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Julia A. J. Foote (1823-1901).

The last twenty-five years have seen an exciting increase in scholarship examining writings of nineteenth-century black women evangelists such as Julia A. J. Foote, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Maria Stewart, Amanda Smith, Jarena Lee, and Zilpha Elaw. Much work remains to be done, however, to explore how these autobiographers spoke against the institution of slavery using a framework of faith. The challenge of this scholarship is threefold: first, many of these women wrote only one or two texts because their main vehicle of communication was the sermon; second, in their writings they often include sparse biographical information, as they were more focused on conveying the stories of their spiritual lives; and finally, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find additional information about their lives. We are thus tested to reexamine our scholarly notions of a "body of work": How are we to understand this particular genre of religious stories as autobiography within the larger conversation about the institution of slavery? How might we explore the lives of these authors when their work seems to be the only remaining evidence?

More specific, these texts require us to read within a community of nineteenth-century black religious texts. Foote's ministry was embedded in a community that corroborated the impact of her ministry. Although focused on the spiritual condition of her fellow African Americans, Foote's work and her autobiography, A Brand Plucked From the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch, were never insulated from institutions of oppression. Foote acknowledged, mourned, and lashed out against the racial, gender, and class oppression she and her black sisters suffered. Moreover, vital information, previously undocumented, about the final years of Foote's life is available to us through the autobiographies of ministers with whom she worked and traveled. Bishop Alexander Walters's autobiography, a church catechism authored by Cicero R. Harris, and an anthology by William Davenport each provide clarifying details regarding Foote's work within the church, her ordination date, the second half of her ministry, and her date of death.

Julia A. J. Foote was born in 1823, the daughter of former slaves living in Schenectady, New York; she was their fourth child, although not their last. (1) Foote's only formal education took place when she worked as a domestic servant for the Prime family. She lived with the Primes for less than two years and then returned home at age twelve to care for younger siblings so her mother could work outside the home. Soon after she left the Primes in 1835, her family moved twenty miles southeast to Albany. They joined an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation, and for the first time, Foote later wrote, "I was able to understand, with any degree of intelligence, what religion was" (177). (2) Foote experienced conversion to Christianity at the age of fifteen and consequently was irresistibly drawn to read scripture at all hours of the night and day (180, 182). She remembered longing to understand how her faith could touch her everyday life, calm her temper, and soothe her fears. The answers she was seeking were finally offered by an older couple in the church preaching about the doctrine of "Holiness." (3) (The Holiness Movement of the late nineteenth century preached that through a second experience of God one could attain a fulfilling life by seeking to be sinless.) After much private prayer, Foote believed she received a "visit" from God and would later identify that moment as the starting point of the process of sanctification and Holiness (186). She explained,
  I returned home, though not yet satisfied. I remained in this
  condition more than a week, going many times to my secret place of
  prayer, which was behind the chimney in the garret of our house....
  [W]hile waiting on the Lord, my large desire was granted, through
  faith in my precious Saviour. The glory of God seemed almost to
  prostrate me to the floor. There was, indeed, a weight of glory
  resting upon me.... [P]erfect love took possession, I lost all fear. I
  went straight to my mother and told her I was sanctified. (186-87)

Foote's literacy skills also steadily increased, so that by the time she was eighteen years old, she was proficient enough to teach others from the Bible.

In 1841, newly married, Foote moved to Boston with her husband, George. George was a sailor in the shipyards in Chelsea, where he lived during the week and returned home on the weekends (192). In her husband's absence, Foote joined an AME Zion church. She wrote that she "was much drawn out in prayer for the sanctification of believers" (194); she longed for others to experience a second blessing. Additionally, soon after moving to Boston, Foote believed that she received a call from God to preach (200, 203). She was committed to the Church and strove to follow both its guidelines for women and its official stance against the Holiness doctrine, which it deemed too excessive. Both constraints proved to be too much.

Foote accepted God's call to preach despite her husband's and her local pastor's vigorous objections regarding her gender (203-04). To prevent Foote from preaching, her AME Zion minister immediately revoked her membership in his church. When Foote offered to preach "in a private house," he told her, "No, not in this place; I am stationed over all Boston" (206). He never rescinded his position. Foote began to argue her right to preach through the proper venues of the AME Zion church, stating, "I thought it my duty as well as privilege to address a letter to the [General] Conference, which I took to them in person, stating all the facts" (206). She contested whether her minister could "truthfully bring anything against [her] moral or religious character [because her] only offence was in trying to preach the Gospel of Christ" (207). (4) Her letter of protest was only "slightingly noticed, and then thrown under the table [because it] was only the grievance of a woman, and there was no justice meted out to women in those days" (207).

