A Beautiful Life: Amanda Berry Smith, 19th century black female evangelist

Amanda Smith (Wikimedia Commons).

I’ve always wanted to write about Amanda Smith, and here I’ll introduce her.  I’m sure she must be known in some circles, but when I first read about her over a decade ago, I was actually shocked.  I had never heard of her, even though she was an international evangelist and missionary.  Why is that?

Generally, we tend here, in America, to not learn much history, and when we attempt it, it seems all stale and dry, and no one seems to remember much.  Otherwise, I think we are still a male dominated culture, no matter what people say or how we can point to how long respect and equality have been taught in schools.  Amanda was black and female, and she experienced much prejudice on both counts in this country.  During her stays in other countries, including Great Britain, she was treated with respect and without prejudice.  Also, religious history and biography are not taught in school much, and churches basically stick to teaching the Bible or their own flavor of doctrine, and ignore historical and biographical lessons.  You can find quite a few references to Amanda online, but I read of her in Six Qualities of Women of Character by Debra Evans (Zondervan Publishing House 1996).

But what about Amanda; what is her story?  Amanda was born into slavery, in Maryland, in 1837.  Thankfully, her family was one that was permitted to stay together.  She knew her grandmother and her father, although her father worked so incredibly hard, she probably saw him little until their eventual freedom.  Her parents were faithful Christians, and her mother and grandmother prayed for the salvation of their young mistress, Celie.  Celie indeed became saved, but soon after contracted typhoid fever and died.  Her death bed wish to her parents was to let free her slaves, who were her Christian siblings.  Her parents granted her request and Amanda became free at the age of 13.

While she experienced the faith of her immediate family, she felt that she needed a conversion experience.  She needed to make a commitment herself.  This she did at a Baptist revival meeting in 1856; she was forever changed and strengthened by relationship with Christ that began then.  Her life was hard and she needed the Lord’s strength!  She married a man at 17, and he turned out to be an alcoholic.  Their marriage was full of strife, but it didn’t last long as her husband was killed in the Civil War.    She had a daughter by this marriage, Mazie, and Amanda worked hard indeed for her well-being.

Her second marriage wasn’t much better.  The man she married tricked her into thinking he was going to be appointed minister in a local church, which Amanda was thrilled about.  But after the marriage, she found that he in fact had given up the thought of ministering for Christ.  Can you imagine this deception, how it would feel to one who was overjoyed at the thought of being able to serve her Lord fully, and in fellowship with a group of other passionate believers?

After this, desiring affirmation from God, a confirmation of her salvation and desire to be close to God and serve Him, she prayed.  She encountered the Holy Spirit twice one night in September 1868,

. . . a wave came over me, and such a welling up in my heart . . . . How I have lived through it I cannot tell, but the blessedness of the love and the peace and power I can never describe.  O, what a glory filled my soul!  The great vacuum in my soul began to fill up; it was like a pleasant draught of cool water, and I felt it.  I wanted to shout Glory to Jesus!  . . . . Just as I put my foot on the top step I seemed to feel a hand, the touch of which I cannot describe.  It seemed to press me gently on the top of my head, and I felt something part and roll down and over me like a great cloak!  I felt it distinctly; it was done in a moment, and O what a mighty peace and power took possession of me!  (Amanda Smith, in An Autobiography:  The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Amanda Smith [1894], as quoted in Evans pp 180-181.)

Amanda now felt that the Lord was with her, in control of her life no matter how hard it was, and she prayed constantly and learned from her Lord during the most tedious of times.  She talked with anyone she could about Christ, finding it easy after taking the effort to start.  While her husband was alive, her ministry was local, but after he died things changed.  She began ministering at meetings in New Jersey, and soon found herself being invited to speak and sing at revival meetings all across the U.S.  She soon felt God telling her to minister in Africa and India, but she was to go to Great Britain first.

While fearful of crossing the Atlantic, she finally realized that her fear showed a lack of trust in God.  She eventually repented and made the watery trek.  God had a surprise in store for Amanda, and no doubt a confidence boosting mission it was:  the captain of the ship asked Amanda to conduct the ship’s services.  Though there was prejudice against her on that voyage, she won everyone over by the time the trip was over.

In Great Britain, she was welcomed with open arms.  It didn’t matter that she was black, or female.  She had thought that her time there would be about three months, but she preached around the whole of England and Scotland for two years.  She met and was respected by those in the upper class, and these helped her in her future work for the Lord.  Her daughter’s room and board in America were paid for, so she needn’t worry about that, and her trip to India finally became a reality.  The poverty and the very poor treatment of women she saw there “gripped her heart instantly.”  The experience made her realize something that affected her ministry the rest of her life–that evangelism must be coupled with the meeting of practical human needs as well.

Next, she ministered in Liberia, touching and influencing many lives there for eight years.  When she came back to the United States she worked with African-American orphans and opened an orphanage in the Chicago area.  She was able to do this with the funds garnered from her memoirs.  In her final few years of life, Amanda was able to enjoy Florida in a donated home.  She died in 1915, having lived a beautiful life of giving and loving.

A missionary to India, Bishop James Thoburn, said this of Amanda:

Through my association with her I learned many valuable lessons, more that has been of actual value to me as a preacher of Christian truth than from any other person I have ever met (Evans p 186).

Thank you, Lord, for blessing Amanda and blessing us through her example!

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2 thoughts on “A Beautiful Life: Amanda Berry Smith, 19th century black female evangelist”

  1. I remember reading a copy of Amanda Smith’s autobiography, belonging to a sister who is now with the Lord. Regretably i had complained to the Lord, that, HE had forgotten African-Americans, in particular those who were desiring a deeper walk with the Lord (as if HE could). I was soundly rebuked by Amada Smiths godly life. I Thank the Lord you made her life’s story available. I pray God richly bless you, denise

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