Primary Source: Excerpt from "Elizabeth, a Colored Minister of the Gospel, Born in Slavery"

This memoir, or autobiography, tells the story of Elizabeth, who was born enslaved and became a Christian minister. It was first published in 1863, when she was 97 years old, and was republished by the Society of Friends in 1889.

Two excerpts from Elizabeth’s memoir are presented here. In the first, she tells of her childhood, her sale away from her family, and her dramatic conversion experience. In the second, she tells how she was called to become a minister. She faced opposition not only from white people who feared that black preachers would make trouble among enslaved people, but also from many black Americans who would not accept a woman as a minister. Most churches, at that time, prohibited women from preaching. She held prayer meetings in homes, and eventually traveled through much of the United States and Canada, holding religious meetings and preaching.

[early life and conversion]

I was born in Maryland in the year 1766. My parents were slaves. Both my father and mother were religious people, and belonged to the Methodist SocietyMethodists were one of the largest Christian denominations in the 18th century. By the 1840s, they were the largest church in America. The Methodists were founded by John Wesley in England and came to the American north during the 1760s. Itinerant preachers (men who rode between communities) spread Methodism throughout the United States. Many African Americans joined or followed Methodism. Although whites did not treat blacks as equals in their congregations, Methodists in the North were opponents of slavery and spoke against the culture of southern white planters. They shunned violence, materialism, and frivolous activities such as gambling and horse racing, and they refused to be deferential or respectful to people who had higher social rank. Many historians have argued that the popularity of Methodism before the American Revolution helped instill in many people a belief in equality and a suspicion of social hierarchy, beliefs that were central to the Patriot cause. After the Revolution, Methodism continued to attract converts in part because the values of the Methodist church agreed with the political and social values of many Americans. Methodists played an important role in the abolition of slavery in the northern states. In the southern states, members rejected the mission of the Methodist church in England and the American North to abolish slavery. In 1841, members in the South withdrew from the main body of the church and formed a separate organization known as the Southern Methodist Church.. It was my father's practice to read in the Bible aloud to his children every sabbath morning. At these seasons, when I was but five years old, I often felt the overshadowing of the Lord's SpiritElizabeth felt God watching over her, or God's influence in her life. She is telling the reader that she believed she was chosen by God to be a minister early in her life, although she did not know this at the age of five., without at all understanding what it meant; and these incomes and influences continued to attend me until I was eleven years old, particularly when I was alone, by which I was preserved from doing anything that I thought was wrong.

In the eleventh year of my age, my master sent me to another farm several miles from my parents, brothers and sisters, which was a great trouble to me. At last I grew so lonely and sad I thought I should die, if I did not see my mother. I asked the overseer if I might go, but being positively denied, I concluded to go without his knowledge. When I reached home my mother was away. I set off and walked twenty miles before I found her. I staid with her for several days, and we returned together. Next day I was sent back to my new place, which renewed my sorrow. At parting, my mother told me that I had "nobody in the wide world to look to but God." These words fell upon my heart with ponderous weight, and seemed to add to my grief. I went back repeating as I went, "none but God in the wide world." On reaching the farm, I found the overseer was displeased at me for going without his libertyAn overseer was a white person hired by a plantation owner to conduct the day-to-day business of running the plantation. Slaves could not leave a plantation without permission of their overseer or owner. It was not uncommon for slaves to leave and visit family on neighboring villages, as Elizabeth did, but slaves who left without permission were typically whipped as punishment.. He tied me with a rope, and gave me some stripes, of which I carried the marks for weeks.

After this time, finding as my mother said, I had none in the world to look to but God, I betook myself to prayer, and in every lonely place I found an altar. I mourned sore like a dove and chattered forth my sorrow, moaning in the corners of the field, and under the fences.

