Sojourner Truth and shape-note singing

Sojourner Truth was born into bondage as "Isabella Baumfree" in a Dutch-speaking area of Ulster County, New York. During her childhood, she slept with her parents on the floor of the cellar of their owner's home. She watched her mother weeping as siblings were sold away to other landowners until she herself was sold away to a neighboring farm. Separated from her parents, she could do nothing to help them; her mother soon died, and her father was freed only to die a short time later out in the woods.

Though entirely deprived of any formal education, she possessed an excellent memory and ear for music. It was with these talents that she was able to learn all that she knew about Jesus Christ and the Bible. She had never set foot in a church but one night, while she was passing by a private house, she heard a 'circuit rider' preaching. She listened to him through an open window and heard the hymn that began, "There is a holy city..", which she committed to memory.

So began her life of faith. She became one of the foremost preaching women of the Untied States. In her powerful talks, she combined strong statements of faith with the singing of hymns in a loud, sonorous voice which deeply affected her listeners.

The hymns she heard were taught through a uniquely American form of musical notation called 'shape-notes' ('Sacred Harp') which allowed church goers to learn to sight read without learning formal music and created distinctive harmonies which have recently seen a revival of interest for their communal style of singing.

Click below for a short documentary on this style:

Read more about Sojourner Truth in 'The Calling' available now

Resistance to preaching women

The very appearance of women preaching was, for many, a sign of the coming End during the Second Great Awakening. For many Americans even with radical views, women standing in a the pulpit meant that they were stepping out of their proper place and their uniquely important role as women. If they spoke too intelligently or forcefully, they were being too masculine. If they stood up in front of men, they were arousing men's lusts. Even someone as radical as Rev. Lyman Beecher, the dedicated abolitionist, did not want "bold women" preaching to the faithful.

Even many women disapproved of seeing women exhorting and preaching in church. Many also disliked the passionate feelings expressed by women during the revivals which were the meetings that powered the Great Awakening.

 Mrs. Frances Trollope, was an English woman and mother of famous writer Anthony Trollope who saw this emotionalism during revivals as having a very negative effect on young women who gave themselves over to it. Listen to her disapproving description of a revival meeting here 

Mrs. Trollope concluded: “Did the men of America value their women as men ought to value their wives and daughters, would such scenes be permitted among them?”

Click below for an overview of the Second Great Awakening:

Preaching women of the Second Great Awakening

By the early 1800s the United States had thrown off British rule, written and passed a Constitution, and was undergoing enormous economic, territorial, and technological growth. Americans began to see themselves as individuals who could effect change through their own free will.

This was also true in religion. New, independent churches were founded with a focus on the individual’s relationship with Jesus Christ and the power of free will aided by God’s Grace. A person could choose salvation through commitment to leading a godly life and was not powerless before predestination as in the Calvinist and Puritan churches. 

The Second Great Awakening was underway.

Women were essential to the spread of the Awakening. They served  as Sunday school teachers, organizers of fundraising bake sales and sewing circles, organ players, preparers of feasts, and educators of children in morals and faith. Their societies helped fund the large revivals that drove the popularity of the Awakening.

In churches women had been powerful ‘exhorters’, standing in the church and calling people to righteousness in raw, emotional terms that deeply moved congregations.Though women had been prohibited from any form of official preaching, that changed in the emotionally intense atmosphere of the Second Great awakening.

Some one-hundred women dared to preach during those years. Among these were:

Harriett Livermore, a devout evangelist, convinced the Speaker of the House to allow her to preach to the Congress. In January, 1827, she appeared before the Congress clothed in a simple robe and bonnet. She opened her Bible, looked out over the packed chamber—listeners cramming the doorways—and began to preach. President John Quincy Adams, who had to stand on the steps leading up to her lectern because of the crowd, referred to her as a religious fanatic: “There is permanency in this woman’s monomania which seems accountable only from the impulse of vanity and love of fame.” Other male clerics derided her as someone who sought public glory instead of remembering her female ‘modesty’. Over the years, she authored sixteen books.

Jarena Lee, a free black woman in Philadelphia, had a vision of a pulpit with a Bible laying on it. She belonged to Philadelphia’s Bethel African Methodist Church. Her Bishop had told her that in Methodism “did not call for women preachers.” Though this bishop went on to found the country’s first ‘African-American’ denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he did not support this ‘woman preaching’. So Jarena settled down, had two children, and forgot about preaching. But then, her husband died, and one day in church, she burst out preaching: “God made manifest his power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labour according to my ability.” Her stunned audience and even her Bishop this time supported her, acknowledging that she must have been called to preach. Her spiritual power was undeniable. She no longer accepted that any restrictions be placed on her. She began teaching in her home and then left to be an itinerant preacher to both black and white audiences.

