The Theology of Black Women Preachers in 19th-Century America
The voices of Black women have historically been silenced, especially in theological and religious contexts. Prophets rarely have platforms; faithfulness to oneself, one's community, and one's God does not often lead to prestige. Nineteenth-century Black women preachers Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote, and Sojourner Truth are not usually presented in systematic theology classes or texts and not often cited in sermons for their biblical interpretations, nor are they taught in church history courses.
They should be. These women present a liberating view of God and love for self and neighbor despite circumstances that would destroy them or relegate them and their ideas to the margins. As Elaw, Foote, and Truth preached, traveled, and ministered, they constructed a theology that affirmed their belovedness as Black women and enabled them to be both pastoral and prophetic. They modeled a way to do theology that wasfaithful to the biblical witness and Christian history, was pastorally attentive to their respective communities and themselves, and identified and challenged the evils of their day. They interpreted Scripture to show that God favored them and loved them, and their bodies, even when the world said otherwise. They recognized that in order to be pastoral, they must be prophetic, calling out structures of domination that would seek to harm. And as they preached a word of comfort to the oppressed, oppressors heard--and still hear--the judgment in their voices.
Kate Hanch conducts a careful reading of these 19th-century Black women preachers' narratives and their texts, both written and spoken, to make explicit their theology. At once a work of religious history, biography, and constructive theology, Storied Witness calls attention to the essential lived witness of Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote, and Sojourner Truth. By paying attention to their stories, we discover and honor both their theology and their role as theologians. Thanks to their witness, we are challenged by a theology that testifies to a liberating Christianity in defiance of the dominant culture around them and us.