Smith, Amanda Berry (1837–1915)

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Smith, Amanda Berry (1837–1915)

Slave-born Protestant evangelist and missionary. Born Amanda Berry on January 23, 1837, in Long Green, Maryland; died of a paralytic stroke in Sebring, Florida, on February 24, 1915; daughter of Samuel Berry and Miriam Matthews, slaves on adjoining farms; married Calvin Devine, in September 1854; married James Smith, in 1863; children: (first marriage) name unknown (died in infancy) and Mazie; (second marriage): Nell, Thomas Henry, and Will.

Began career as itinerant evangelist in Holiness circles (1869); traveled to England to preach (1878) and left to become missionary to India (1879); worked as missionary in West Africa (1882–89); traveled to Great Britain before returning to the U.S. and settling in the Chicago area; began work on establishment of orphanage for African-American children (1895); opened Amanda Smith Orphan's Home for Colored Children (1899); moved to Florida (1912).

Amanda Berry Smith was born into bondage in Long Green, Maryland, in 1837, the daughter of slaves living on adjoining farms. Her father Samuel Berry earned the money to purchase his freedom by working late into the night, making brooms and husk mats to sell at a local market. Buying the freedom of his wife Miriam Matthews and their five children proved to be much harder, however, and it was only because of a promise made on her deathbed by the mistress of Miriam Matthews that they were finally freed.

The family lived as "freedmen" in Maryland for a short time, then took jobs on the farm of John Lowe in Pennsylvania. Sam Berry's house became a regular stop for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad, and Amanda Smith's recollections of her girlhood are filled with stories of courage and fear as the family hid runaways between the bed ropes and mattresses and watched in horror as the bloodhounds attacked fugitives near their home.

Amanda was educated primarily by her parents, who could both read and write. She did attend school briefly when she was eight and again when she was thirteen, but she taught herself how to read by cutting out large letters from a newspaper and asking her mother to arrange them in words on a windowsill. Throughout her life, she was an avid reader of the Bible and religious literature, and as a mother she would work with great determination for the education of her daughter Mazie Devine and her adopted African son Bob in the face of grave financial obstacles.

When Amanda was 13, she became a domestic servant in a small town near York, Pennsylvania. One night she attended a revival meeting in a local Methodist church. While she was seated at the back because she was the only African-American present, a white woman in the audience invited Smith to repent her sins and accept Jesus as savior. "I went home and resolved I would be the Lord's and live for him," wrote Smith. Amanda and her parents joined a Methodist church, but when she attended her class meeting, the small support group for prayer and study in the Methodist tradition, she was required to wait until the prayers of the white members were ended before she could speak. As a result, she would be late in arriving at her employers' to serve Sunday dinner. Pressure from her employers and a study of books which were critical of Christianity temporarily cooled her religious passion.

Amanda continued to earn her living as a live-in servant in families in eastern Pennsylvania and the Baltimore area. In 1854, she married her first husband Calvin Devine, who soon proved to be a heavy drinker, although "in many things he was good." Her first child died in infancy, and in 1855 she fell dangerously ill. Near death, she had a vision, first of an angel standing at the foot of her bed, telling her to "go back," and then of herself preaching at a large camp meeting. Although it would be some time before she found inner peace, the vision and her recovery rekindled her dedication to Christianity.

By the start of the Civil War, Amanda had a daughter Mazie. Her husband enlisted in the Union army, was sent to the South, and was never heard from again. In a desperate financial plight, Amanda moved to Philadelphia and did laundry, ironing, cleaning and cooking, boarding the child out with a succession of families. In 1863, it was primarily the promise of a stable home, and a chance to begin her evangelistic work, that moved Amanda to marry James Smith, a deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The opportunity for financial security proved false when James lost interest in becoming a licensed preacher, reducing his chances of an adequate income for the family. The marriage was not a happy one, and the family was in constant need.

