- "Strangers in a Strange Land": Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Evangelists in Nineteenth-Century America
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 1999
- pp. 67-95
- View Citation
- Additional Information
ELIZABETH ELKIN GRAMMER "Strangers in a Strange Land": Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Evangelists in Nineteenth-Century America little known chapter in the history of American literature . is the story of nineteenth-century women who pursued—and later wrote about—unorthodox careers as itinerant ministers, both before and after the Civil War.1 Evangelical denominations, which commonly conceived of the ministry as inspired rather than learned, awakened many women not only to the saving power ofChrist but also to the possibility of crossing geographic and gender boundaries in the service of their Lord. Authorized by God, female itinerant preachers eschewed the certainty and closure of domesticity in favor of an itinerant life.2 "The shore is safer," they might have said with Emily Dickinson, "but I love to buffett the sea" (qtd. in Wolff 104). At times, however, the shore must have looked inviting for America 's female itinerant evangelists, for they sailed through uncharted waters. Consider, for example, the life of the itinerant preacher Lydia Sexton. The daughter of a Baptist minister who died shortly after her birth in 1799, Sexton spent her youth being passed around from a mother—who had hastily remarried a man with a large brood of his own—to an aunt, to the aunt's neighbor, and finally to a brother who took her from New Jersey to Ohio in 1814. In the mid-1830s she was converted by a group of "New Light" Christians and baptized by the Campbellites; "sickened" by that sect, she ultimately joined the United Arizona Quarterly Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 1999 Copyright © 1999 by Arizona Board of Regents rssN 0004- 1610 68Elizabeth Elkin Grammer Brethren Church (a German Methodist body). Not long thereafter she received "a special call to the ministry," which she resisted for almost a decade because she believed female preaching to be unscriptural and because she feared the scrutiny and ridicule preaching would bring (Sexton 199). When one of her sons became seriously ill, however, she made a deal with God: should the boy survive, she bargained, she would take up her cross. God spared the child, and she began preaching sometime in 1843. Her itinerant ministry, which continued until 1870, took her all over the mid-West, far from her home and children who were left, primarily, in God's care. Abandoning her domestic responsibilities in an age in which "true women" were defined as wives and mothers, Sexton not surprisingly met with much opposition.3 Family members, ministers both within and without the significantly denominated United Brethren, and audiences everywhere were appalled by her willingness to "expose" herself before "promiscuous," public assemblies. On one occasion she was informed that "[God] made roosters to crow, and not hens" (Sexton 396), or as an angry critic put it to the African Methodist preacher Jarena Lee, you are '"not a woman, but a man dressed in female clothes'" (Religious Experience 23). Often the hectoring, critical voices of these "persecutor ^] of preaching women" were echoed by an inner voice, speaking in a similar accent (Sexton 358). "I thought," Sexton reports, "if I were only a man it would be no hardship to me ... to preach, but rather a pleasure" (Sexton 213). Having rejected the plot—that of courtship , marriage, and domestic life—for which many poor black women longed and by which most nineteenth-century white women were defined, Sexton was no doubt fearful that she was in a sort of no (wo)man's land, being neither male nor female. At times, she clearly felt "out of place" in the evangelical landscape of nineteenth-century America.4 She needed to find—and publicly demonstrate—her "place" in the story of American evangelicalism and, more broadly, in the history of Christianity. She needed, in other words, a means by which she might explore— and perhaps understand—the strange life to which she had been called; she needed, moreover, to explain herself to all those critics who found her presence on the public stage of American religion both puzzling and alarming. As an anonymous "Judge" put it in a poem presented to the independent itinerant preacher Nancy Towle and later included in Autobiographies r^y Female Itinerant Evangelists69 her...