"Storied Witness: The Theology of Black Women Preachers in 19th-Century America"—by Kate Hanch

I’ve been meaning to post about this book for a couple months now but either the time didn’t seem right or other things got in the way. But I don’t want to delay any longer because folks need to know about this book.

The author, Kate Hanch, is a friend and pastor in town (so please forgive me for using her first name rather than her surname in what follows), and I’ve benefited from pretty regular theological conversations with her for a number of years now. She always brings figures and ideas to the conversation that I haven’t encountered before, or haven’t encountered intensively enough before, and I always walk away feeling that my intellectual horizon has expanded. I can only hope she feels the same way.

 

This book lifts up the lives and witness of three black women preachers from 19th-century American: Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote, and Sojourner Truth. Of these women, Truth was the only one I had even heard of before meeting Kate, and I’m glad to have had the chance to learn from her about Elaw and Foote, as well as learning a lot more about Truth! Here is one excerpt that focuses on the interconnectedness of the pastoral and the prophetic in these figures (from pp. 150–51; bold is mine):

 

“Elaw, Foote, and Truth perceive the prophetic in the vein of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. They cite these prophets numerous times in their sermons and autobiographies. Hebrew prophets saw themselves as called by God, sent to speak the Word to their communities. Their messages could be directives, pronouncements of judgment or wrath, or even comforting words. … In the Hebrew Scriptures, prophets were not lone individuals but members of the larger community who were accountable to the society. The twentieth-century Jewish Mystic Abraham Heschel perceives the prophetic as siding with the downtrodden, expressing both anger and sympathy: ‘Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered.’ The three women, in different ways, body this voice of God to their communities. They all document their experiences of racism and sexism. Sojourner Truth, for example, spoke of the exploitation of her enslaved Black siblings. They make the silent agony visible in their sermons and memoirs.

            Elaw, Foote, and Truth functioned pastorally in that they offered care and support to their audiences and communities, helping people draw closer to God. The sixth-century theologian Gregory the Great, who wrote the first pastoral care manual, describes a good pastor as one who is ‘a near neighbor to every one in sympathy, and exalted above all in contemplation.’ For Gregory, a pastor must both possess good integrity and love of their neighbors. Gregory’s description of a pastor infers that Jesus Christ is the ultimate pastor, who, like a shepherd, cares for his flock by speaking the truth. Jesus as the Good Shepherd loves and protects his flock. Elaw, Foote, and Truth bodied this pastoral presence as well: speaking a prophetic word to oppressors meant promoting the well-being of the downtrodden. The pastoral and prophetic necessarily interconnect for all women.”

 

This book is easy to read but highlights and shares profound, reorienting thoughts from Elaw, Foote, Truth, and Kate as well. I have recommended it both to fellow scholars and to church folks. On the latter note, it can be profitably read in church book clubs or adult education / spiritual formation contexts. And Kate has also prepared a discussion guide—just reach out to her and she will be happy to send it.

 

I hope you’ll pick up a copy of this book. It will be well worth your time. But you don’t have to just take my word for it. Here are some testimonials from other folks as well:  


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