worship, activism, & the roots of womanist theology

In honor of International Women's Day, I wanted to post an excerpt from an old paper of mine: "Black Women Church Leaders at the Turn-of-the-Century as Early Womanist Theologians." The fact that women are still being punished for raising voices in public spaces makes me even more grateful to the trail blazers who fought boldly for racial and gender equality in a time when neither was imaginable to so many.

"For a number of years, there has been a righteous discontent, a burning zeal to go forward in His name among the Baptist women of our churches and it will be the dynamic force in the religious campaign at the opening of the 20th century."

At twenty-one, Nannie Helen Burroughs was already a dynamic force on the intellectual and religious scenes. In 1900, at the first meeting of the Women's Convention, Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention, she delivered a fiery address entitled "How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping."

Burrough's description of black churchwomen's "righteous discontent" is a fitting characterization of their resistance to exclusion and injustice. African American women were not content to remain at home in the manner prescribed by white culture's cult of domesticity, and they continued to envision themselves as fully answering God's call through public service.

Having observed the celebration of Women's Day in congregations across the country, Burroughs called for the national observance of such a Sunday at the National Baptist Convention in 1906. She marveled at what might happen on the day that women across the country would take the lead in worship:
"A million women praying? A million women singing? A million women desiring? A million women laboring for the coming of the Kingdom in the hearts of all men, would be a power that would move God on his throne to immediately answer the petitions. It would mean spiritual dynamite that would blast Satan's greatest stronghold and drive sin into its native health."
Burrough's image is one of feminine strength. Discontent with society claiming that women belong at home and church leaders relegating them to Sunday school classrooms, Burroughs longed to see more women take the pulpit.

Anna Julia Cooper was another activist who fought her way into the public sphere to champion the rights of African American women. In 1882 she published A Voice from the South, the first book-length black feminist text, recounting her experiences and arguing for women to embrace their role as moral reformers. Cooper charged the community "to recognize this force to make the most of it--not the boys less, but the girls more."

The way that she portrays women as a force emphasizes strength much like Alice Walker's description of a womanist as "Responsible. In charge. Serious." Earlier, Cooper argues "'I am my Sister's keeper!' should be the hearty response of every man and woman of the race," highlighting the role that community plays in promoting the advancement and education of women. This kind of community solidarity is reflected in contemporary womanist theology. Anna Julia Cooper was a womanist theologian before they had names.

An important way that women rose to prominence was through the black church-sponsored press that grew as black literacy rose from 5 percent in 1860 to 70 percent in 1910. The black Baptists alone published forty newspapers and magazines in 1887, and they became a forum for disseminating feminist ideas. Because there were no widely distributed national black newspapers, and white papers never gave fair representation to black voices, "the role of the church cannot be overstated" (Higginbotham). In the period between 1883 and 1905, forty-six black women were journalists, eleven were editors, and three were owner/managers. These women used education and the church to forge a way into the public space and change the discourse.

Though many looked to the bible to justify women's subordination, these women looked to the "Bible as an instrument of liberation," reclaiming texts as support for their place in ministry (Townes). Black feminist theologians like Mary Cook, Virginia Broughton, and Lucy Wilmot Smith were firm believers in women's power to influence men and community in positive ways for the gospel and looked to biblical mothers as examples.  They were not theologians in the strictest sense of the word, but as Gordon Kaufman argues, "Every attempt to discover and reflect upon the real meaning of the theologizing," and these women, as well as regular members of women's clubs and organizations, did just that (Higginbotham). Their Christian activism was theologically-derived praxis: their way of building community and the Kingdom of God.

If contemporary womanist theologians are heirs to the ideas and work of Cook, Cooper, and others, they are also indebted to women who first paved the way, like Julia A.J. Foote. Foote became the first ordained woman deacon in 1895, and the second deaconess of the A.M.E. Church in 1899, but her ministry began decades before. In 1900, when Nannie Helen Burroughs was speaking at the Baptist Convention, Foote was completing her last of fifty years as an itinerant evangelist. She was reclaiming scripture on behalf of women in ministry long before she had peers in the struggle.

Her confident determination is womanist through and through:
"We are sometimes told that if a woman pretends to a Divine call, and thereon grounds the right to plead the cause of the crucified Redeemer in public, she will be believed when she shows credentials from heaven; that is when she works a miracle. If it be necessary to prove one's right to preach the Gospel, I ask of my brethren to show me their credentials, or I cannot believe in the propriety of their ministry. But the Bible puts an end to this strife when it says: 'There is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus.'"
Contemporary womanist theology has deep roots. It grows from a rich tradition of struggle, activism, and celebration of the strength and capability of black women to shape their identity and community in powerful ways. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, African American churchwomen created womanist theology with the lives they led as orators, activists, mothers, sisters, journalists, teachers, preachers, and community leaders. They did not draw their identity as women from from their husbands or white feminine ideals but from one another and the scriptures. They build a legacy of loving themselves, their God, and their communities. Regardless.

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