Sojourner Truth Memorial in Florence, Massachusetts. Lynne Graves, CC BY-ND
Each semester I greet the students who file into my preaching class at Howard University with a standard talk. The talk is not an overview of the basics – techniques of sermon preparation or sermon delivery, as one might expect. Outlining the basics is not particularly difficult.
The greatest challenge, in fact, is helping learners to stretch their theology: namely, how they perceive who God is and convey what God is like in their sermons. This becomes particularly important for African-American preachers, especially African-American women preachers, because most come from church contexts that overuse exclusively masculine language for God and humanity.
Yet, America’s Christian pulpits, especially African-American pulpits, remain male-dominated spaces. Still today, eyebrows raise, churches split, pews empty and recommendation letters get lost at a woman’s mention that God has called her to preach.
The deciding factor for women desiring to pastor and be accorded respect equal to their male counterparts generally whittles down to one question: Can she preach?
The fact is that African-American women have preached, formed congregations and confronted many racial injustices since the slavery era.
Here’s the history
The earliest black female preacher was a Methodist woman simply known as Elizabeth. She held her first prayer meeting in Baltimore in 1808 and preached for about 50 years before retiring to Philadelphia to live among the Quakers.
An unbroken legacy of African-American women preachers persisted even long after Elizabeth. Reverend Jarena Lee became the first African-American woman to preach at the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. She had started even before the church was officially formed in the city of Philadelphia in 1816. But, she faced considerable opposition.
AME Bishop Richard Allen, who founded the AME Church, had initially refused Lee’s request to preach. It was only upon hearing her speak, presumably, from the floor, during a worship service, that he permitted her to give a sermon.
Lee reported that Bishop Allen, “rose up in the assembly, and related that [she] had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put [her] off; but that he now as much believed that [she] was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.
Lee was much like her Colonial-era contemporary, the famed women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Truth had escaped John Dumont’s slave plantation in 1828 and landed in New York City, where she became an itinerant preacher active in the abolition and woman’s suffrage movements.
Fighting the gender narratives
For centuries now, the Holy Bible has been used to suppress women’s voices. These early female black preachers reinterpreted the Bible to liberate women.
In a skillful historical interpretation of the scriptures, in her convention address, Truth used the Bible to liberate and set the record straight about women’s rights. She professed:
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
Like Truth, Jarena Lee spoke truth to power and paved the way for other mid- to late 19th-century black female preachers to achieve validation as pulpit leaders, although neither she nor Truth received official clerical appointments.
The first woman to achieve this validation was Julia A. J. Foote. In 1884, she became the first woman ordained a deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion AMEZ Church. Shortly after followed the ordinations of AME evangelist Harriet A. Baker, who in 1889 was perhaps the first black woman to receive a pastoral appointment. Mary J. Small became the first woman to achieve “elder ordination” status, which permitted her to preach, teach and administer the sacraments and Holy Communion.
Historian Bettye Collier-Thomas maintains that the goal for most black women seeking ordination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was simply a matter of gender inclusion, not necessarily pursuing the need to transform the patriarchal church.
An important voice was that of Rev. Florence Spearing Randolph. In her role as reformer, suffragist, evangelist and pastor, she daringly advanced the cause of freedom and justice within the churches she served and even beyond during the period of the Great Migration of 20th century.
In her sermons she brought criticism to the broken promises of American democracy, the deceptive ideology of black inferiority and other chronic injustices.
Randolph’s sermon “If I Were White,” preached on Race Relations Sunday, Feb. 1, 1941, reminded her listeners of their self-worth. It emphasized that America’s whites who claim to be defending democracy in wartime have an obligation to all American citizens.
Randolph spoke in concrete language. She argued that the refusal of whites to act justly toward blacks, domestically and abroad, embraced sin rather than Christ. That, she said, revealed a realistic picture of America’s race problem.
She also spoke about gender discrimination. Randolph’s carefully crafted sermon in 1909 “Antipathy to Women Preachers,” for example, highlights several heroic women in the Bible. From her interpretation of their scriptural legacy, she argued that gender discrimination in Christian pulpits illustrated a misreading of scripture.
Randolph used her position as preacher to effect social change. She was a member and organizer for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which led in the work to pass the 18th Amendment, which made prohibition of the production, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States. Her affiliation with the WCTU earned her the title “militant herald of temperance and righteousness.”
Today, several respected African-American women preachers and teachers of preachers proudly stand on Lee’s, Small’s and Randolph’s shoulders raising their prophetic voices.
Days before Good Friday, the Rev. Stacey Hamilton continued to contemplate what she would preach about some of the last words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Hamilton, one of seven black women preaching at “Women With a Word,” a service hosted by the Fellowship of Churches of Atlantic City and Vicinity at Faith Baptist Church in Pleasantville, N.J., prayed and did her “due diligence” by studying the meaning of the passage’s original Greek as she prepared to write her sermon.
