49th Parallel

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Adrienne M. Israel. Amanda Berry Smith: From Washerwoman to Evangelist. (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press. 1998)

by Kelly Willis Mendiola,
University of Texas (Austin)

The late nineteenth century is known simultaneously as the nadir of race relations in the United States and as one of the most fertile periods of black reform. Histories of the period focus on race leaders like W. E. B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper and Booker T. Washington. But many important cultural figures, prominent in the premier black cultural institution of the time, the black church, have been forgotten because their goals were primarily spiritual. Finally, Adrienne Israel has published a long overdue biography of one of the most popular and interesting of these late nineteenth-century religious figures. Virtually forgotten until now, Amanda Berry Smith was, by the end of her career in the early twentieth century, a national evangelist for the Women's Christian Temperance Union, founder of one of the first orphanages in Illinois for black children, friend of prominent African American reformers such as Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington, missionary in India and Africa and a phenomenally popular holiness evangelist in the United States. While Smith's priorities were primarily spiritual, her life and writings reveal much about the complex racial politics of the time.

Prior to Israel's biography, the primary sources of information about Smith were scattered biographical entries in reference works and Smith's 1893 autobiography, which was sketchy about certain periods of her life and ended twenty years prior to her death. Israel, a professor of history and intercultural studies at Guilford College, has not only reconstructed large portions of Smith's life through painstaking research, but has also presented a portrait of a complex and courageous woman who struggled to reconcile a strong sense of race pride and loyalty with the desire to succeed in a white-dominated society. Israel carefully reconstructs Smith's early life in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York using federal, state and local census records, birth and death certificates, city directories, fire insurance records, land records, tax records, court documents and wills. This section of the biography chronicles Smith's childhood as a freed slave, her short and stormy marriage to Calvin Devine (who was presumably killed in the Civil War), the birth of her first two children, and her years of hard work as a live-in housekeeper and cook. Israel explores the complex power relations between whites and blacks in rural New Jersey and Pennsylvania to help explain the development of Smith's simultaneous "close attachment to whites and unbending opposition to racial inequality" (11).

A primary challenge for any Smith biographer is contextualizing Smith's life in an unfamiliar nineteenth-century religious world. While Israel's painstaking reconstruction of the secular communities of Smith's early childhood and young womanhood is excellent, her reconstruction of the context of Smith's later life, the Holiness Movement, is less thorough. Her repeated mistaken references to Martha Inskip (National Camp Meeting evangelist and wife of the founder of the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness) as Mary Inskip is indicative of this weakness. While Israel's descriptions of Smith's involvement in holiness meetings and missionary circles are adequate (if sketchy), she never provides enough information about the Holiness Movement to sustain detailed analysis. Ironically, although Israel justifies her choice of Amanda Berry Smith as a subject of study by pointing out that in our "advancing secular age current scholars rarely write biographies about individuals whose goals and activities have been mainly spiritual rather than political or social" (5), she perpetuates this blindness to religion by writing a biography of a spiritual leader which more carefully reconstructs the figure's secular world than her religious one. Moreover, Israel emphasizes Smith's accomplishments not as an evangelist-undoubtedly the site of her greatest success-but as a social reformer. In addition, Israel's biography could have been strengthened by greater attention to Smith's rhetoric. Although Israel has a rich source of information about Smith's thought and public persona in Smith's remarkable autobiography, her reading of it lacks complexity.

Despite its shortage of religious contextualization and lack of attention to the nuances of Smith's writing, Israel's is an important study of one of the most important religious figures of the late nineteenth century. To her credit, Israel explores the painful complexity of Smith's racial identity without reducing her either to a romanticized black reformer who subverts white racial norms or a traitor to her race.