Despite the lack of support, Foote continued to preach and teach. Initially, she preached only to other women. She traveled from "house to house" with other women, reading and talking about scripture (193), as well as tending to the sick and the "poor and forsaken ones" (194, 198). Foote consistently maintained that women had an essential place in religious leadership. In "A Threshing Sermon," Foote asserted that even though she did not own the field in which she gleaned, she had an obligation to the Lord to carry on his work (221-23). She wrote, "The passage portrays the Gospel times, though in a more restricted sense it applies to the preachers of the word. Yet it has a direct reference to all God's people, who were and are commanded to arise and thresh" (222). Foote brackets her sermon with the story of a man who, by the end of her sermon, has been saved; she illustrates that she is one of the threshers of whom she was speaking. Being a thresher or "Christian Harvester" was a phrase that was common in Methodism. The editor of the Christian Harvester, a Methodist publication, provided the introduction to Foote's text.

Foote's alliance with Holiness doctrine allowed her to initiate a complicated relationship with both the AME Church and the AME Zion Church that she would continue until 1852, and then resume from the 1870s until her death. She preached to congregations whenever and wherever they allowed her to come; she preached from peoples' homes, in secluded rural areas, and in the streets. In 1844, an ordained clergyman at the AME General Conference in Boston formally presented a petition requesting that women be allowed to preach. Foote attended and wrote, "The Conference was so incensed at the brother who offered the petition that they threatened to take action against him" (216). His petition failed, as did others. Foote's place within the larger community of the churches was more secure than her opposition would admit. Several weeks after the first petition in 1844, Foote traveled from Boston to Cincinnati to preach in several AME Zion Churches (217).

After the death of her husband (between May 1845 and May 1849), Foote was free to travel even more widely. Between 1844 and 1852 alone, Foote traveled over ten thousand miles. She traveled by foot, by stagecoach, on horseback, by boat, and by train to preach, bringing other women with her. (5) Sister Ann M. Johnson was her "traveling companion" from 1849 until she died in 1856 (219, 225). They made numerous trips into Canada and toured between Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. Foote ceased traveling for about twenty years, beginning in the early 1860s. Her throat began to give her trouble, perhaps the result of heavy use over the years; so when her mother grew ill and needed care, Foote settled in Cincinnati. Her autobiography, A Brand Plucked from the Fire, was published in 1879 and republished in 1886.

Although most intently focused on her readers' individual relationships with God, Foote also dramatically addressed the social injustices and the gender division in the church through her Holiness theology. That is, she believed that the gospel deserved to be heard because it addressed larger social issues. Its liberating power was both spiritual and, by extension, social, as women who understood the gospel would no longer be hampered by social injustices. Her autobiography reveals her intimate knowledge of the horror of public lynching, the indecency of repeated home and bodily searches, the impossible economic situations free blacks faced, and the broken familial legacies left by slavery. She fought consistently for the inclusion of women preachers. Ultimately, however, her goals as a preacher and writer exceeded the physical world and focused on the spiritual condition of "her race," the African American people. In her preface she wrote, "My earnest desire is that many--especially of my own race--may be led to believe and enter into rest, 'For we which have believed do enter into rest'; sweet soul rest" (163, emphasis added). Many of her contemporaries (such as Zilpha Elaw and Jarena Lee) end their spiritual autobiographies with a statement about their reliance on God's grace and the Holy Ghost throughout their lives and ministries. Foote, on the other hand, seems never to stop being an evangelist. The final chapters of Foote's text are step-by-step instructions for the new Christian believer wishing to obtain a life of Holiness. She concludes her final chapter: "I trust also that [this little work] will promote the cause of holiness in the Church" (234).

Foote's autobiography and life's work most certainly impacted the black Methodist church in America. In the 1870s, she was once again invited to preach. She traveled to the Allegheny and Genesee Annual Conferences of the AME Church and then to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1876 for the AME Zion General Church Conference. A 1925 AME Zion Church anthology praised her text: "In 1898 Bishop Josiah S. Caldwell published a book of 'Sermons,' the choicest offerings of a long and successful pastorate. He has had but few equals.... In this class of evangelists may be included Rev. Julia A. Foote who was a burning light in Zion. 'Brands Plucked from the Burning' [sic] have given her a permanent place in our literature" (Davenport 14).

William Andrews states in his introduction to Sisters of the Spirit that details of the last twenty-five years of Foote's life are unknown (10); Maxine Sample concurs (139). Yet the autobiographies of several AME Zion bishops show that Foote did exactly what she announced she would be doing: preaching (226). She continued her circuit from Ohio to New York to Boston, and to the west coast, while making a home base with Bishop Alexander Walters's family. Walters wrote in his memoirs: "Rev. Mrs. Julia Foote, the noted evangelist, rendered me most valuable services while on the coast [San Francisco, Portland, San Jose, and Los Angeles]; indeed, from 1884 until the year she died, 1901, she made my house her home.... She was a great preacher, an uncompromising advocate of holiness, and who practiced the gospel she preached" (46).

