve years in England, Ireland, Scotland, India, and various African countries. 
In 1892, Amanda Smith returned to the United States and settled in Chicago where she continued preaching. In 1899, Smith opened a home for black orphans, later called the Amanda Smith Industrial School for Girls in Harvey, Illinois. She wrote a monthly newspaper, the Helper, which augmented her fundraising efforts for the school, and published her autobiography in 1893. She retired to Sebring, Florida in 1912, and died in March 1915.
Bishop J. M. Thoburn of India, wrote in his introduction to Amanda Smith's autobiography about his first encounter with her:
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.  That invisible something which we are accustomed to call power, and which is never possessed by any Christian believer except as one of the fruits of the indwelling Spirit of God, was hers in a marked degree. . . 
Her homely illustrations, her quaint expressions, her warmhearted appeals, all possess the supreme merit of being so many vehicles for conveying the living truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the hearts of those who are fortunate enough to hear her. . . 
The novelty of a colored woman from America, who had in her childhood been a slave, appearing before an audience in Calcutta, was sufficient to attract attention, but this alone would not account for the popularity which she enjoyed throughout her whole stay in our city. 
She was fiercely attacked by narrow minded persons in the daily papers, and elsewhere, but opposition only seemed to add to her power. 
During the seventeen years that I have lived in Calcutta, I have known many famous strangers to visit the city, some of whom attracted large audiences, but I have never known anyone who could draw and hold so large an audience as Mrs. Smith.
Like Jerena Lee before her, Amanda Smith felt the call to preach despite the African Methodist's church's general policy against it.  But she raised the money herself and began her preaching ministry independently, with remarkable results:
There was a large congregation. The gallery was full, and every part of the house was packed. I stood up trembling. The cold chills ran over me. My heart seemed to stand still. Oh, it was a night. But the Lord gave me great liberty in speaking. After I had talked a little while the cold chills stopped, my heart began to beat naturally and all fear was gone, and I seemed to lose sight of everybody and everything but my responsibility to God and my duty to the people. . .

[The next] Thursday night was the regular prayer meeting night. Brother Cooper said I was there, and would preach Thursday night. He was going to give me a chance to preach, and he wanted all the people to come out. . .

The church was packed and crowded. I began my talk from the chapter given, with great trembling. I had gone on but a little ways when I felt the spirit of the Lord come upon me mightily. Oh! how He helped me. My soul was free. . . [W]hen I asked for persons to come to the altar, it was filled in a little while from the gallery and all parts of the house.

A revival broke out, and spread for twenty miles around. Oh! what a time it was. It went from the colored people to the white people. Sometimes we would go into the church at seven o'clock in the evening. I could not preach. The whole lower floor would be covered with seekers— old men, young men, old women, young women, boys and girls. Oh! glory to God! How He put His seal on this first work to encourage my heart and establish my faith, that He indeed had chosen, and ordained and sent me.
Amanda went on to travel as an independent missionary for many years. The Women's Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary's article A Method for Empowering Women notes that "Smith’s preaching fueled the holiness revival begun by Palmer." Like Palmer, Amanda Smith was never formally ordained. But she believed that God Himself had ordained her-- and if "ordain" means "make someone a minister," it appears she was right.  In any event, from all appearances the Holy Spirit really didn't care what the church's policies were about women ministering to men, or black people calling for white people's repentance and conversion-- or what anyone thought of Smith's race or sex.

A 1989 Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy's article Empowered Foremothers speaks of the ministries of women like Phoebe Palmer, Jerena Lee and Amanda Smith:
The authority or command of the Holy Spirit superseded any command by mere man. The Biblical injunction of Acts 5:29 to obey God rather than man became the basis for Wesleyan/Holiness women to challenge the authority of those who attempted to prevent them from preaching. Employing this verse, Palmer explicitly challenged male ecclesiastical authority: "Where church order is at variance with divine order, it were better to obey God than man." . . .

