9/19- Women in the Time of “Slaveholding Religion”

Though it is a topic that I know we will explore later in the course, the prevalence of women in the Harvey and Sernett chapters were especially striking to me this week. From black women who held prominent positions in African-American churches, to apathetic, well meaning, or even downright malicious white women, women continued to make their niches in the religious world, even despite the patriarchal tendencies of both the surrounding social and religious atmospheres.Though it is a topic that I know we will explore later in the course, the prevalence of women in the Harvey and Sernett chapters were especially striking to me this week. From black women who held prominent positions in African-American churches, to apathetic, well meaning, or even downright malicious white women, women continued to make their niches in the religious world, even despite the patriarchal tendencies of both the surrounding social and religious atmospheres.

In the Harvey reading, there was a distinct section devoted to the efforts of black women in the AME Church to gain leadership positions within the church. Though women like Jarena Lee, Julia Foote, and Amanda Smith felt “the call to preach the gospel” (Harvey 43), they were not allowed to do anything more than “exhort” their faith, rather than become ordained ministers. Despite being put down time and time again for not being educated enough, or being too spirited in their preachings, the women of the AME Church managed to challenge the ideals of the faith. It is, in my opinion, rather hypocritical that the male leaders of the church would base their church on “education, propriety, respectability, and decorum” (Harvey 43), and thus exclude women from ministry, while their oppressors would likely use the same language to keep black men from taking on leadership positions in white churches.

One of the most striking examples of women in the church was the primary source from Sister Kelly, an ex-slave. To hear how she realized her own faith was heart-warming as well as eye-opening, as her account describes the almost entirely different experiences slave women had, as well as female role models that were present in Kelly’s life. Kelly begins with the white woman who owned her for a time. Though she describes her as “the best white woman that ever broke bread”(Sernett 70), she also adds that “that wasn’t much, ’cause they all hated the po’ nigger” (Sernett 70). Extrapolating from this, though one might expect some sympathy from white women compared to white men, it seems that white women were equally cruel in their treatment of black people, especially slaves. A glimpse into the matriarchs of Kelly’s life are also found in her account; she briefly mentions an “Aunt July”, who affirms her religious inclinations and sends Sister Kelly onto the path of a believer.

Apart from these examples, there are few examples of women during this time with any real agency. Henry Bibb mentions a “poor white girl, who offered to teach a Sabbath School for the slaves” (Sernett 76), and whose school was quickly shut down, showing a possible attempt to aid slaves in religion and literacy. The women mentioned in future passages are little more than symbols– a girl is the impetus to turn Bibb to turn to some superstitious remedies; Nat Turner recollects the murder of several women without remorse; Frederick Douglass laments the whippings of women and uses these as examples of the cruelty of slaveowners.

An excellent resource which I found invaluable in my research of the intersectionality of gender, race, and religion was: A TRIPLE-TWINED RE-APPROPRIATION: WOMANIST THEOLOGY AND GENDERED-RACIAL PROTEST IN THE WRITINGS OF JARENA LEE, FRANCES E.W. HARPER, AND HARRIET JACOBS.

I think the caps really convey the urgency of the article, so I’m keeping them.

Leave a Reply