To learn more about the preaching women of the Awakening, read "The Calling", out soon,

Click below to hear her account of her conversion in her words and to get a sense of the conviction of the searching women of the Second Great Awakening:

Preaching women of the First Great Awakening

The First Great Awakening of the 1730s-40s was a period of great religious fervor in the colonies during which Americans rededicated their lives to God. Large numbers of African slaves converted in large numbers for the first time to Christianity. Church services focussed on fostering heartfelt experiences of personal salvation rather than the formal theology that had been the staple of the religious diet of the Puritan and other churches. People wanted to be caught up in God; a new generation of ministers sought to revive authentic piety. 

To some, the world seemed to have been turned on its head as wives exhorted husbands to piety, children evangelized their parents, and some women even began speaking out in public. As one Reverend put it, “…multitudes were seriously, soberly, and solemnly out of their wits.”

God was an omnipotent power to be feared and followed if one were to achieve salvation and avoid Hell. Click the link below to hear a famous sermon of this period which gives you a sense of the fearsomeness of belief at that time:

Women were not allowed to preach in church but during the First Awakening, women began to exhort their fellow parishioners to righteousness, often to powerful effect. Martha Stearns Marshall moved her whole church to tears. Margaret Meuse Clay was considered so pious that she was asked lead the public prayer in her church.

But these female 'exhorters' had to be careful not to cross the line of what was socially acceptable--Clay's exhortations proved so strong that she was sentenced to a flogging for 'preaching.' 

Other times it was the quality of a woman’s ‘passivity’ that made her a vessel for the spirit in the eyes of others. Mary Reed, for example, had visions which she communicated privately to her minister. He, then, related these to his parishioners while Mary sat quietly in the pews. Her meekness gave her words great authority over the congregation.

The main purveyors of the First Great Awakening were the itinerant preachers who evangelized, inspired, and terrified local people into being reborn in Christ to avoid damnation; some of these itinerants were women.

Bathsheba Kingsley, known as the “brawling woman,” climbed onto her husband’s horse and rode from town to town, evangelizing in homes, public squares, and churches. She rebuked townspeople for their sinfulness and warned ministers of a wrath to come.

Jamima Wilkinson considered herself to have been re-born without a gender. She wore  long robe which covered her entire body.  Her preaching was intensely powerful and elicited both excitement and revulsion. People derided her for her ‘manliness’—she was a woman who had truly stepped out of her proper place and who emasculated men by making them kneel before her. It was not her theological claims but her subversion of femininity that caused the most anger and mockery. This mix of influence and infamy followed her as she travelled the countryside attracting passionate followers.

To learn more about Jamima Wilkinson, click the documentary below at 16:45:

To learn more about the preaching women of the Awakenings, go to "The Calling" on this site under the 'Work' tab


Mother Ann Lee

'Mother' Ann Lee was one of the more astonishing women in the 18th century American colonies. Born into terrible poverty in Manchester, England, she grew up in over-crowded rooms from which she developed an aversion to sexual relations. She also developed a deep love for God and piety and was actively engaged in her Quaker community. Her family pushed her hard to marry  which she finally did, only to lose each of her children in infancy.

Around this time, she began to have visions of the Second Coming and  a group of Quakers began to see her as their spiritual leader. She led across the Atlantic on a dangerous crossing that saw the ship almost sink in a storm. The crew--who had previously looked down at the band of religious zealots as crazy--developed a great admiration for their courage and assistance during this ordeal.

The group came to be known as the "shaking Quakers" or "Shakers" because they engaged in ecstatic dancing during their long religious meetings. Shaker communities were founded during the Revolutionary period, a time of gathering conflict between the British and the colonists. New England was also a region of deep piety which saw the hand of God--and the Devil--at work in their villages and farms.

Into this pious and turbulent area, the Shakers stood out. They were led by a woman--an English woman no less--and they lived separately from others in community, engaging in unusual religious meetings full of shouting and dancing and holding to unorthodox religious ideas such as the imminence of the return of Jesus. Shakers even came to see Mother Ann Lee as the Divine Spirit herself. As a result, they were often met with violent opposition.

Shaker communities lived by a very strict moral code, even rejecting sexual activity as sinful. Over the generations, the communities began to disappear but not before they left an extraordinary legacy of superb craftsmanship. Quaker furniture is know worldwide for its clean--even elegant--lines, its deceptively simple design, and its concern for functionality above all. 

For more about the Shakers, here is a documentary by Ken Burns:


Read more about the extraordinary life of Mother Ann Lee in the first chapter of "The Calling"


Our new web site, JourneysFaith, is up! 

Our upcoming book, The Calling: Tahirih of Persia and the Women of the Great Awakening, due out on March 21st, gives a detailed account of the little-known life of the mystic of Tahirih of Persia, re-told in episodes that are intertwined with stories from the lives of American women of the Great Awakening with U.S and Persian social history as background. 

We were fortunate to be able to use the superb translations of the late Prof. Amin Banani and Prof. Jarred Kessler from UCLA. Click below to listen to one of their translations.