Free Methodist founder B.T. Roberts felt strongly that the antebellum Methodist Episcopal Church had forgotten the vision of John Wesley. Thus, it is not surprising that the early Free Methodist publications, including Roberts own magazine The Earnest Christian, strongly resembled Wesley’s Arminian Magazine. In fact, Methodist conversion narratives changed little from the time of Wesley in the 18th century to the narratives of Suggs and Ray in the early 20th century. In the 18th century preachers would receive letters from individuals they had converted and these letters were often published to encourage conversion and the faithful (Hindmarsh, 2008). The rise of denominational publishing houses, such as the Free Methodist publishing house, at the turn of the 20th century allowed for denominational writings, tracts and books to be distributed widely to promote the church’s mission.
Yet, while many early Methodist narratives and the narratives of Ray and Suggs illustrate a dialectical tension that still exists in the Methodist tradition – a tension between a populist movement that appeals to the average citizen and a desire to remain apart from the world. Both Suggs and Ray’s narratives illustrate this tension as they are a part of their community; yet strongly oppose the drunkenness they see in the urban poor during their lifetimes. In addition to the rhetorical tension of being “in the world, but not of the world,” the traditional Methodist narrative focuses on the individual nature of conversion, the knowledge that one’s sins had been forgiven and a burden to share one’s faith with the world (Hindmarsh, 2008). Charismatic joy and a desire for entire sanctification are also prevalent themes that appear in Suggs and Ray’s narratives. In particular Ray’s narrative focuses on the importance of entire sanctification, which serves as a message from God that her urban ministry and temperance work is God-ordained. Entire sanctification was an important tenant of conversion in Wesley’s day, but had fallen out of favor in the Methodist Episcopal Denomination in the U.S. Methodist offshoots, such as the Free Methodist denomination, which had a stronger emphasis on personal conversion experience and a connection to the revivalist movement of the Second Great Awakening (Snyder, 2006), supported the belief that entire sanctification was possible. Hempton (2006) defines it as:
A second conversion experience, after acknowledgement of sin and accepting the Christian faith and practice the Christian would continue to fill a void that had to do with their still sinful nature. Called “Christian perfection” entire sanctification rested on the notion of a direct communion with God and the ability to move beyond our sinful state while on earth to a more perfect communion with God until we fulfilled our ministry on earth and went to heaven to be with him (p.253-254).
This belief in direct communion with God is central to the narratives of Ray and Suggs who create a rhetorical argument that God has placed them in certain locations and given them specific roles to help share the gospel. Thus, taking a thematic look at Ray’s autobiography Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed and Suggs’ Shadows and Sunshine will illustrate how the Wesleyan conversion narrative is rhetorically constructed in their stories and also provide an overview of the larger African-American in the post-structural period after the Civil War and the U.S. temperance movement.
Conversion Narratives as Prophetic Rhetoric
Furthermore, it is the very conventional nature of these narratives that makes them so powerful as instruments of social change. In exhibiting this pattern, these narratives appropriate a readily available and particularly Wesleyan language of protest and empowerment in order to reach a largely white audience. In the language of post-colonialism, they appropriate the language of the oppressor to draw attention to social issues (like racism and alcoholism) that are largely a result of oppression. Of course just because these narratives are conventional and do utilize the language of the oppressive, does not mean that are not useful. Instead, Suggs and Ray appropriated these readily available genres as a means to relate their own personal experience in a way that would be better understood by the broader Free Methodist community. It was precisely by using these conventions that hope to move the issues of the margins to the cultural center and promote social action and change.
Narratives of Emma Ray and Eliza Suggs
While both Emma Ray and Eliza Suggs were Free Methodist African-American women at the turn of the 20th century, there stories are not identical. Both begin their personal narratives with family stories about their oppression and abuse in slavery. Yet, while both women address slavery they do not specifically blame the evils of slave holding on their white masters, instead focusing on larger social issues associated with slavery such as alcoholism, rape, and abuse, which are portrayed as elements of sinful human nature regardless of race. Thus, both women differentiate themselves from the white members of their denomination by their cultural heritage while at the same time resisting strong rhetorical claims of blame on the white audience they are appealing to through their autobiographies.
Eliza Suggs’ family history
Eliza Suggs’ father ran away and joined the Union Army during the Civil War. By the time the war ended he had established himself in the north as a blacksmith. He and his wife Malinda had four children prior to emancipation and four daughters more daughters were born after the end of the Civil War. Eliza, their youngest, suffered from rickets at a young age. Her growth was stunted at 33 inches and she relied on her family to help her push in around in a baby carriage for most of her life. Her bones were fragile, and while the disease was preventable, doctors were confused about how to diagnose her severe case, resulting in her short stature and weak bones. As Eliza notes in her autobiography, her disabilities did not hinder her father’s ministry or her own ministry as she grew older. Eliza often traveled with the family to camp meetings and notes she was a prolific writer for world missions and local reform issues.