I continued in this state for about six months, feeling as though my head were waters, and I could do nothing but weepElizabeth's conversion experience was similar to others, like that of Nathan Cole. She experienced emotional and physical anxiety and dread and wondered if she was chosen to be saved or damned. She wished that God would forgive her for being a sinner and she wanted to know if she had been chosen for heaven or hell.. I lost my appetite, and not being able to take enough food to sustain nature, I became so weak I had but little strength to work; still I was required to do all my duty. One evening, after the duties of the day were ended, I thought I could not live over the night, so threw myself on a bench, expecting to die, and without being prepared to meet my Maker; and my spirit cried within me, must I die in this state, and be banished from Thy presence forever? I own I am a sinner in Thy sight, and not fit to live where thou art. Still it was my fervent desire that the Lord would pardon me. Just at this season, I saw with my spiritual eyeSome religious people believed that the body prevented people from experiencing things of the spirit. To see something with "spiritual eyes" means that the person is not relying on logic or reason -- they are not looking at the experience with their "physical eyes"; rather, they are experiencing something that is spiritual and beyond this world., an awful gulf of misery. As I thought I was about to plunge into it, I heard a voice saying, "rise up and pray," which strengthened me. I fell on my knees and prayed the best I could the Lord's prayer. Knowing no more to say, I halted, but continued on my knees. My spirit was then taught to pray, "Lord have mercy on me -- Christ save me." Immediately there appeared a directorA guide, probably similar to an angel., clothed in white raiment. I thought he took me by the hand and said, "come with me." He led me down a long journey to a fiery gulf, and left me standing upon the brink of this awful pit. I began to scream for mercy, thinking I was about to sink to endless ruin. Although I prayed and wrestled with all my might, it seemed in vain. Still I felt all the while that I was sustained by some invisible power. At this solemn moment, I thought I saw a hand from which hung, as it were, a silver hair, and a voice told me that all the hope I had of being saved was no more than a hair; still, pray and it will be sufficient. I then renewed my struggle, crying for mercy and salvation, until I found that every cry raised me higher and higher, and my head was quite above the fiery pillars. Then I thought I was permitted to look straight forward and saw the Saviour standing with his hand stretched out to receive me. An indescribably glorious light was in Him, and He said, "peace, peace, come unto me." At this moment I felt that my sins were forgiven me, and the time of my deliverance was at hand. I sprang forward and fell at his feet, giving Him all the thanks and highest praises, crying, Thou hast redeemed me -- Thou hast redeemed me to thyself. I felt filled with light and love. At this moment I thought my former guide took me again by the hand and led me upward, till I came to the celestial world and to heaven's door, which I saw was open, and while I stood there, a power surrounded me which drew me in, and I saw millions of glorified spirits in white robes. After I had this view, I thought I heard a voice saying, "Art thou willing to be saved?" I said, "Yes Lord." Again I was asked, "Art thou willing to be saved in my way?" I stood speechless until he asked me again, "Art thou willing to be saved in my way?" Then I heard a whispering voice say, "If thou art not saved in the Lord's way, thou canst not be saved at all;" at which I exclaimed, "Yes Lord, in thy own way.In Elizabeth's vision, we clearly see the difference between modern ideas of salvation, where a person chooses Jesus as his or her personal savior, and eighteenth century ideas of salvation, where God chooses who will be saved and who will be damned. Elizabeth must be saved in "God's way" -- at God's choosing. This letter, from after the Second Great Awakening, shows sinners choosing God." Immediately a light fell upon my head, and I was filled with light and I was shown the world lying in wickedness, and was told I must go there, and call the people to repentance, for the day of the Lord was at hand"The day of the Lord is at hand" means that the end of the world was near. This is called Millennialism. Some Christian denominations believed that there will be an end to the world and that, following the collapse of society, all of the wicked people would be sent to hell and a Golden Age would begin. Over one thousand years -- the "Millenium" -- Jesus would personally reign over all the earth and there would be no suffering, no sickness, no illness. At the end of the Millennium, all people would be judged by God and the chosen or saved people would go and live with God while all others would spend eternity in the fires of hell.; and this message was as a heavy yoke upon meElizabeth believed she had been called by God to be a preacher., so that I wept bitterly at the thought of what I should have to pass through. While I wept, I heard a voice say, "weep not, some will laugh at thee, some will scoff at thee, and the dogs will bark at thee, but while thou doest my will, I will be with thee to the ends of the earth."

I was at this time not yet thirteen years old. The next day, when I had come to myself, I felt like a new creature in Christ, and all my desire was to see the Saviour....

Some years from this time I was sold to a Presbyterian for a term of years, as he did not think it right to hold slaves for life. Having served him faithfully my time out, he gave me my liberty, which was about the thirtieth year of my age....