In a growing tradition, at least a dozen churches across the country are hosting Good Friday services this year that feature seven African American female preachers, expounding in seven short sermons on the last seven phrases uttered by Jesus before his crucifixion.
“It’s a big deal because historically black women have been underrepresented,” said Hamilton, associate pastor of innovation and engagement at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville.
“There’s still a lot of traditional views as they relate to women in leadership and having the ability to actually declare the Word and people actually come out and listen to women,” added the pastor, who also works as a computer engineer. “It’s definitely a shift within the last couple of years.”
Vanderbilt University Divinity School Dean Emilie Townes said she’s seeing “more and more” instances of black women preaching in “Seven Last Words” services.
Though some black women preachers recall being featured in Good Friday services decades ago, the phenomenon got a boost five years ago, when seven millennial black women preachers spoke at a Chicago church for an event sponsored by ShePreaches, a group that creates opportunities for younger African American clergywomen. The organization developed an online toolkit to encourage services on Good Friday featuring young adult black women in pulpits using womanist interpretations of the Bible.
The increased attention comes at a time when womanist theology, which focuses on the intersection of gender, race and class and empowerment of the marginalized across the African diaspora, is gaining momentum.
In March, womanist scholars of religion gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate their first consultation, at the city’s Howard University School of Divinity, in 1988. Last April, a Center for Womanist Leadership opened at Virginia’s Union Presbyterian Seminary with Alice Walker, the novelist and poet and one of the founders of the womanist movement, as the keynote speaker for the inaugural gathering.
The Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune, director of Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace with Justice, said black women, similar to the women who remained at the foot of Jesus’ cross, can speak of resilience despite difficult circumstances facing their communities.
“It is also significant that the collective Black church is recognizing our gifts and allowing them to be exercised in pulpits across the country during the holiest week of the Christian calendar,” said Copeland-Tune, who will be preaching at a predominantly black church in Largo, Md. “Space is finally being made for us to edify God’s people. There are cracks in the stained-glass ceilings.”
The Rev. Jacqueline Thompson, the first woman pastor-elect of the predominantly black Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., said in an emailed statement that African American women can particularly relate to Jesus’ suffering and injustices that led to his crucifixion.
“Many live and work in the reality of what Womanist Scholar Jacquelyn Grant calls the ‘triple oppression’ of race, class and gender,” said Thompson, whose church’s Seven Last Words service will feature “six African American women and one Euro-American woman who is a daughter of our church.”
“The message of life after death remains a critical one in light of the present day racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric and policies we see rampant in today’s society.”
The Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches, cited more than half a dozen churches featuring seven black women speaking at Seven Last Words services, from “Womanists of the Bay” in Berkeley, Calif., to “Sisters at the Cross” in Alexandria, Va.
The tradition’s inclusion of black women may be a result of concerted efforts to put them in pulpit positions.
More than a decade ago, the Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, founded WomanPreach! Inc., which offers a Jarena Lee Preaching Academy to train women of African descent, and expanded it to include women and men.
She said many black women’s sense of calling to preach is now being undergirded by theological training.
“I think more women have gone to seminary and so they have gotten the degrees, not just the call but the training with that call,” said Bridgeman. “And so they’re unmoved by what might have been a historic resistance to their call because they’ve solidified for themselves their call.”
The Association of Theological Schools reports that the number of black women graduates of its affiliated schools almost tripled from 1988 to 1998 — increasing from 151 to 444. The number more than doubled again by 2018, reaching 994.
The Rev. Christine A. Smith, author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors,” said she’s seen an uptick over at least a decade in instances of seven black women preaching on Jesus’ seven last sayings, including in her Akron, Ohio, area.
“This is a wonderful movement, but there are still major barriers that remain for women in ministry,” said Smith, a pastor dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, who is set to speak at a “He Is Risen” Seven Last Words service with six other black women preachers.
“Churches particularly in the African American community, particularly in the Baptist denominations, African American Baptist denominations, there still remains strong resistance to women becoming senior pastors.”
Hamilton and others say African American women preachers are likely to address issues of justice during their 10 minutes or so in the pulpit during the Seven Last Words services. The New Jersey pastor said she intends to mention human trafficking and the stricter requirements proposed by the Trump administration for some who have qualified previously for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Hamilton studied several years ago at Bridgeman’s Jarena Lee Preaching Academy (named for the first African Methodist Episcopal Church female preacher) and said it was “transformational” in helping her learn about womanist preaching. She then recognized that she brings a unique perspective to preaching and not “the same as if a man is standing up to preach.”
Thus, the associate pastor said, she thinks it’s fitting that some churches are highlighting black women in their pulpits on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.
“On Good Friday, we’re able to share in a way that says there’s room for you, there’s room for you here in the midst of Jesus’ struggle and Jesus’ suffering,’’ she said, “that you may have a place in salvation and that this is for you. You matter.”