In 1865, they moved to New York City, where James took a job at Leland's Hotel. Their material circumstances were not much improved, and loneliness drove Amanda to join women's societies for the wives of master masons. She continued to take in washing and ironing and hired herself out as a maid; at times, conditions were so spartan that an ironing board served as her bed. When James accepted a better job as a coachman in New Utrecht, New York, Amanda did not go with him, refusing to be uprooted again. Another reason was religion. By this time, her spiritual life was also being renewed.

An acquaintance in New York had told her about the experience of sanctification, a key concept in an important Protestant movement in America known as the Holiness movement. Sanctification involved much more than simply the forgiveness of sins based on a person's belief in Jesus. A sanctified Christian was so closely directed by God that she or he rarely sinned intentionally; if ordinary conversion were like God's moonlight, sanctification was like his sunlight, permeating all the dark corners of the heart. This was, in Smith's words, "the pearl of greatest price—the blessing of a clean heart." Smith claimed to have such an experience in September 1868, while listening to the preaching of John Inskip at the Green Street Church in New York City.

During her second marriage, Smith gave birth to three children, all of whom died at a young age. After the death of her husband in 1869, she was poised to begin her career as an evangelist with the particular message that the complete Christian was the sanctified Christian. She resolved to work "in God's vineyard," as he directed. She continued to support herself as a cook and cleaning woman, as well as taking in mending and laundry, but she rejected positions as a live-in domestic servant because they would require her to work on Sundays. She passed out tracts about sanctification in the street, spoke privately to people about the experience in their homes, addressed small prayer groups and sang in African-American and white Methodist churches in Brooklyn and Harlem, gradually widening her audiences until she was also speaking at revivals.

Smith once referred to herself as a "speckled bird" among her people, indicating that she was regarded as an oddity, and even a threat. The public view of her was partly due to her modest circumstances and her plain Quaker style of dress, but it was also due to her message and the fact that she was a woman. The doctrine of sanctification was controversial, contested by many Christian leaders who doubted the reality of such an experience, declaring that it was extreme arrogance to even consider the possibility of existing in such a sinless partnership with God.

I have been bought twice and set free twice, and so I feel I have a good right to shout.

—Amanda Berry Smith

Until 1869, Smith's evangelism was confined to the area around New York City. In November of that year, she claims, she was called directly by God while sitting in church one Sunday. She had a vision of the word "Go" in the front of a church and then distinctly heard the word "preach." Although she was virtually penniless, she moved to Salem, New Jersey, where she remained until June 1870, launching a decade of service as an itinerant preacher throughout the northeastern United States. She was in particular demand at Holiness camp meetings. Throughout her travels, Smith believed that God put the seal of approval on her labors by providing money when it was needed, and a rich harvest of souls.

In front of her audiences, Smith would sometimes merely describe her experience of sanctification and sing a beloved hymn; at other times, however, her "exhortations" based on texts from the Bible caused consternation, by coming very close to formal preaching. Over the years she found many churches closed to her because she was a female evangelist, and once she began traveling widely she often had to contend with protests in local newspapers.

In 1872, Smith felt called to attend the general conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Nashville, despite the fact that she was discouraged by men in her denomination who feared she represented a faction within the church which supported the ordination of women. The ordination issue was never raised, but Smith felt the rebuff of the church's leaders and their well-dressed wives. In her autobiography she writes, "I give this little story in detail, to show that even with my own people, … I have not always met with the pleasantest things. But I still have not backslidden, nor felt led to leave the church." Nevertheless, her presence and reputation kept alive the question of the role of women in the church. In 1884, her influence helped to persuade the church to license women as evangelists, and in 1890, it helped to create the position of deaconess for women committed to social work.

