African American Women Interpreting the Bible in the Nineteenth Century
Phrases from the King James Bible are woven into African American women’s speeches, essays, and autobiographical narratives. Biblical language gave voice and meaning to their experiences, and, in turn, their lived experiences shaped their biblical interpretation. Women who felt called to preach identified with the reluctant Jonah, the persecuted Hebrew prophets, and the visionary John of Patmos. Sometimes, like their Euro-American counterparts, African American women invoked biblical female prophets such as Deborah, Huldah, and the daughters of Philip.
See Also: Retrieving the Voices of Women.
By Joy A. Schroeder
Bergener Professor of Theology and Religion
Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary
In the midst of a growing—even burgeoning—interest in the history of biblical interpretation (“reception history”), a number of scholars have recently made strong arguments for including women’s writings in the study of how scripture has been interpreted through the centuries. Marion Taylor and Heather Weir assert that historical women’s interpretive writings, which are often overlooked or forgotten, “contain lost exegetical traditions and insights” and “offer remarkable examples of gendered exegesis as women read the bible through the distinctive lens of their culture and gender identity.” In the midst of this work of retrieving historical women’s voices, a particular challenge is the inclusion of underrepresented groups, such as biblical interpretation by Jewish women and African American women.
There are multiple reasons why African American women’s voices are underrepresented. Women of color—past and present—have encountered significant barriers to fulfilling their aspirations for education, religious leadership, and writing for publication. Only a small proportion of nineteenth-century African American women’s interpretive work was preserved in writing. Yet, as projects such as the Schomburg Library of African American Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century demonstrate, a significant number of these women’s writings and oral histories are extant. These works are steeped in biblical language. Many of these authors extensively engaged in scriptural interpretation.
African American women’s writings have been studied for several decades in numerous literature and African American studies programs, but they have usually been overlooked by scholars engaged in biblical reception history. Fortunately, much new research on this topic is taking place. Examples include Mitzi Smith’s study of how Paul’s conversion narrative and letters were interpreted by Zilpha Elaw (b. 1790, fl. 1846) and Old Elizabeth (1766-1867); Emerson Powery’s research on the use of the Bible in the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897); Valerie Cooper’s book on the biblical interpretation of Maria W. Miller Stewart (1803-1879); and the presence of quotations from nineteenth-century women included in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary.
Phrases from the King James Bible are woven into African American women’s speeches, essays, and autobiographical narratives. Biblical language gave voice and meaning to their experiences, and, in turn, their lived experiences shaped their biblical interpretation. Women who felt called to preach identified with the reluctant Jonah, the persecuted Hebrew prophets, and the visionary John of Patmos. Sometimes, like their Euro-American counterparts, African American women invoked biblical female prophets such as Deborah, Huldah, and the daughters of Philip. Jarena Lee (b. 1783), an African Methodist Episcopal preacher from Philadelphia, used Mary Magdalene as precedent for her own ministry: “Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity—hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St. Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel?” In like manner, in Boston in 1834, political speaker Maria Stewart defended her public activities by using scriptural examples: “What if I am a woman; is not the God of ancient times the God of these modern days? Did he not raise up Deborah, to be a mother, and a judge in Israel? Did not queen Esther save the lives of the Jews? And Mary Magdalene first declare the resurrection of Christ from the dead?”
Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871), who was active in the African Methodist Episcopal tradition before becoming a Shaker, felt empowered by biblical Wisdom imagery. In the midst of preaching to a large crowd, she suddenly saw “a Mother in the Deity,” the “Holy Spirit of Wisdom,” who gave her “a tongue to tell it.” Interpreting Proverbs 9:3, where the female figure Wisdom sends out maidservants to summon people to her feast, Jackson regarded herself as one of her Mother Wisdom’s daughters sent forth to preach and teach. Jackson’s interpretation of the creation accounts is particularly engaging. In her exegesis of Genesis 1:28, Jackson said that God made woman a “Lordess” over creation, sharing the dominion with man, for “God blessed them both and gave them one authority.” Observing that God breathed into Adam’s two nostrils rather than his one mouth (Genesis 2:7), Jackson says that the Lord breathed two spirits into him—one for Adam and another for Eve, who would be taken from the man’s side.
