Legacy 23.1 (2006) 86-91
[Access article in PDF]
Julia A. J. Foote (1823–1901)
Joy A. J. Howard
The last twenty-five years have seen an exciting increase in scholarship examining writings of nineteenth-century black women evangelists such as Julia A. J. Foote, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Maria Stewart, Amanda Smith, Jarena Lee, and Zilpha Elaw. Much work remains to be done, however, to explore how these autobiographers spoke against the institution of slavery using a framework of faith. The challenge of this scholarship is threefold: first, many of these women wrote only one or two texts because their main vehicle of communication was the sermon; second, in their writings they often include sparse biographical information, as they were more focused on conveying the stories of their spiritual lives; and finally, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find additional information about their lives. We are thus tested to reexamine our scholarly notions of a "body of work": How are we to understand this particular genre of religious stories as autobiography within the larger conversation about the institution of slavery? How might we explore the lives of these authors when their work seems to be the only remaining evidence?
More specific, these texts require us to read within a community of nineteenth-century black religious texts. Foote's ministry was embedded in a community that corroborated the impact of her ministry. Although focused on the spiritual condition of her fellow African Americans, Foote's work and her autobiography, A Brand Plucked From the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch, were never insulated from institutions of oppression. Foote acknowledged, mourned, and lashed out against the racial, gender, and class oppression she and her black sisters suffered. Moreover, vital information, previously undocumented, about the final years of Foote's life is available to us through the autobiographies of ministers with whom she worked and traveled. Bishop Alexander Walters's autobiography, a church catechism authored by Cicero R. Harris, and an anthology by William Davenport each provide clarifying details regarding Foote's work within the church, her ordination date, the second half of her ministry, and her date of death.
Julia A. J. Foote was born in 1823, the daughter of former slaves living in Schenectady, New York; she was their fourth child, although not their last.1 Foote's only formal education took place when she worked as a domestic servant for the Prime family. She lived with the Primes for less than two years and then returned home at age twelve to care for younger siblings so her mother could work outside the home. Soon after she left the Primes in 1835, her family moved twenty miles southeast to Albany. They joined an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) [End Page 86] congregation, and for the first time, Foote later wrote, "I was able to understand, with any degree of intelligence, what religion was" (177).2 Foote experienced conversion to Christianity at the age of fifteen and consequently was irresistibly drawn to read scripture at all hours of the night and day (180, 182). She remembered longing to understand how her faith could touch her everyday life, calm her temper, and soothe her fears. The answers she was seeking were finally offered by an older couple in the church preaching about the doctrine of "Holiness."3 (The Holiness Movement of the late nineteenth century preached that through a second experience of God one could attain a fulfilling life by seeking to be sinless.) After much private prayer, Foote believed she received a "visit" from God and would later identify that moment as the starting point of the process of sanctification and Holiness (186). She explained,
I returned home, though not yet satisfied. I remained in this condition more than a week, going many times to my secret place of prayer, which was behind the chimney in the garret of our house. . . . [W]hile waiting on the Lord, my large desire was granted, through faith in my precious Saviour. The glory of God seemed almost to prostrate me to the floor. There was, indeed, a weight of glory resting...