Eliza was born in 1876 and two years prior to her birth, her father felt a call to ministry and left his profession as a blacksmith to become an ordained minister in the young Free Methodist Denomination. Eventually, in 1884, James Suggs was ordained as an elder in the West Kansas Conference by General Superintendent E. P. Hart. Suggs father, among the earliest of Free Methodist ministers, served as a living illustration of the denomination’s commitment to racial equality. While James Suggs as an African-American pastor was certainly the exception in a predominately white denomination, he is credited with founding Free Methodist churches in Kansas during the great westward migration after the Civil War.
James Suggs’ ministry led him first to Kansas in 1879 and then to Nebraska where his four youngest daughters could attend the Free Methodist Seminary in Orleans. The Free Methodist Orleans Seminary was a hot bed of temperance activism, and at the time of the family’s arrival in 1886 the seminary was engaged in a massive prohibition movement in their small community. The June 16, 1886, Free Methodist published a report from a C.M. Damon about the seminary students’ success in getting local businessmen to support the temperance movement. The report notes the success the students had in social reform with the mayor of Orleans promising $1,600 to build a new town hall and another $1,000 towards a local library the seminary would run. At this time, a local newspaper was also formed by the seminary called the Orleans Advocate, which was to be a “Small weekly devoted to general affairs and to education, morality and religion” (p.3). Suggs alludes to writing for area publications in her autobiography but never directly names the publications. So it could be inferred that as a seminary student she took an active role in writing regularly for the small newspaper. Suggs held very strong views on temperance and notes that the seminary often held lectures on the subject.
Due to her disabilities, Suggs’ narrative focuses on her family as whole and many of the traditional Wesleyan conversion conventions are seen in the stories she shares of her father’s conversion and call to ministry. She refers to her physical disabilities numerous times in her narrative to draw attention to how, through her illness, God protected her from many of the temptations other individuals had to face.
Emma Ray’s family history
Unlike Suggs’ family, Emma’s family did not move north immediately after the Civil War. Her family struggled to find housing, food, and employment as they stayed in the South after the war ended. Ray’s mother died in 1868 and left her father to care for nine children on his own. The children, including Ray, went to school when they could but due to economic necessity they were also hired out. Ray alludes to the racism of Southern whites as she worked for various families as a domestic servant throughout much of her childhood and teen years. Yet, she never directly accuses them of racism, just refers to harsh treatment by her first employer, a Southern white doctor. As a nine-year-old girl she would return home in the evenings begging not to be sent back to work for him. However, the economic situation of her family prevented her from quitting her job. By her teens she had become self-reliant and was a well-paid domestic worker.
Ray refers to the years prior to marriage as a time when she worked to buy herself nice clothes and wear her hair in the latest style. Even after her marriage to L.P. Ray in 1887, Ray still considered herself unsaved, despite, as a teenager, having worked for a devout Methodist woman who exposed her to the Methodist camp meetings and revivals. It was not until she and L.P. moved to Seattle that she felt she had a genuine conversion experience at a African Methodist Episcopal Church revival. While Ray’s conversion experience did not occur within the Free Methodist Denomination it still illustrates the tension between society and godly lifestyle that is prevalent in the Methodist conversion narrative. Ray herself notes that her conversion was seen as a coup for the community as she was known to hold and attend dances and her husband was a notorious alcoholic during this time. Soon after her conversion her husband was also convicted and converted. As L.P. notes in his chapter in Ray’s autobiography, his mother had wanted him to become a preacher, but he had ran away from that calling until the Lord caught up with him in Seattle.
Furthermore, both Emma and her husband believed strongly believed in and claimed to have experienced entire sanctification. For Emma, the experience of entire sanctification was viewed as a divine appointment to urban ministry. For the rest of her life she devoted her time to helping poor African-Americans as well as whites in the inner city. While her husband supported her in ministry and helped when he could, he worked steady manual labor jobs to provide them the financial support to continue their lay ministry. As part of their ministry Emma became active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and through the overlap of her personal urban ministry and involvement in the WCTU she encountered the Free Methodist denomination. This convergence of her firm belief in entire sanctification and the subsequent involvement with the temperance cause resulted in Ray ultimately joining the Free Methodists because she felt the denomination better reflected her spiritual and social concerns.
While Emma and Eliza approached their ministry and temperance involvement in different ways, their conversion narratives serve as strong rhetorical devices that unite their faith experiences with the experiences of their fellow, white Free Methodists. Eliza’s conversion narrative is lived vicariously through her father’s experience and Free Methodist ministry whereas Emma Ray’s focuses on entire sanctification and the importance of that experience to her call into ministry. After conversion, both women’s ministry and personal experience illustrate underlying racial tensions that are only alluded to in their autobiographies as they attempt to use the framework of the dominant social class to gain legitimacy and acceptance for their lives and ministries.
*Next post will illustrate how both Eliza and Emma constructed their conversion narratives*
Hempton, D. (1984). Methodism and Politics in British society 1750-1850. London: Hutchinson & Co.
Hempton, D. (2006). Methodism: An empire of the spirit. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hindmarsh, B. (2008). The evangelical conversion narrative: Spiritual autobiography in early England. New York: Oxford University Press.