The month of February is Black History Month, a time when we intentionally consider often overlooked and minimized perspectives from Black Americans. During this month, FUMC Pastoral Posts will focus each week on stories from Black Methodist History. We hope these little writings will inspire you in your faith and encourage you to take a deeper look into the experience of our Black Methodists brothers and sisters!
Amanda Berry Smith was born into slavery in Maryland, and when she was young, her father bought their freedom and moved their family to Pennsylvania. She was raised near a Quaker abolitionist community, but was denied a formal education because of her race. Her mother and father taught her to read and write at home. As a teenager, she worked as a washerwoman, and was employed in the homes of wealthy white families. Her early personal life was wrought with struggle and tragedy. She married her first husband at the age of 17, and after they married, she discovered he had an affiliation for strong drink. When the Civil War began, he left to fight for the Union Army, and never returned. She was left to raise her daughter, Mazie, alone. She moved to Philadelphia, and met her second husband. He told her he was a local preacher and was ordained in The African Methodist Episcopal Church. Yet, when she attended the conference and heard the appointments read, she did not hear her new husband’s name. He lied to her so as to impress her and win her hand in marriage. They later lived separately and were estranged. She gave birth to 4 sons during this time. All of them died in their infancy.
Amanda Berry Smith was world renown for her revivalist preaching, even though she wouldn’t have ever called it that. During her lifetime, African American women were not permitted to preach, and were not eligible for ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church, or the AME Zion church. Richard Allen denounced women speaking in church. Yet, Amanda had a calling and a word from the Lord. She heard God whispering to her to speak and to preach the word to the people.
She was a deeply spiritual woman, and was a member of the holiness movement. Following her conversion to the faith at a young age, she was described to be in conversation with God constantly. She was a striking presence. She was almost 6 feet tall, had a powerful contralto singing voice, and expounded upon passages of scripture with great passion. She lived a life on the road as a traveling evangelist. Although she never sought ordination, or became an official member of any church, she frequented Methodist camp meetings and revivals. She inspired the masses with the story of her faith journey. Churches all over the world sought her out as a speaker for their services. During her lifetime, she traveled across the northern states of the US, England, Scotland, India, and several countries in Africa. She never had the support of any religious institution. She survived by God’s provision, and through the benevolence of the communities where she shared her faith and God’s word.
Amanda Berry Smith was particularly unique in that she preached and led revivals in all white Methodist churches, multiracial Methodist churches, and the AME Zion churches. She collaborated with whomever the Holy Spirit guided her to, and did not distinguish the Gospel as being bound to any race or denomination. Although she faced adversity through racial tensions, prejudice, racism, and gender exclusion from the official pulpit, she continued her faithfulness to serve God with a depth of scriptural holiness that was unmatched. She was an inspiration to many, and led to countless women answering their call to preach and teach the gospel. In 1876, a young white pastor, Anna Oliver, invited her to help revive her dying Methodist Episcopal congregation in New Jersey. Amanda went, and together they preached revivals side by side, and rocked that congregation, and the church grew.
Although I find her entire 47-year ministry life incredibly inspiring, her comments on prejudice and racism are especially so. She was repeatedly asked her thoughts on her social standing as a black woman. She was even asked if she wished she had been born white. She responded by saying that the cure for racism is in the sanctifying power of God. Although, she did say that “some people don’t get enough of the blessing to take prejudice out of them, even after they are sanctified.” She told stories of how white people had been “cured” of their prejudice by the power of the Lord. This is one of those stories from her autobiography, from a camp meeting revival:
“The Lord cured old brother Jacob C., of prejudice. He had come to the meeting seeking the blessing, and whenever an invitation was given, he would go forward and kneel. But then the black woman would be in every meeting; would sing, or pray, or testify. He could not get on. Finally, he gained the victory while praying alone in the woods. The first thing he saw when he came into the afternoon meeting 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 she was just beautiful.”
Do we believe the cure for racism lies in the sanctifying power of God? It seems to me that the breaking down of racial barriers happens when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with one another, hear each other’s story, open ourselves up to friendship, worship alongside one another, and remain open to receiving the Holy Spirit. I’m thankful for pioneers in the faith, like Amanda Berry Smith, for showing us the way and reminding us to remain hopeful in the transforming power of God.