Silent on Slavery

Female preachers’ relationship to the question of slavery

Zilpha Elaw, a Black female preacher, did not refrain from speaking on the issue of slavery, even as she proclaimed that another preacher, “a coloured brother and a slave,” had “an undue anxiety for his freedom.”1 As a Black woman born to free parents, this assessment may feel harsh, but Elaw went on to condemn slavery, and stated that “Certainly, freedom is preferable to bondage,” and relayed her belief that the man’s death soon after was God releasing him from slavery. 2 “In the Slave States of America,” as Elaw termed it, “slavery, in every case, save those of parental government, criminal punishment, or the self-protecting detentions of justifiable war, if such can happen, involves a wrong, the deepest in wickedness of any.”3

Elaw’s condemnation of slavery, even as she quoted the Bible and stated one should “be uncensored about [slavery], unless an opportunity arrived of their attaining freedom,” aligned with her travels into the southern states. In Virginia, she did not shy away from speaking out against slavery, even as slaveholders sat in congregations she visited. Elaw was an itinerant preacher, traveling around the country, and later England, and she found her calling to spread God’s word, even when she faced dangerous people and laws. She never shied away from racial issues, instead entangling them with her theology. As a Black woman, she could not, and would not, avoid the issue of slavery in the United States, refusing to separate it from religion.

Figure 1. The cover of  Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels, and Labours of Mrs. Elaw, edited by Kimberly Blockett, and showing an illustrative portrait of Elaw.

Unlike Elaw, white female preachers often avoided the issue of slavery and negated race in their ministries. Though many of the white women who preached were from the northern states, where gradual emancipation had curtailed the immediate presence of slavery, other northerners spoke out in favor of abolition, and some women even became public figures of the anti-slavery movement. In some ways, there could have been an overlap of white women abolitionists and female preachers, as both sought to create a place for women to speak publicly and claim authority, but their intentions veered. White female preachers claimed religious authority and the right to preach in front of men, but their radicalness often ended there. As Catherine Brekus noted, “female preachers had been too conservative to be remembered by women’s rights activists, but too radical to be remembered by evangelicals.”4 Though white female preachers worked together, traveling with one another and aiding others in getting appointments to preach, their network did not stretch to include abolitionists, even though their networks were similar.

White women who preached did not have to have to grapple with racial issues and simply chose not to. For women like Nancy Towle, a Primitive Baptist preacher from New Hampshire, race occupied little of her memoir and potentially little space in her mind. She mentioned ministering to people of color exactly once, and never discussed racial issues including slavery. Though Towle lived and ministered mostly in New England and abroad, her regional attachments did not preclude her from being exposed to slavery.

Towle and other white female preachers avoided the issue of slavery, choosing to stay silent on the divisive issue. Their silence on slavery could have been for a multitude of reasons, some overlapping. White women who actively preached faced opposition from many, including male clergy in institutionalized denominations, male authors who spoke against them in the press, and even women who believed they went beyond their prescribed sphere. Some white female preachers may have decided that speaking out on racial issues would harm their successful, though precarious, ministries. White female preachers could have believed that the issue was not related to religion and conversion – something Black women such as Jarena Lee and Julia Foote disagreed with – and thought it best not to publicly espouse opinions. Finally, they simply may not have cared. Removed from the immediate effects of slavery, women such as Nancy Towle may have agreed with slavery, or disagreed with it in principle, but not enough to fight for abolition in practicality. Either way, their silence spoke volumes regarding their concern about racial issues: they were not. By refusing to make slavery and Black issues part of their ministry, white female preachers sided with white supremacy, regardless if their personal feelings were different. 

The implication of white female preachers’ silence meant that they implicitly sided with white supremacy. By avoiding the issue, they sided with the oppressor. Without entangling racial issues into their theology, white female preachers focused on supernatural and spiritual concerns instead of present-day issues. Black female preachers, and even broader, Black religious laborers, entangled present issues into their ministry and theology. Their religious calling included advocating for social change. Black female preachers often worked in distinctly Black churches, but also frequently visited and preached in churches that had mixed congregations. Black female preachers wrote of those who donated to their ministry and often had to rely on charity to clothe and feed themselves, let alone itinerate. These white benefactors who helped Lee and other Black religious laborers, therefore, believed in the spirituality of Black people and the true calling of these women. Beyond worrying about the conversion of all souls, those who supported Black ministry inherently supported the religious authority of Black preachers. Specifically, by advocating for Black female preachers, white supporters argued that women could preach, and Black people could be true Christians.

  1.  Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels, and Labours of Mrs. Elaw, edited by Kimberly Blockett, (West Virginia University, 2021), 49. ↩︎
  2.  Memoirs, 49. ↩︎
  3.  Memoirs, 49. ↩︎
  4.  Catherine Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 7. ↩︎

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