Women in Church History, Part 5: Amanda Smith, a Former Slave Turned Preacher

I wanted to bring this series on women in church history to a close by discussing one of my favorite figures from American church history, Amanda Smith. She was a slave from Maryland who eventually became an itinerant preacher. She was converted in 1868  at Green Street Church after hearing a preacher emphasize that “it was not her work but God working in her that constituted sanctification” (Amy Oden, ed. In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought. Nashville:Abingdon, 1994, 309). She thus became part of the Holiness Movement. Her role as preacher was of course noticeable: not only a former slave preaching to people all over the country, North and South, but a woman preacher (Ruth A. Tucker, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987, 270).
I love the image this conjures up: in the wake of the Civil War and just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there is a woman who is a former slave preaching and teaching people in both the North and the South. Tucker notes, “In 1870, when the African Methodist Episcopal Church held its first general conference south of the Mason-Dixon line in Nashville, Amanda was determined to attend. Since women were not permitted to be delegates, she was looked on with suspicion” (Tucker, Daughters, 270). Interestingly, people thought she was there trying to get women’s ordination passed, but she later noted that she was never concerned about being ordained because God had ordained her for ministry (Tucker, Daughters, 271).
I have shared before on this blog that I began my seminary studies while attending a church that did not allow women to teach anyone over age 13. Initially I saw nothing wrong with this thinking, but when I learned about women in church history who had struggled against similar (and often worse) hierarchies I began to consider this teaching in a new light. However, Amanda Smith’s example really shows how God should be the ultimate authority for who should teach and preach. While I began to see this principle in my study of history, my fellow students really embodied this for me. I saw several friends of mine graduate from seminary ahead of me and begin to enter the pastoral job market (a scary time for all involved). I watched as some of these women peers particularly struggled to find openings and churches. I knew very early on in my seminary studies that I was not called to be a pastor, but I remember thinking at this time that I would have an easier time getting a pastoral position simply because I am male. To me that made no sense at all. Some of these women had such a heart for people, ministry, teaching, and preaching. They would have made much better pastors than I would have. Yet, they struggled to find opportunities. Thankfully many of them eventually did find churches which allowed them to follow God’s calling and make an impact on their communities.
Amanda Smith’s example is one that shows that God is ultimately in control of the church and the church’s impact on the world. After facing opposition at the 1870 conference, Smith continued to preach throughout “America, Britain, India, and Western Africa. Never ordained, Smith was a well-known spokeswoman for the holiness movement, gaining an international reputation. She founded the Amanda Smith Orphan’s Home for Colored Children in Chicago in 1895, and spend much of the rest of her life working for the welfare of African American Children” (Oden, In Her Words, 308). Clearly God was going to use Smith regardless of whether or not she was ordained. Her impact for the church was not just experienced at a conference which was hesitant to allow her to attend, but throughout the world. I wonder how many people grew up with a strong Christian faith as a result of her ministry in Chicago among children. God had bigger plans for her than simply attending conferences or being ordained for a particular church. Today’s church must remember ultimately that God chooses who will impact the world, not some hiring board or church committee. Amanda Smith is just one of many examples of women in church history who impacted the world in spite of others questioning her role as a woman.