Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Worthy of Imitation 8

posted by Scot McKnight

Amanda Berry Smith, a six foot African American woman who dressed like a Quaker, exemplifies how to live in the midst of racism and do so with boundary-breaking grace:

 “In Amanda Berry Smith,” Chris Armstrong tells us, “we have someone who could easily have nursed anger and resentment against those who throughout her life put her down — for her race, her class and her gender. Having been treated poorly throughout her life, she could have descended into bitterness… Smith was able to transcend her anger” (Patron Saints for Postmoderns: Ten from the Past Who Speak to Our Future).
Who today is a model of overcoming racism? Of transcending racism? Of healing folks of racism?

How did Amanda overcome racism? Pure and simple: she attributed it to the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification (see below), and she both advocated the doctrine and was criticized for it — but no one could contest the implications of her belief in sanctification to transcend racism, sexism, and classism.
She was no dreamer of an ideal world; she saw racism, experienced it, knew it, and deflected it. And she arrived on the scene as a major Camp Meeting preacher and pray-er after hardship in marriage and the death of her child.

What is entire sanctification? It is the negative shedding of sin and the positive life of loving God entirely.
Oddly enough: “Locked out of leadership within her own denomination [AME]… frequently snubbed among both blacks and whites for her relative poverty and plain dress, Smith would become the only woman member (that is, leader) of the National Camp Meeting Assocation” (160-161).
I liked this, and perhaps because I read Black Like Me as a high-schooler: “I think some,” she said, “people would understand the quintessence of sanctifying grace if they could be black about twenty-four hours” (162).

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posted September 23, 2009 at 7:47 am

She may have transcended anger and racism – in a tough day and age. But did she overcome or heal racism?
My question here – along the theme of Armstrong’s book: How does her example speak to our future? How should we emulate her response to tough conditions – or to the specific issues of sexism, classism, and racism?
Did she persevere or overcome?

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posted September 23, 2009 at 8:20 am

This is beautiful. I want to be like this. Thanks for posting about her.

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Chris Armstrong

posted September 23, 2009 at 8:26 am

Both. When she preached and wrote her autobiography, she spoke directly about conditions of prejudice in America. And yet she got invited back again and again to preach at mostly white camp meetings. And results came. A clip from the chapter:
“A man named Jacob C. Jacob . . . had seen Smith at the Kennebunk camp meeting and was overcome by feelings of prejudice against her. But in that holy setting, Jacob recognized his sin and retreated to the woods to pray about it. Smith rejoiced to tell her readers what happened next: ‘It was a wonderful meeting that afternoon. The first thing Jacob saw when he got up and stood on his feet, he said, was the colored woman standing on a bench with both hands up, singing “All I want is a little more faith in Jesus.” And he said every bit of prejudice was gone, and the love of God was in his heart, and he thought I was just beautiful!'”
Her blunt responses to the ignorant questions of white folks also seemed, sometimes, to pierce their prejudice:
“Sometimes her stories along these lines could be even more pointed. She related, for example, a time when she was asked bluntly by another white lady at the Ocean Grove camp meeting whether, if she could be, she would rather be white than black. Answered Smith, ‘”No, no,?as the Lord lives, I would rather be black and fully saved than to be white and not saved; I was bad enough, black as I am, and I would have been ten times worse if I had been white.”‘ Her interrogator proceeded to ‘roar laughing,’ showing perhaps that she was aware of the foolishness of her own question.”
The chapter concludes by addressing this same question:
“Did her message ultimately ‘heal all ills’? Not demonstrably, in any historical sense. We can?t point to American race relations after her life and say ‘her ministry changed everything.’ But we have plenty of individual people?s testimony that her very presence, as a sort of barrier-crossing ‘exilic prophet,’ worked a change in people?gave them a compelling vision, rooted in Christ, that promised the possibility of better ways of relating to each other.
“And one may also say that she left a concrete legacy in the dynamic holiness movement that exploded across America and fed the even more explosive Pentecostal movement. Though of course this can not be attributed wholly her influence alone, she was constantly mentioned in the white holiness newspapers as a key figure in the movement. Smith was clearly a special person, whose tenacity of vision and clarity of purpose led her to persevere through a life of suffering under the prejudices of other people, yet who poured back into the lives of her persecutors a worthy balm.
“Was she na?ve in believing people could change? It doesn?t seem so: on many occasions she communicated frankly, though tactfully, the brutality, small-mindedness, and deceptiveness of the human heart. Yet she also preached a better, higher way, which her oppressors could and should reach out for, because it had been made available by the grace of God.”

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Chris Armstrong

posted September 23, 2009 at 8:58 am

As for how we might emulate her; a couple of suggestions:
1. Act in the face of systemic evil, even though it will often take considerable courage and a thick skin–especially if we find ourselves under the wheel of that evil.
2. While we’re acting, look to God’s sanctifying grace to lead the way and to work change where we can’t hope to do it through our own efforts. Systems are made by people. People need healing. The Holy Spirit is in the healing business. If we try to work social change without referring to the Spirit, we will be worn down and broken down.
3. Speak frankly but in a way that does not needlessly offend. This is an artform that Smith had perfected. Read her autobiography (WELL worth reading; she has such a wonderful voice) and you’ll see that.
I’ll post a link to an online full text of her autobiography as soon as I track it down.

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posted September 23, 2009 at 9:56 am

Amen on Amanda’s last comment. I recently wanted to tell someone in my congregation (predominantly white) to put on black skin for a day and live my life.

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Chris Armstrong

posted September 23, 2009 at 10:50 am

Smith’s biography can be found here:
A two-part article on her can be found here: and
I also wrote a short piece on her for Christian History online, which can be found here: . This piece talks about her quest for sanctification and quotes a story from her autobiography (which does not appear in my Patron Saints chapter on her) about what happened when a white stock broker came to her home to be prayed for.

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posted September 23, 2009 at 11:01 am

The short sentence that Smith was shut out by her denomination (AME) doesn’t ring true — but I don’t know for sure. AME had female preachers as early as 1820. For example, Jarena Lee. See

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posted September 23, 2009 at 11:06 am

Oops! I was wrong, sort of. The AME church was founded in 1916, shortly after Smith died (1915).

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posted September 23, 2009 at 11:32 am

Fascinating stuff.

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Chris Armstrong

posted September 23, 2009 at 11:38 am

Paula [#s 7, 8],
You were right the first time: 1816 was the founding date of the AME. And you are also right about Jarena Lee and others like her: they were allowed to exhort or evangelize. The issue was one of formal leadership–that is, ordination. Smith attended at least one general conference of the AME at which that issue was a hot potato. She claimed she wasn’t seeking ordination. But the attitude toward women that was behind the AME’s formal resistance to their ordination was hurtful to her.

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posted September 23, 2009 at 1:58 pm

“Who today is a model of overcoming racism? Of transcending racism? Of healing folks of racism?”
Bishop Tutu comes to mind.

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Joe James

posted September 23, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Rick –
I second that suggestion! Desmond Tutu is a great example of such social healing and transcendence.

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