Female Preacher in the Civil War Era
Julia A. J. Foote’s autobiography, A Brand Plucked from the Fire (1879), is representative of a large number of similar texts published by women who believed that Christianity had made them the spiritual equals of men and hence equally authorized to lead the church. Although her autobiography attacks racism and other social abuses, it is the subordination of women and her desire to inspire faith in her Christian sisters that endow her story with its distinctive voice and intensity.
Foote’s belief in the gender equality of the Christian spirit and her refusal to defer to husband or minister when her own intuitive sense of personal authority was at stake mark Foote’s autobiographical work as an important early expression of the American feminist literary tradition.
Her autobiography borrows from two distinct genres: the fiery rhetoric of the African American slave narrative (Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Olaudah Equiano) and the evangelism of American spiritual narratives (Michael Wigglesworth, Mary Rowlandson, Elizabeth Hudson and Ann Moore).
She was born in 1827 in Schenectady, New York, the daughter of former slaves. Her maiden name is unknown. Her parents were strongly committed to Methodism and to the education of their children. Because Schenectady’s schools were segregated, Foote’s parents hired her out as a domestic servant to a white family who used their influence to place her in a country school outside the city.
Here, between the ages of ten and twelve, Julia received the only formal education of her life. Despite the fact that her teenage years were devoted to the care of her younger siblings, she read considerably, especially in the Bible, and attended many church meetings. When she was fifteen, she had a profound conversion experience and joined an African Methodist Episcopal church in Albany, New York.
At age eighteen she married George Foote, a sailor, and moved with him to Boston. Having no children, Foote devoted a great deal of her time to informal evangelistic work in her community, in which she testified to her belief in the doctrine of “sanctification.” The controversial idea that a Christian could be sanctified – totally freed from sin and empowered to lead a life of spiritual perfection – had been under debate in Methodist circles for decades.
Advocates of sanctification and perfectionism became leaders in the rise of “holiness” movements in evangelical denominations in the United States during the last half of the nineteenth century. Foote’s belief that she herself had been sanctified by the Holy Spirit contributed to her growing conviction that her destiny was to become a preacher.
Both her mother and her husband vehemently opposed her public preaching. Her mother told Foote that she would rather hear of her daughter’s death than her exposure at the pulpit. Her husband threathened to commit her to an insane asylum. Foote persisted in her ministry and her husband returned to sea. Having no children, the couple led separate lives until his death in the mid-1850s.
Foote knew that a woman who claimed a divine calling to the ministry challenged Christian tradition and American social prejudice. Women were not expected to assume public leadership roles, nor were they allowed to speak, except under restrictions, in most Christian churches. Yet Foote could neither deny her conscience nor shirk the work that she felt had been given her to do.
The minister of her church in Boston disapproved of her teaching on sanctification and refused her access to his pulpit. Though threatened to expel her from the congregation in 1844, she refused to be daunted. She took her case to higher denominational authorities, and when she received no support from them, she set out on an independent preaching career.
In the mid-1840s Foote evangelized the upstate New York region, often accompanied or invited by ministers of the A.M.E. church. By 1850 she had crossed the Allegheny Mountains in search of new converts in Ohio and Michigan. In 1851, she temporarily ceased her evangelistic work due to the loss of her voice and the need to care for her invalid mother.
Then in 1869, she reported experiencing a divine healing and began to preach again, participating in the holiness revivals that swept the Midwest after the Civil War. and later became a missionary in the A.M.E. Zion church. On one occasion in 1878, an estimated 5,000 people heard her preach at a holiness meeting in Lodi, Ohio.
During the last decade of her life, Julia Foote became the first woman to be ordained a deacon (1894) and the second woman to hold the office of elder in her denomination (1900).
Julia Foote died on November 22, 1900.