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Five Prophetic Reading Black Women Preachers and Biblical Interpretation In 1855, while in Geneva, New York, one of the many locations she was to visit that year to preach, Julia Foote met with several “sisters ” of the Methodist Church to form a moral reform society. Moral reform and missionary societies were becoming very prevalent in the nineteenth century among black women. Many women, usually affiliated with churches, banded together and organized groups that would visit the sick, provide clothing and shelter for the homeless, and perform other benevolent acts. Not only did these organizations serve as sites for networking, building sisterly relations, and socializing, they also “transformed unknown and unconfident women into leaders and agents of social service and racial self help in their communities.”1 As Foote left this particular moral reform meeting, church officials extended her an invitation to preach at the church the following evening. This offer, however, was met later with vehement protest. A minister by the name of Mr. Monroe, and another man, whom Foote labels “a fiend in human shape,” rather boldly insisted that they would not allow Foote to preach in the church because “they did not believe in women’s preaching, and would not admit one in the church” (Brand, 87). The minister continued his protest, telling Foote that the only way she could have access to the pulpit would be if “they break my head.” To this, Foote responded, “God can take you from the pulpit without breaking your head,” at which point the minister “raved as if he were a mad man” 1. Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent, 17. 72 fiend in human shape,”boldly insisted that they would not allow Foote to preach in the church because “they did not believe in women’s Prophetic Reading 73 (Brand, 88). Foote notes that during this confrontation, the men attempted to legitimate their protest, “striving hard to justify themselves from the Bible,” which one was holding in what Foote describes as “unholy hands” (Brand, 88). This preacher’s holding up the Bible was a symbolic gesture intended to signify that the Bible supported and substantiated his protest against women preaching. Such Bible-based discourse represents one of the most serious points of contention facing black women preachers in the nineteenth century. Julia Foote, Jarena Lee, Maria Stewart, and Frances Gaudet were called to preach in a cultural context where identifications of gender were being created, prescribed, and maintained based on the Bible. As long as Foote was meeting with the women of the church to carry out the domestic function of forming a moral reform society, there seems to have been no protest. I do not intend to undermine the significance of moral reform societies and the vital role that women played in them. That black church women organized, raised funds, and carried out various functions within these societies has been interpreted by scholars such as Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Jualyne Dodson, and others as illustrating that women were able to attain power positions. What I am arguing here is that men in the church were not threatened by women’s participation in such ventures because the moral reform societies did not threaten to remove power over the organizational structure of the church from men’s hands. Having women preach, on the other hand, did pose a threat to men’s organizational power, because preaching brought with it the authority and public visibility generally associated with masculinity . As Minister Monroe’s actions indicate, this was not a role that men were willing to give up readily. So when Foote ventured out to cross the gender divide and dared to preach, there ensued, to use Foote’s term, “pandemonium.” In the midst of this pandemonium, the preacher summoned the Bible as a referee. Minister Monroe’s lifting the Bible above his head symbolized its elevated status in nineteenth-century society. It was considered to hold unquestionable truths, and among those “truths” was the role of women in society. That he was so vehement and belligerent indicates that Foote’s desire to preach undermined these constructions of status and truth, causing him to rave “as if he were a mad man.” The notions of gendered behavior that were allegedly supported by the Bible— and to which Foote’s preaching was posing a threat—are rooted in the 74 Prophesying Daughters nineteenth-century “cult of true womanhood,” in which a woman’s role, as spelled out by feminist historian Barbara Welter, was to...


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