Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Not by Man's Authority": Old Elizabeth (1766-1866)~Itinerant Preacher

The “Almighty…does not work by man’s authority,” declared Elizabeth when class leaders mocked the idea of God revealing things to her, a black woman. Old Elizabeth, born in Maryland to slave parents, traveled and preached in Canada and throughout the U.S. speaking to white and black audiences. She preached boldly and prophetically to free and slave in the antebellum south.  When God called Elizabeth to preach the Gospel, she immediately commenced the torturous road of walking in her vocation. As with many women of the Nineteenth Century, her first foray into public speaking was by offering community prayers.  She graduated to house-to-house ministry or exhorting (admonishing and encouraging).  And finally God’s Spirit compelled Elizabeth to move into full-fledged itinerant gospel preaching. And she "took a text.” 

The socio-historical context in which God called Elizabeth, like many of her peers, was hostile, to say the least, to women as public preachers.  Women’s place will still in the home.  In the face of God’s call, Elizabeth initially struggled with her own socialization that said women’s most important duty is to be a silent and submissive woman, wife and mother. Because Elizabeth was a product of her times,  her call journey provoked internal and external battles.  Many of the brothers and sisters expressed the opinion that God does not call women to preach.   But Elizabeth continued to step into her call marching into foreign and hostile territory.  While preaching to slaves in Virginia about the evils of slavery, the local authorities threatened to enslave her. They questioned Elizabeth’s authority to preach and her lack of ordination credentials. Elizabeth responded with her usual rejoinder, “not by the commission of men’s hands: if the Lord had ordained me, I needed nothing better.”

Imagine a barely literate, black woman striking out to preach from city to city, among blacks and whites, slave and free in the nineteenth century and later writing about it!  Yes, many black churches and denominations still deny that God calls women to preach the gospel and/or to function as pastors of churches.  But women like Old Elizabeth, Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and Julia Foote preached the good news wherever they could and among both hostile and friendly audiences. Sometimes God transformed hostile audiences into welcoming and attentive saints once they experienced the power of God’s Spirit moving and prophesying through these preaching women. But sometimes they remained unwavering in their opposition.

When God calls, God creates a path in the Red Seas of life; but God does not promise there will be no Pharaoh!  When God calls, God will introduce a widow with a little bread and oil to God’s prophet; but God does not promise there will be no famine.  When God calls, God will appoint a woman like Deborah as chief warrior-judge; but God does not promise she won’t have to go to war.  God calls and God enables against the challenges of oppression, famine, and war.

During this black history month, I am thankful for black foremothers who walked where I must walk; who preached with power and conviction even when the pulpit was denied to them; who did not let the ridicule, scoffing, and physical abuse of detractors distract them when they made up their minds to be, to do, and to say according to the power of God at work in them.  As my mother Flora Smith consistently admonished me, “Greater is he [God] that is within you Mitzi than he [or she] that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

“I know why the caged bird sings…the caged bird sings of freedom.” ~Maya Angelou

Note:  You can find a copy of Old Elizabeth’s Memoir of Old Elizabeth A Coloured Woman: Electronic Edition online. This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Philadelphia Quakers. An excerpt is also published in Marcia Y. Riggs’ Can I Get a Witness? Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women. An Anthology.

If you have not already done so register for the Women in Leadership Conference, March 30-April 2, 2011 at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, Michigan where Dr. Marsha Boyd is the President.  I’ll be presenting a seminar on leading like Jesus.  Other guest speakers include Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes of Yale Divinity School and Rev. Dr. Renita Weems. For more information go to: https://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/eventReg?llr=dgvs9zbab&oeidk=a07e34dm1zu83f6d0ca.  or visit the Women in Leadership Facebook page.


Celia said...

Living in a world that is predominately male this excerpt encouraged me to continue to what God not man has called me to do. Never give up because God has and continues to equip me with the tools needed to succeed. Thank you Dr. Smith. I look forward to more postings.

WomanistNTProf said...

You are welcome Celia. Yes, God does! It is comforting to know that of the many things that never change, one of those things is God's power to strengthen us.

Anonymous said...

We all have the spark of the divine that we all have the ability to listen to. But it was the personal courage of Old Elizabeth that made it possible for her to share
God's word in circumstances so difficult that are hard for us to imagine.