Condemning the brutal racism they experienced, these women used Paul’s speech at the Areopagus, Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, and Psalm 68 to argue for a God-given equality. Zilpha Elaw, who preached in the Methodist tradition, writes:
The pride of a white skin is a bauble of great value with many in some parts of the United States, who readily sacrifice their intelligence to their prejudices, and possess more knowledge than wisdom. The Almighty accounts not the black races of man either in the order of nature or spiritual capacity as inferior to the white; for he bestows his Holy Spirit on, and dwells in them as readily as in persons of whiter complexion: the Ethiopian eunuch was adopted as a son and heir of God; and when Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto him [Ps. 68:31], their submission and worship will be graciously accepted….
Oh! That men would outgrow their nursery prejudices and learn that “God hath made of one blood all the nations of men that dwell upon all the face on the earth” [Acts 17:26].
Maria Stewart argued that the treatment of African Americans in the antebellum North was barely better than southern slavery. Protesting the lack of educational and employment opportunities available to African American women, she invoked the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:18), crying out: “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?”
By naming and resisting the multiple oppressions they endured, these women anticipated the Womanist biblical interpretation found in seminal works like Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness (Orbis, 1993) and Renita Weems’ Just a Sister Away (LuraMedia, 1988). Stewart employed strong language from the book of Revelation to condemn white men’s sexual abuse of black women. Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave, used the Bible to protest the sexual harassment that she herself endured from her master. In 1895, Eloise Bibb (1878-1927) published poetry that poignantly identified with Hagar, who was cast out by Sarah and Abraham. Abolitionist speaker Sojourner Truth (c. 1791-1883), unable to read, claimed her own interpretive authority by enlisting children to read the text aloud for her, since adults were too likely to add their own commentary, keeping her from direct engagement with the Bible.
The veritable “cloud of witnesses” includes a host of other writers, including African Methodist Episcopal Zion elder Julia A. J. Foote (1823-1900), novelist and temperance leader Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), and Baptist missionary Virginia Broughton (1856-1934). When reading the words of these nineteenth-century women, we can recognize not only their impressive contributions to the history of biblical interpretation, but also their powerful witness to the liberating potential of scripture.
 Marion Ann Taylor and Heather E. Weir, Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006), 1-2.
 Mitzi Jane Smith, “‘Unbossed and Unbought’: Zilpha Elaw and Old Elizabeth and a Political Discourse of Origins,” Black Theology 9.3 (2011): 287-311; Emerson B. Powery, “‘Rise Up, Ye Women’: Harriet Jacobs and the Bible,” Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts & Contemporary Worlds 5.2 (2009), 171-184; Valerie C. Cooper, Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011); Brian K. Blount, Cain Hope Felder, Clarice J. Martin, and Emerson B. Powery, eds., True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007). Also see Katherine Clay Bassard, Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). Earlier attention to historical women as interpreters is found in essays by Renita Weems and Clarice J. Martin in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 57-77, 206-231.
 Joy A. Schroeder, Deborah’s Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 144-157.
 Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (Philadelphia: n.p., 1849), reprinted in Spiritual Narratives, introduced by Sue E. Houchins, Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 11.
 Maria W. Stewart, Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (Boston: Friends of Freedom and Virtue [Garrison and Knapp], 1835), reprinted in Houchins, Spiritual Narratives, 75.
 Rebecca Cox Jackson, Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress, ed. Jean McMahon Humez (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), 153-154.
 Ibid., 264.
 Ibid., 279.
 Zilpha Elaw, Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels, and Labors of Mrs Zilpha Elaw, an American Female of Colour, in Sisters of the Spirit, ed. William L. Andrews (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 85-86.
 Stewart, Productions, 16.
 Ibid., 18.
 See Powery, “Rise Up, Ye Women,” 180-182.
 Eloise Alberta Bibb, “The Expulsion of Hagar,” in Taylor and Weir, Let Her Speak for Herself, 245-247.
 Sojourner Truth and Olive Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Battle Creek, Mich.: n.p., 1878), 108-109.