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Stories / Elizabeth

Elizabeth

Elizabeth, an itinerant Methodist minister, was born enslaved in Maryland and apparently never used a  surname. Elizabeth did not relate the names of her parents or her siblings in the memoir she dictated  at one hundred years of age. She did, however, reveal that her parents belonged to a Methodist Society  and she recalled that every Sabbath morning from the time she was five until she was eleven years old  her father read the Bible aloud to her and the rest of their family. At the age of eleven she was  separated from her family when her owner sold her or her services to another plantation twenty or  more miles away. Elizabeth ignored her overseer's instructions and visited her mother and family.  Inconsolable over the separation from her family, her mother advised Elizabeth that she had “nobody in  the wide world to look to but God” (Elizabeth, 4). She recalled that those words echoed in her head  again and again: “none but God in the wide world.” Upon returning to her owner's farm, “I found the  overseer was displeased at me for going without his liberty. He tied me with a rope, and gave me some  stripes, of which I carried the marks for weeks” (Elizabeth, 3). For six months she fell into deep  depression until she experienced a prolonged religious crisis that resulted in greater faith and courage  to endure her enslavement. Elizabeth's memoir is largely silent on her experiences in slavery and  mentions no names and few locations or dates of events, dwelling mostly on her religious faith and  experiences as a self-appointed itinerant minister. She did, however, reveal that at some point she was  sold to a Presbyterian who did not fully believe in slavery and gave Elizabeth her freedom when she  turned thirty. Sometime thereafter, she held her first religious meeting in the home of a “poor widow”  in Baltimore. Other black women attended, which raised opposition in the community and attempts to  halt Elizabeth's services. After some discussions with church elders, a male representative attended  her meetings and for several years she was able to continue her “ministry.” 

Elizabeth's services increasing attracted local attention and larger crowds, including some local whites  who had heard of Elizabeth's powerful sermons. 

“At one of the meetings, a vast number of the white inhabitants of the place, and many colored  people, attended—many no doubt front curiosity to hear what the old colored woman had to  say. One, a great scripturian, fixed himself behind the door with pen and ink, in order to take  down the discourse in short-hand; but the Almighty Being anointed me with such a portion of  his Spirit, that he cast away his paper and pen, and heard the discourse with patience, and  was much affected, for the Lord wrought powerfully on his heart. After meeting, he came  forward and offered me his hand, with solemnity on his countenance, and handed me  something to pay for my conveyance home.” 
(Elizabeth, 10)

Her fame spread and she held subsequent meetings in Maryland and in Virginia. Her sermons included  condemnations of slavery, and it wasn't long before these attracted the attention of authorities who  threatened to imprison her. What resulted from her antislavery sermons, she did not reveal. Elizabeth  then traveled widely and for four years lived in Michigan, where she established a school for black  students. She also traveled to Canada, holding well-attended services and often participating in Quaker  meetings in her travels, perhaps mostly in Philadelphia where she died. During her last days in the  summer of 1866, she found a Quaker willing to record her story and captured her last words and  painful demise. “Through months of bodily anguish,” her caregiver and amanuensis noted, “occasioned  by gangrenous sores upon one of her feet, which extended from the toes to the knee, destroying in its  terrible course all the flesh, leaving the bone bare and black,” she continued to profess her unyielding  faith. Her memoir, A Colored Minister of the Gospel, Born in Slavery, published by Philadelphia  Quakers twenty-three years after Elizabeth's death, certainly speaks to the Quaker notion of the inner  light. Moreover its equalitarian message and defense of a woman's right to speak and preach  comported well with Quaker thinking and practice. Once, in Virginia, after delivering a sermon that  included a condemnation of slavery, whites confronted her and demanded to know by what authority  she spoke (if she was an ordained minister). She responded “if the Lord had ordained me, I needed  nothing better” (Elizabeth, 10–11).

Read the full, original biography by Regina V. Jones in the African American National Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

Elizabeth, A Colored Minister of the Gospel, Born in Slavery (1889). Available from http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/eliza2/eliza2.html 

Bibliography

Elizabeth. Elizabeth, A Colored Minister of the Gospel, Born in Slavery (1889). Available from http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/eliza2/eliza2.html 

Elizabeth. “Memoir of Old Elizabeth A Coloured Woman, in Six Women's Slave Narratives,” ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988).

Author

Regina V. Jones

Adapted by

Jennifer Mojica Santana

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center

Key Events

1766

Elizabeth is born in Maryland to parents who belonged to a Methodist Society.

c. 1777

At 11-years-old, Elizabeth is separated from her family, having been sold by her master to another plantation, more than 20 miles away. Ignoring her new master’s orders, she visits her family, and her mother tells her that she has “nobody in the wide world to look to but God”. Upon her return to the plantation, she is physically punished. Later, Elizabeth falls into a deep depression for the span of six months, leading her to a “prolonged religious crisis” which sparked greater faith and courage, allowing her endurance throughout her enslavement.

c. 1796

At the age of 30, Elizabeth is granted her freedom. Shortly after her freedom, she hosts her first religious meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, where she continues her "ministry" for severe more years. Her sermons grant her "fame", allowing her to host them throughout Maryland and Virginia. Because they included condemnations of slavery, the authorities threatened to imprison her. Elizabeth lived in Michigan for four years, where she established a school for Black students. She then travels to Canada and participates in Quaker meetings.

Summer 1866

She finds a Quaker in Philadelphia who is willing to record her story and last words. Despite health troubles—she suffered from gangrenous legs and feet—her religious faith never wavered.

June 11, 1866

Elizabeth dies in Philadelphia, a result of gangrene.

1889

Elizabeth's memoir, Elizabeth, A Colored Minister of the Gospel, Born in Slavery, is published by Philadelphia Quakers.