Women asserted their autonomy as they claimed their allegiance to God rather than to men. The belief that women ultimately had to answer to God for their actions opened the way for women to challenge attempts to restrict their religious activities. A comment by the compiler of Phoebe Palmer's letters illustrates the implications of this conviction: "It is always right to obey the Holy Spirit's command, and if that is laid upon a woman to preach the Gospel, then it is right for her to do so. . . .
The Louisville Presbyterian article cited above expands on this by noting how such devotion to God can be empowering to women, particularly when personal religious experience is brought into play:
The opening for women’s leadership and the expression of women’s faith and gifts that Methodism provided arose from a theology that acknowledged the significance of personal experience as one avenue to knowledge of God’s will. By crediting experience, discernment, and a perception of the movement of the Holy Spirit in immediate circumstances, it became possible to weigh this evidence in balance with isolated texts of Scripture that seemed to prohibit women’s preaching or authoritative participation in church life, to come to new conclusions, and to challenge scholastic objections. These women’s practice then further generated persuasive experience of women’s callings in their listeners.
The fact is that the Bible has far more to say to women than the words in a few apparently restrictive texts.  The Bible reflects the callings of many women in texts like Romans 16, 1 Corinthians 1:11 and Philippians 4:2.  The Bible also points beyond itself to the personal empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all Christ's followers, as demonstrated by the pouring out of the Spirit "on all flesh," male and female alike, in Acts 2.

In Acts 15 the earliest church council yielded to the Holy Spirit's power released on Cornelius's household in Acts 10, as superseding the apparently clear Bible texts requiring circumcision for Gentile converts.  The Spirit's power on Amanda Smith to preach and lead evangelistic church services despite her sex, was apparently just as incontrovertible to most of those who witnessed it in her day.

Smith's final project on returning home from her missionary work, was to establish in 1899 the first orphanage for black children in Illinois, according to this excerpt from Illinois Heritage Magazine 1998:
When Amanda Smith decided to establish the orphanage after finishing her book, it is obvious that she had seen and known the effects of discrimination and was willing to discuss and deal with issues of what we would now call racist practices. Because of her multiple involvements in church and temperance organizations, she was no doubt well aware of both the growing discrimination and segregation in urban areas and also the needs of black children. . . It seemed clear in the face of continuing and growing discrimination that, not only in the South, but throughout the country, the mutual aid tradition within African American communities was necessary in caring for the elderly, the disabled and others in need, including orphans.
 Perhaps in this way Smith was comforted for the four babies she had birthed and lost before they could grow up.  But one thing is clear: she lived the faith she preached, caring for "the least of these" long after her preaching ministry was over.

Amanda Smith's life and ministry is not widely taught in Christian churches today.  Outside the Methodist tradition, I doubt that many Christians have even heard of her.   But her voice speaks to us from 121 years ago, reminding us that religious restrictions on the ministry of women have never been uniformly enforced in Christianity as a whole:
There were then [when she first felt God's call] but few of our ministers that were favorable to women's preaching or taking any part, I mean in a public way; but, thank God, there always were a few men that dared to stand by woman's liberty in this, if God called her. . . but it is different now. We have women deaconesses, and leaders, and women in all departments of church work. May God in mercy save us from the formalism of the day, and bring us back to the old time spirituality and power of the fathers and mothers. I often feel as I look over the past and compare it with the present, to say: "Lord, save, or we perish."
 When it comes to women in ministry, it seems to me that the movement of the Holy Spirit towards freedom and empowerment struggles constantly with traditional forces of restriction and control.  But in the end the Holy Spirit cannot be denied.  So I'll add my voice to Amanda Smith's from 1893, pleading for spirituality and power over formalism and restrictive rules:

"Lord, save, or we perish."

And in the end, save us He will.

4 comments:

Calulu said...

That was wonderful! Thanks for sharing as this is just the message my old cynical weary self needed to hear.

Clay Thomas said...

Kristen, I am a Presbyterian pastor in Chattanooga, TN. I am preparing for a class on the GA 221 of PC(USA). Specifically, I am focusing on history of interpretation of scripture. Hoping to grab some quotes from your 2012 "plain sense blog," and wanting to give you credit. Really appreciate your unique insights. If you are willing could you send your name to my email address (all I can find on blog is Kristen). claythomas@rivermontpc.org.

Kristen said...

I'm honored, Clay! Expect an e-mail from me!

kbonikowsky said...

Kristen,
I am teaching through missions and telling missionary stories this year in Awana. I've been looking for stories other than the traditional white men go to dark skinned places. This is perfect! Thanks for introducing me to Amanda Smith!
K