The Suggs’ Family Conversion Narrative and Emma Ray’s Conversion

(Part of an ongoing series on the rhetorical narratives of two late nineteenth century and early twentieth century African-American Free Methodist Women)

The conversion of Eliza Suggs’ father

Suggs’ spent much of her life riding around in a baby carriage pushed by her sister Katie, who served as her caretaker, or another family member. So, while she had her own physical hardships to deal with, worldliness was not one of the vices she struggled with. Yet, Suggs realized this tension between things of the world and things of the spirit was an essential rhetorical device for her conversion narrative. As such, instead of focusing on her own struggles and temptations (a key component of the Wesleyan narrative), she describes her father’s struggle with choosing between a lucrative career as a blacksmith and a call to full time ministry. As Suggs notes:

He had a great struggle over his call to preach. He had worldly ambitions and was making money, and it was hard for him to give up all and follow Christ. Finally he consented to preach, but did not go at it with his whole heart. He would preach occasionally, but still worked at his blacksmithing, until one night the Lord spoke to him plainly. He said it was like an audible voice saying, ‘Either preach the Gospel or work at your trade.’ He was to make his choice, but it meant to him heaven or hell. Which would he take? He trembled as he felt the responsibility of leading lost souls to Christ. But he made his choice and said, ‘Yes,’ to God. He began preaching around in school houses. Large crowds gathered to hear him, and from that time on, it was the business of his life to minister Divine truth to dying men and women (p. 23-24).

Suggs goes on to describe how family life changed dramatically after her father’s conversion. He left his profession as a blacksmith and the family always struggled financially afterward. Eliza’s personal testimony focuses not on her own sins, but on the financial difficulties her family faced and the temptation to allow her to become part of the many freak shows common during this era as another source of income. Her small stature, child-like features, and race all would have made her family a great deal of money if they would have put her on display. Yet, as Suggs notes:

It has never been a temptation to me to want to go with a show or to be in a museum for money making purposes. I once went to a museum in Chicago just to see and learn. I was asked by one there why I did not speak to the manager and get a place in the museum, and make lots of money. Oh, no! Such places are not for me. God wants me to live for Him, and I could not do it there. I must keep separated from the world… The love of God in my heart keeps me from wanting to do the things that God disapproves and I love to do the things that He approves. Some wonder how I can be happy in my condition. It is the sunlight of God in my soul that makes me happy. It would be hard to live without the Lord (p.65-66).

Suggs uses her father’s conversion narrative and the temptation of financial profit from her disability as rhetorical techniques to draw sympathy from her audience. As Ray’s conversion narrative will also illustrate the Methodist framework of worldliness versus godliness is very much a dialectical tension both women use in their narratives.

Emma Ray’s Conversion and Entire Sanctification

Ray’s conversion occurred at a Methodist Episcopal Church revival in Seattle. Prior to conversion, Ray’s husband L.P. was a known drunkard and she was known for loving to dance and attend as many social functions as she could. Ray continually notes her struggle with worldly things such as fancy dress, liquor and dancing as hurdles she had to overcome prior to conversion. Like Suggs’ father’s conversion, Ray notes the struggle to give up her will to the will of God:

The preacher kept saying, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock.’ He kept rapping on the pulpit, and I felt as though a hammer was striking my heart and breaking it in pieces, and I wept all the more…. Then this young man who was talking to me spoke about his sister, and the thought of her sudden death flashed through my mind. I said, ‘Oh, I can’t be a Christian now and live with the devil. I will some day.’ A voice seemed to say, ‘This is your last opportunity to be saved.’ I could not sit any longer. I felt as though some unseen hand had taken hold of me, and before I knew it, I ran to the altar, fell on my knees and said, ‘Yes, Lord, have mercy on me and I will serve you all my life’ (p.41)

Through her conversion Emma was able to show L.P. the way to salvation and both soon experienced entire sanctification. The emotional nature of entire sanctification made it a controversial experience in some Methodists traditions, and both Emma and L.P felt their persistence in proclaiming they had experienced sanctification put a wedge between them and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Ray described entire sanctification as seeing “New beauties every time we opened it. We said to each other, ‘O, how precious is this new light!’ We never knew there were so many words about the Holy Spirit and its workings” (p.65).

This controversy with their fellow African Methodist Episcopal members led them to embrace Free Methodism. Free Methodism with its emphasis on camp meetings and revivals was more open the emotional, spiritual encounter with God that the belief in entire sanctification required (Snyder, 2006). The experience of entire sanctification was the driving force behind Ray’s commitment to the temperance movement and her ties with the Free Methodist denomination allowed her resources to pursue her ministry to the urban African-American poor and temperance reform.

In both Emma and Eliza’s conversion narrative there is a Wesleyan conventionality that does not fully allow their experiences as African-Americans to stand out. Both rely heavily on the traditional convert’s tensions between worldly temptations and spiritual calling to share their stories. Yet, the importance of the narratives cannot be overlooked. While the women do not directly address issues of racial tension and white supremacy during this time period, they subtly refer to it in their reflections on race and abolitionism and their experiences within the temperance movement.

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