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A ``contour portrait of my regenerated constitution'': Reading nineteenth -century African American women's spiritual autobiography

Martha Louise Wharton, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and Julia Foote use spiritual autobiography as a platform from which to promote women's preaching. They consider race, gender and social circumstances as elements in their spiritual development. Their narratives contain a "radical" vision of nineteenth-century African American women.^ As sites of intensive intellectual and spiritual wrangling over social and spiritual matters, the narratives cannot be fully understood without carefully contextualization. This study suggests that (1) understanding the histories of the communities, churches, and evangelical missions, (2) considering style, syntax, vocabulary, and tone, and (3) asking specific questions of each text, will help readers gain a sense of the intellectual and spiritual lives documented in the narratives.^ The "dying husband" trope appears in all of the texts. The trope begins with a detailing of a period of great spiritual joy achieved after the writer has overcome spiritual challenge. Joy is interrupted by marriage, usually to a non-believer. Marriage presents physical and spiritual hardship attended by debilitating illness. Illness and near-death debilitation become occasions for preaching liberty and divine revelation. Generally, once revealed truths are understood, a husband dies. In light of new understandings of personal power and divine inspiration, the widowed preacher resumes her evangelical charge to pursue anew her "call".^ Lee's 1836 and 1849 texts offer direct challenge to A.M.E. leaders set on licensing only educated men as clergy. Her texts are extended arguments for a sex-integrated and "inspired" pastorate. Elaw's work, not arguing directly for women preachers, implies that she has been groomed for evangelical service, as was St. Paul. Critiquing more pointedly the idea that women could not be spiritual leaders, Foote wages battle with the A.M.E. Zion Church over the right of women to preach sanctification. Foote's argument for women's preaching relies on her use of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1879) case dicta with which she indicts the Church as sexist in the same way slavery law and public policy were racist.^ Black feminist literary criticism must incorporate methodology that permits an appropriate contextualization for texts sensitive to significant cultural and social change, such as these texts. ^

Subject Area

Religion|Black studies|Women's studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Wharton, Martha Louise, "A ``contour portrait of my regenerated constitution'': Reading nineteenth -century African American women's spiritual autobiography" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9813652.