Evangelist/Preacher to the World
As an ongoing inspiration to American and international generations, preacher and former slave Amanda Berry Smith was born in January, 1837 near Baltimore, Maryland to enslaved parents, the oldest of 13 siblings. Her father Samuel was well regarded by his master’s widow enough to operate her farm and also to pursue other income opportunities on his off time. To do this, he crafted brooms and husk mats for customers. However, his ongoing desire was for his freedom, first for himself and then for his family. When this became a reality the family eventually settled in Pennsylvania.
As she grew up, Amanda (unlike many enslaved children) did learn to read and write, and developed a love of learning and in particular the Bible. Her parents encouraged and assisted her education, then at age eight she was allowed to attend school, even though it was only for a several months. She later described how she learned to read: “I first taught myself to read by cutting out large letters from the newspapers my father would bring home. Then I would lay them on the window and ask mother to put them together for me to make words. I shall never forget how delighted I was when I first read: ‘The house, the tree, the dog, the cow.’”
So though Amanda and her siblings attended school when they could they also learned from their parents or taught themselves and each other. Then Amanda married at age 17 and though they had one surviving child, her husband was an alcoholic abuser. Then when the Civil War began, he enlisted and was killed in battle in 1863. All through this time Amanda worked in domestic service, as a cook or a laundress, to provide for her family.
She remarried and moved to Philadelphia and there she began to attend revival services and joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church which was one branch of the large denomination known as the Methodist church. At the time membership in the church was segregated into Black and white congregations, but one large white branch did suffer a split–a separation based on their views of slavery.
Meanwhile, Amanda continued to work as a domestic as she dealt with the loss of two husbands and her children from her second marriage. As she grieved Amanda found great comfort in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and became acquainted with Phoebe Palmer, a white woman connected with the Wesleyan Holiness branch of the church. Then in 1868 Amanda believed she had attained a new Spiritual level of perfection called sanctification.
It was this doctrine that became the major topic of Amanda’s preaching as she joined the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness and began to tour and speak for them. Camp Meetings—held in a tent or building—were church gatherings where a special speaker evangelized and preached the gospel. There were also choirs, congregational singing and fellowship.
By 1869 as Smith first began preaching the AME clergy objected since women preachers were not allowed in some churches. However, she gradually overcame these objections and over the next few years she began traveling to speak at AME churches, as well as other events of the Methodist and Holiness groups.
Amanda’s congeniality and inspiring messages made her an appealing and popular speaker at these groups around the country. Also, she came to rely on prayer as she trusted the Lord for clothing, needed funds and the ability to feed her family. As her popularity increased and as she traveled, and to avoid criticism she made it a point to dress simply in a simple dress and bonnet. In fact, by 1870 her evangelistic messages were her main source of income, and by that date she had traveled from as far north as Maine and as far south as Tennessee.
During her career, Amanda was not ordained and did not receive financial support from the AME Church, or any other group. However, she was actually the first Black woman speaking internationally in 1879, traveling to Europe and then around the world. This began when she accompanied her daughter Mazie to England for schooling, then remained when her many friends urged her to address British audiences, on various topics such as temperance. One friend was American evangelist Dwight L. Moody who invited her to speak to his audiences, as they both probably realized that since Black women were rare at that time in Britain, her race and gender would attract an audience. She then traveled to Europe for other engagements, and in October, 1879 she and her friends set out for India, for her to speak on the subject of temperance.
When she spoke in Calcutta there was local opposition to her appearance and message, and a local minister feared violence. He wrote later about her response to the threat: “Sister Smith knelt on the grass and began to pray. She turned her face—smiling to the sky and poured out her soul. The crowd became very still—transfixed by her appearance—and did not even whisper. It was as if they were in the midst of a church.”
She spent some 18 months in India and so greatly impressed a Methodist bishop there he had great compliments for her: “During the seventeen years that I have lived in Calcutta, I have…never known anyone who could draw and hold so large an audience as Mrs. Smith…I had learned more that had been of actual value to me as a preacher of Christian truth from Amanda Smith than from any other person I have ever met.”
Later travels took her to Liberia where she spent another eight years in West Africa. There as she ministered she often was overwhelmed by the peoples’ poverty as well as their spiritual needs. Occasionally, she found that she lacked food and medicine for them, yet she never asked for money. She simply prayed and asked God to provide. And He responded—on two different occasions donations arrived just as they were needed. As one biographer put it, ‘God showed her that when she depended fully on him that he would provide.’
Throughout her traveling and speaking ministry both in the U.S. and abroad, she became the AME’s most effective missionaries, and opened the way for other Black women to become preachers for the AME church.
By 1890 she returned to the U.S. and eventually settled in the Chicago area. She also wrote her autobiography titled An Autobiography: The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, the Colored Evangelist published in 1893.
Then Amanda founded an orphanage for homeless Black children, complete with supporting publications. From 1900 to 1910 it ultimately housed more than 30 children until it eventually burned in 1918 and was not reopened.
In 1912 Smith retired to Florida to a home provided by a loving and loyal donor. Called by one supporter “God’s image carved in ebony”, Amanda died in Florida in 1915.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.