Published on March 24th, 2018 | by Nicole Vear
Women’s History Month – The Black Woman As Minister, Preacher, Evangelist and the Owner of Her Purpose
African survivals that have battled to exist in America over time but have persevered, include Black women as spiritual leaders. The divine gifts of leadership of African women did not stay on the shores of the slave coast, but traveled with the women across the Atlantic. Black women as spiritual beings are a not foreign to American soil, but to accept their spirituality expressed in the form of leadership in America has historically required a paradigm shift. In the case of Southern Baptist Church of Harlem, in 2015 it ordained its first female minister in the church’s 90-year history. The idea of a woman in a position of spiritual command is still radical. We then must ask and answer; who’s more in tune than a woman concerned for her people, her community, a mother, grandmother, sister, aunt or cousin intent on the success of her family? Where ministry looks like many things, isn’t it worth exploring spiritual conduction by Black women?
The woman as a confirmed spiritual leader should make sense as she is a physical creator who understands the complexities of the souls who come through and to her. As varied as womanhood is, preaching the word, standing as a spiritual totem and administering religious instruction is intrinsic to being a woman in spiritual spaces. By no means is womanhood solely defined by these actions, but they speak to some of the ways women want to express their purposes and they speak to some of the waves rippled as a consequence of them setting precedents in the religious sphere.
Many of the first recorded Black women ministers in America wrote their own stories and the reason they are known about at all. They powered their stories by amplifying them in autobiographical literature and self written sermons. Women like Julia A.J. Foote, who wrote of her spiritual equality to men as well as racism and other social issues in her book A Brand Plucked from the Fire (1879), was the first woman to be ordained a deacon and the second to be ordained an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Ida B. Johnson, a Pentecostal-Holiness leader, was the founder, first senior Bishop and President of the Mount Sanai Holy Church of America, Inc. Others to note and whose lives are deserving of further research are Mary J. Small, Mary G. Evans, Rosa Edwards and Pauli Murray.
All these women received backlash from clergy, their husbands, congregations and family. Their stance on following their purpose was in their eyes birthed by them and God alone and was pegged as being in direct opposition to the order of men as sole leaders in the church. In his editorial, Kenyatta R. Gilbert a Howard University Professor, spoke of evangelist, pastor and suffragist Rev. Florence Spearing Randolph:
“She also spoke about gender discrimination. Randolph’s carefully crafted sermon in 1909 “Antipathy to Women Preachers,” for example, highlights several heroic women in the Bible. From her interpretation of their scriptural legacy, she argued that gender discrimination in Christian pulpits illustrated a misreading of scripture.”
To be led by the feminine is to be guided by the divine and to only represent the masculine in the pulpit presents a spiritual deficiency. Black women have historically been anchors in the church, making sure their families are in attendance, the intra-church clubs are organized, the soup kitchens are run and the food pantries are stocked, etc. For them to be defined to only these actions, stifles the full potential and healing of their churches and communities. It is something of note to include Black women’s historical roles in the creation of schools via churches during reconstruction and early 20th century and how that governance cultivated and steered education for countless communities.
It is apropos then, to look for pastoral leadership in not-so obvious arenas such as community advocacy, psychology, and wellness. Dr. Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist, professor and author who wrote Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, a 2013 Leadership Journal Book Award winner. Then there are women like Jacquelyn Grant who founded the Center for Black Women in Church and Society at the Interdenominational Theological Center in 1981, where she continues to serve as director and professor. Rev. Traci Blackmon, the first woman pastor in the 156-year history of Christ The King UCC in Florissant, MO where she gave full spiritual support on the front lines in Ferguson during the 2014 protests.
The lives and works of Black Women Preachers have been explored through literature in books such as Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word, 1823-1913 by Chanta M. Haywood, Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850-1979 by Bettye Collier-Thomas and Those Preachin’ Women : Sermons by Black Women Preachers (Volume 1) by Ella Pearson Mitchell. The lives of the Black women in theology, on the seminary road and in the forefront of changing oppressive conditions is seen and felt through every facet of the communities in which they reside. It is these reasons to celebrate their history and continuing legacy and to to make space for Black women to lead by divine design.