[becoming a minister]

One day, after these things, while I was at my work, the Spirit directed me to go to a poor widow, and ask her if I might have a meeting at her house, which was situated in one of the lowest and worst streets in Baltimore. With great joy she gave notice, and at the time appointed I appeared there among a few colored sisters. When they had all prayed, they called upon me to close the meeting, and I felt an impression that I must say a few words; and while I was speaking, the house seemed filled with light; and when I was about to close the meeting, and was kneeling, a man came in and stood till I arose. It proved to be a watchman. The sisters became so frightened, they all went away except the one who lived in the house, and an old woman; they both appeared to be much frightened, fearing they should receive some personal injury, or be put out of the house. A feeling of weakness came over me for a short time, but I soon grew warm and courageous in the Spirit. The man then said to me, "I was sent here to break up your meeting. Complaint has been made to me that the people round here cannot sleep for the racket." I replied, "a good racket is better than a bad racket. How do they rest when the ungodly are dancing and fiddling till midnight? Why are not they molested by the watchmen? and why should we be for praising God, our Maker? Are we worthy of greater punishment for praying to Him? and are we to be prohibited from doing so, that sinners may remain slumbering in their sins?" Speaking several words more, he turned pale and trembled, and begged my pardon, acknowledging that it was not his wish to interrupt us, and that he would never disturb a religious assembly again. He then took leave of me in a comelypleasant manner and wished us success.

Our meeting gave great offence, and we were forbid holding any more assembliesPeople opposed Elizabeth's meetings for two reasons -- because she was black and because she was a woman. First, because whites feared assemblies of blacks and worried that they would plot a rebellion. Maryland was a slave state, and many enslaved and free blacks lived and worked side by side in the city of Baltimore. Second, most people during this time period did not believe that women should lead meetings, speak in public, or serve as leaders.. Even the elders of our meeting joined with the wicked people, and said such meetings must be stopped, and that woman quieted. But I was not afraid of any of them and continued to go, and burnt with a zeal not my own. The old sisters were zealous sometimes, and at other times would sink under the cross. Thus they grew cold, at which I was much grieved. I proposed to them to ask the elders to send a brother, which was concluded upon.

We went on for several years, and the Lord was with us with great power it proved, to the conversion of many souls, and we continued to grow stronger.

I felt at times that I must exercise in the ministry, but when I rose upon my feet I felt ashamed, and so I went under a cloud for some time, and endeavored to keep silence; but I could not quench the Spirit. I was rejected by the elders and rulers, as Christ was rejected by the Jews before me, and while others were excused in crimes of the darkest dye, I was hunted down in every place where I appointed a meeting. Wading through many sorrows, I thought at times I might as well be banished from this life, as to feel the Almighty drawing me one way, and man another; so that I was tempted to cast myself into the dockShe was tempted to kill herself.. But contemplating the length of eternity, and how long my sufferings would be in that unchangeable world, compared with this, if I endured a little longer, the Lord was pleased to deliver me from this gloomy, melancholy state in his own time; though while this temptation lasted I roved up and down, and talked and prayed.

I often felt that I was unfit to assemble with the congregation with whom I had gathered, and had sometimes been made to rejoice in the Lord. I felt that I was despised on account of this gracious calling, and was looked upon as a speckled birdThis is probably a reference to Jeremiah 12:9, "Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour." A "speckled bird" refers to someone who is unwanted or cast out. by the ministers to whom I looked for instruction, and to whom I resorted every opportunity for the same; but when I would converse with them, some would cry out, "You are an enthusiast;" and others said, "the Discipline did not allow of any such division of the work;" until I began to think I surely must be wrong. Under this reflection, I had another gloomy cloud to struggle through; but after awhile I felt much moved upon by the Spirit of the Lord, and meeting with an aged sister I found upon conversing with her that she could sympathize with me in this spiritual work. She was the first one I had met with, who could fully understand my exercises Exercise means her conversion experience.. She offered to open her house for a meeting, and run the risk of all the church would do to her for it. Many were afraid to open their houses in this way, lest they should be turned out of the church.

I persevered, notwithstanding the opposition of those who were looked upon as higher and wiser. The meeting was appointed, and but few came. I felt much backwardness, and as though I could not pray, but a pressure upon me to arise and express myself by way of exhortation. After hesitating for some time whether I would take up the cross or no, I arose, and after expressing a few words, the Spirit came upon me with life, and a victory was gained over the power of darkness, and we could rejoice together in his love.


Credit text

Elizabeth, A Colored Minister of the Gospel, Born in Slavery (Philadelphia: Published by the Tract Association of Friends, 1889), pp. 2–4, 5, 6–9. - Original Source