The A.M.E. conference was forced to acknowledge Smith's influence, not only because of her work in its own churches, but because of the following she built up among white audiences, especially at camp meetings. Racism, however, was clearly another obstacle in her work. Because she was an African-American, there were many restaurants and hotels where she could not stop when traveling, and she was sometimes insulted by members of the white congregations to whom she preached. After she became well known, she was sometimes asked if she would not prefer to be white, to which she would reply, "No, we who are the royal black are very well satisfied with His gift to us in this substantial color. I, for one, praise Him for what He has given me, although at times it is very inconvenient." When her crusade eventually took her to Egypt, the beauty and the strength of the black men and women she saw reinforced her pride in her race, as did her realization that God had chosen Egypt as the hiding place for the infant Jesus and the home of Moses.

In 1878, Smith overcame her fear of the sea and sailed for England to visit the great Holiness gathering at Keswick. On board the Ohio, she raised many eyebrows as a black woman traveling without an escort, but she struck up a friendship with Quakers, who were accustomed to female preachers and encouraged her to hold services for the passengers.

Smith toured England as an itinerant preacher, speaking outdoors, in public halls and in Baptist and Methodist churches, her expenses for the journey met by friends. Her sincerity and fervor, accompanied by a rich contralto voice, won her wide acclaim, even from those who had never heard a woman formally address an audience. During the tour she met missionary Lucy Drake , who persuaded Smith to accompany her back to India. After visiting Paris and Rome, they arrived in Bombay in November 1879. Two months later, Smith began a tour of the mission stations and churches in India, advocating the doctrine of sanctification and encouraging abstinence from alcohol. Temperance became an important theme of her overseas work after she witnessed the extensive importation of alcohol into India and Africa by European merchants.

In Smith's Autobiography, she recalls a service in which she gave her views on the famous passage in I Corinthians 14, in which the apostle Paul directed that "women keep silent in the churches." In the only time she chooses to address this issue directly, she explains her belief that Paul meant in this case for women and men to keep silent while another was speaking, so as to preserve the good order of the Christian community. The evangelist was convinced that God had kept the promise he made through the ancient prophet Joel, who wrote that the spirit of God would someday descend upon both the sons and daughters of Israel.

In 1881, Smith was back in the U.S. when she set sail again, making a brief stopover in England before heading for Monrovia to begin a new chapter in her evangelical endeavors. As a child she had heard her parents speak of Africa, and she had read a newspaper which featured scenes from native villages; years later, however, while attending a mission day at a Holiness camp meeting, she had been struck by the realization that none of its programs were directed toward the continent of Africa. At first she resolved to prepare her daughter to pursue this crusade, but Mazie did not share her mother's evangelical zeal, and it was not until 1881 that Smith herself could act on her concerns.

Beginning in Monrovia, she conducted tours of the kind she had started in India, but this time between bouts of fever. She worked closely with local church leaders, including the Methodist bishops. She remained in West Africa for eight years, primarily in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In 1890, Smith returned to the U.S., and after a brief period of itinerant preaching she settled into a Chicago suburb to write her Autobiography. Although suffering from chronic rheumatism, she also purchased land there to establish an orphanage for African-American children. The institution languished, however, because of a perpetual lack of funding, and was eventually destroyed by fire.

For a brief period in her life, when she lived in Philadelphia, Smith had owned property; in 1912, she gratefully accepted the offer of a house in Sebring, Florida, to which she could retire. It was there that she died, in 1915, of a stroke.

sources and suggested reading:

Cadbury, M.H. The Life of Amanda Smith. Birmingham, England: 1916.

Smith, Amanda Berry. An Autobiography; The Story of the Lord's Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith the Colored Evangelist. With an introduction by Jualynne E. Dodson. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.

"Smith, Amanda Berry," in Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 3. Edited by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Taylor, Marshall William. The Life, Travels, Labors and Helpers of Mrs. Amanda Smith; the Famous Negro Missionary Evangelist. Cincinnati, OH: printed by Cranston & Stowe for the author, c. 1886.

Barbara J. MacHaffie , Associate Professor of History and Religion, Marietta College, Marietta, Ohio

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