Early African-American spiritual autobiographies were published in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Authors of these narratives include James Gronniosaw, John Marrant, and George White. William L. Andrews argues that these early narratives "gave the twin themes of the Afro-American 'pregeneric myth'—knowledge and freedom—their earliest narrative form". These spiritual narratives were important predecessors of the slave narratives which proliferated the literary scene of the 19th century. These spiritual narratives have often been left out of the study of African-American literature because some scholars have deemed them historical or sociological documents, despite their importance to understanding African-American literature as a whole.
African-American women who wrote spiritual narratives had to negotiate the precarious positions of being black and women in early America. Women claimed their authority to preach and write spiritual narratives by citing the Epistle of James, often calling themselves "doers of the word". The study of these women and their spiritual narratives are significant to the understanding of African-American life in the Antebellum North because they offer both historical context and literary tropes. Women who wrote these narratives had a clear knowledge of literary genres and biblical narratives. This contributed to advancing their message about African-American women’s agency and countered the dominant racist and sexist discourse of early American society.
Zilpha Elaw was born in 1790 in America to free parents. She was a preacher for five years in England without the support of a denomination. She published her Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travel and Labours of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, an American Female of Colour in 1846, while still living in England. Her narrative was meant to be an account of her spiritual experience. Yet some critics argue that her work was also meant to be a literary contribution. Elaw aligns herself in a literary tradition of respectable women of her time who were trying to combat the immoral literature of the time.
Maria W. Stewart published a collection of her religious writings with an autobiographical experience attached in 1879. The publication was called Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart. She also had two works published in 1831 and 1832 titled Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality and Meditations. Maria Stewart was known for her public speeches in which she talked about the role of black women and race relations. Her works were praised by Alexander Crummell and William Lloyd Garrison. Stewart's works have been argued to be a refashioning of the jeremiad tradition and focus on the specific plight of African Americans in America during the period.–
Jarena Lee published two religious autobiographical narratives: The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee and Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee. These two narratives were published in 1836 and 1849 respectively. Both works spoke about Lee's life as a preacher for the African Methodist Church. But her narratives were not endorsed by the Methodists because a woman preaching was contrary to their church doctrine. Some critics argue that Lee's contribution to African-American literature lies in her disobedience to the patriarchal church system and her assertion of women's rights within the Methodist Church.
Nancy Prince was born in 1799, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and was of African and Native American descent. She turned to religion at the age of 16 in an attempt to find comfort from the trials of her life. She married Nero Prince and traveled extensively in the West Indies and Russia. She became a missionary and in 1841 she tried to raise funds for missionary work in the West Indies, publishing a pamphlet entitled The West Indies: Being a Description of the Islands, Progress of Christianity, Education, and Liberty Among the Colored Population Generally. Later, in 1850, she published A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince. These publications were both spiritual narratives and travel narratives. Similar to Jarena Lee, Prince adhered to the standards of Christian religion by framing her unique travel narrative in a Christian perspective. Yet, her narrative poses a counter narrative to the 19th century's ideal of a demure woman who had no voice in society and little knowledge of the world.
Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) was a leading advocate in both the abolitionist and feminist movements in the 19th century. Born Isabella to a wealthy Dutch master in Ulster County, New York, she adopted the name Sojourner Truth after forty years of struggle, first to attain her freedom and then to work on the mission she felt God intended for her. This new name was to "signify the new person she had become in the spirit, a traveler dedicated to speaking the Truth as God revealed it". Truth played a significant role during the Civil War. She worked tirelessly on several civil rights fronts; she recruited black troops in Michigan, helped with relief efforts for freedmen and women escaping from the South, led a successful effort to desegregate the streetcars in Washington, D.C., and she counseled President Abraham Lincoln. Truth never learned to read or write but in 1850, she worked with Oliver Gilbert, a sympathetic white woman, to write the Narrative of Sojourner Truth. This narrative was a contribution to both the slave narrative and female spiritual narratives.
Famous quotes containing the word spiritual:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
—Bible: New Testament Ephesians 6:12.