Sunshine in My Soul: African-American Women’s contributions to Free Methodism

This is part one of a series based on the rhetorical contributions of two 19th through early 20th century women I have written about previously in the fall. Check out the website section on their poetry. This first article focuses on the importance of studying the lives of early African-American women and the subsequent sections will focus on their specific contributions to the temperance movement and work as lay leaders in the Free Methodist Church.

In the years prior to the Civil War the Methodist Episcopal (ME) was torn apart over the issue of slavery. Though the Methodist Church in England had opposed the practice from their inception and fought long and hard for its abolition, its American sister was vexed by the issue from its foundation.  Though the Methodist Episcopal Church, South split from the denomination in 1844, this failed to resolve the issue.  Complicated ownership issues of denominational property across the country’s north/south divide and the risk of financial loss were two of many reasons the Northern Church remained largely ambivalent about the issue.  This is largely due to the fact that, as the ME Church moved into a period of consolidation at the cultural center both before and after the Civil War its attitudes became largely informed by its increasingly middle class constituency and its desire for cultural cohesion and power

However, this attitude frustrated some Northern Methodist Episcopal clergymen including Benjamin Titus (B.T.) Roberts, who favored a populist ideology, abolitionism and urged the Methodist Episcopal Church to move outside its comfortable, bourgeois existence and return to the vision of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley. Methodism, contrary to the actions of the its 19th century American leaders, began as a populist, religious movement under Wesley’s leadership and Roberts wanted to see Methodism return to the vibrant spirituality that existed during the early days of the movement.

Robert’s vision of Methodism eventually got him expelled from the denomination in 1858, and a significant number of young northern lay leaders and clergy followed him in protest.  After the General Conference of 1860 refused to reinstate Roberts, this fledgling group organized the Free Methodist Church on August 23, 1860. Within this new denomination anyone regardless of gender, race or class was encouraged to join (Snyder, 2006).  This included African Americans and, though Free Methodism never attracted nearly as many black members as white, it was within the denomination that many African American’s found both voice and social empowerment.

Two such women were Eliza Suggs and Emma Ray, whose published autobiographies provide a glimpse into life in reconstruction era America and the great social issues of the day, including temperance and the earlier abolitionist movement. However, even more than providing a rich religious and national history, Suggs and Ray’s narratives are rhetorically significant, making strong statements against social, racial, and class issues of their time and serving as testimonials for the denomination. Both autobiographies focus strongly on the African-American experience they also follow a very traditional Wesleyan conversion narrative framework that makes their stories more rhetorically appealing to the largely white audience they were addressing.  In doing so both Suggs and Ray appropriate the largely white language of holiness and entire sanctification which the Free Methodist Church stressed in order to speak truth to power.  The conventions of struggle with and freedom from sin, along with social activism are utilized in their narratives to draw attention to social issues of special importance to the African American community – abolition, temperance, and poverty.  Thus, within Free Methodism, both Ray and Suggs found a space and a language through which to express themselves – a space that did not exist in society at large or traditional religious structures.

The rhetorical power and influence of 19th century women in the temperance and suffragist movements is being re-examined by rhetorical historians and feminist scholars. In particular, the study of religious conviction as means of personal empowerment and motivation for social change in for 19th century women is an area of research that is just beginning to gain attention. In the past, scholars have downplayed religious conviction as a motivation for starting the suffragist movement, instead arguing that by the late 19th century, the movements primarily focused on social reform and not religion. Yet, the involvement of Free Methodist women and in particular Ray and Suggs, illustrates otherwise.  In this light, the connections between faith and feminist action need to be re-examined by reassessing the role of religion in the personal narratives of early suffragists. It is important that rhetorical scholars begin to revisit the writings of late 19th century feminists to candidly examine and acknowledge the strong Christian faith that fueled these women’s quest for gender equality.

However, while movements like the abolitionist and temperance movements did pave the way for the women’s movements of the later 19th century, the contributions of African-American women to these movements has not been widely studied, partly due to the fact that so few narratives by African-American women exist. Thus, the rarity of having two such narratives within the Free Methodist denomination provide an incredible rhetorical research opportunity to examine connections in Ray’s and Suggs’ Free Methodist narratives and the larger social movements of the era.

African American Narratives and Social Change

Re-constructing the narratives of 19th century African-American women is a difficult process, due in large part to the lack of primary sources. In the Free Methodist denomination few primary sources besides Emma Ray’s autobiography Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed and Emma Suggs autobiography Shadows and Sunshine exist. This problem is not uncommon, as the writings of African-Americans received little attention until the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century (Rothenberg, 1992). Books, essays and poetry by African-American women did begin to increase in the nineteenth century as African-Americans began to use writing as a way to answer both the “race question and the woman question” (Foster, 1993). In addition to addressing social and racial issues of the time period, African-American writers often used a prophetic style to their writing, relying on poetry, spirituals and hymns to convey a sense of higher moral calling. As Riggs (1997) notes:

African-American women affirm a responsibility to admonish (analyze and instruct) the African-American community. Affirming this responsibility makes them vulnerable to isolation from the community; yet, abiding in the communion of Godself (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer), they have the courage to be prophets because they have taken to heart those words of Jesus whom they profess and proclaim (p.190).

Consequently narratives such as Rays and Suggs are written not just as social commentary but also as a personal testimony to the empowering nature of faith to reform the immorality they saw in their own race and country.  Both Ray and Suggs rely on poems they have written, spirituals they find powerful and quotes from Scripture to place their personal narratives in a larger context of prophetic social commentary. Additionally, their narratives serve as a bridge between African-American and white communities as both stress the unifying power of community action.

While Ray’s narrative illustrates the involvement of African-American women in the temperance movement, Suggs’ narrative illustrates the passion of late 19th century African-Americans for pursuing racial and gender equality through ministry. Suggs’ narrative continually refers back to the slavery of her parents and provides graphic stories of the torture of African-Americans by their white owners.  Yet, while Suggs narrative was published almost 20 years prior to Ray’s both women stress their passion for the temperance cause. Suggs focuses on written support of the movement whereas Ray focuses on social action through involvement with the Women Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In doing so, both autobiographies draw upon existing Wesleyan narrative conventions in order to directly challenge social orders that were especially oppressive to African Americans.

References:

Foster, F. (1993). Written by herself: Literary production by African-american women. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Riggs, M. (Ed.). Can I get a witness? Prophetic religious voices of African-american women an anthology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Rothenberg, P. (1992). Race, class and gender in the United States: An integrated study. St. New York: Martin Press

Snyder, H. (2006). Populist saints: B.T. and ellen roberts and the first free methodists. Grand

Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

 

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