Additionally, according to Cicero Harris's Historical Catechism of the A. M. E. Zion Church, in 1884 Foote was the first woman to become an ordained deacon (22). This date is a full decade earlier than that given in any other biographical information I have found and is confirmed by Bishop Alexander Walters, who refers to Foote as "Rev. Mrs." when he writes of the revival meetings she held with him in New York City in 1889: "The church ... was at a low ebb spiritually. I saw at once that the first thing to do was to get the people back into the church, and I considered that the best way to do this was to have a revival.... The meetings continued about three months; over three hundred joined the church and more than that number were converted.... I was assisted in the meetings by the Rev. Mrs. Foote, the renowned woman evangelist" (54-55). Just before her death, Foote was promoted to the ordained position of elder in the AME Zion church, only the second woman to achieve that position. She died in 1901. (6)

Regardless of the historical inconsistencies that plague the reconstruction of Foote's life, her autobiography and life were not fraught with theological or social inconsistencies. It remains clear that she believed her personal sources of strength to be the Holy Spirit and the encouragement from congregations who embraced her message of God's salvation and sanctification despite her gender and race (221-23). The AME Zion Catechism honored her work with question eighty-five, which asks, "Who was the first woman ordained a deacon in our Church?" The correct answer is "Mrs. Julia A. Foote, by Bishop J. W. Hood, in the New York Conference, in May 1884" (Harris 22).


1. Foote is her married name. At present, her family name is not known.

2. Quotations from Foote's autobiography are from the Andrews edition.

American Methodist churches broke ties with England in 1788. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, divisions caused by discrimination or other race-related issues led to the formation of four Methodist denominations with varying social practices. These were the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion). The AME Zion broke from the AME Church because they opposed the AME's policy of occasionally accepting white preachers from the MEC for their pulpits.

3. The Methodist Holiness Movement crossed denominational lines; it was a religious movement that was evangelical in nature, Pentecostal in expression, and liberal in social alignment. The Holiness Movement was largely misunderstood and disregarded.

4. The General Conference to which Foote refers includes the entire AME Zion denomination in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, over three hundred miles from Boston. By stagecoach, this trip would have taken more than four days, under the best of road conditions. Railroad maps fail to show whether there was a route between Boston and Philadelphia at that time.

5. The money that it must have taken to fund her travels would have been quite significant. Foote mentions at one point that "[o]ne of the brethren engaged our passage and paid the fare" when she was going to Cleveland (224). Considering that free-will offerings are the way evangelists in Methodist churches fund their ministries today, it is safe to assume that Foote acquired the majority of her funding in this manner. She was asked to preach at various churches and an offering would have been taken to support her evangelistic work and travel.

6. A death certificate for Foote has not yet been located.


The electronic edition of Foote's autobiography, based on the 1879 edition published by Lauer and Yost, is available through the New York Public Library as part of the Digital Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. Electronic editions of William Henry Davenport's Anthology of Zion Methodism, Cicero Harris's Historical Catechism of the A. M. E. Zion Church, James Hood's Sketch of the Early History of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Alexander Walters's My Life and Work are available from the University of North Carolina's "Documenting the American South" project, available at <>. It is my hope that online editions of texts by authors such as Julia A. J. Foote and her contemporaries will enable new scholarship and teaching of these texts.


A Brand Plucked from the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch. 1879. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women's Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century, Ed. William L. Andrews. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 161-234.

A Brand Plucked From the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch. 1886. New York: The Digital Schomburg, The New York Public Library. <>.


Andrews, William L. Introduction. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women's Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Andrews. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 1-22.

______. "The Politics of African-American Ministerial Autobiography from Reconstruction to the 1920s." African-American Christianity: Essays in History. Ed. Paul E. Johnson. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. 111-33.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.

Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850-1979. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Connor, Kimberly Rae. Imagining Grace: Liberating Theologies in the Slave Narrative Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000.

Davenport, William Henry. The Anthology of Zion Methodism. Charlotte: AME Zion, 1925.

Douglass-Chin, Richard J. Preacher Woman Sings the Blues: The Autobiographies of Nineteenth-Century African American Evangelists. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2001.

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. "Julia A. J. Foote (1823-1900)." Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. New York: New, 1995. 51-53.

Harris, Cicero Richardson. Historical Catechism of The A. M. E. Zion Church: For Use in Families and Sunday Schools. Charlotte: AME Zion, 1922.

Haywood, Chanta M. Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word, 1823-1913. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2003.

Hood, James Walker. Sketch of the Early History of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church with Jubilee Souvenir and an Appendix. Charlotte: AME Zion, 1914.

Houchins, Sue E. Introduction. Spiritual Narratives. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. xxix-xliv.

Moody, Joycelyn K. Sentimental Confessions: Spiritual Narratives of Nineteenth-Century African American Women. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2001.

Peterson, Carla L. "Doers of the Word": African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880). New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1998.

Sample, Maxine. "Julia A. J. Foote (1823-1900)." African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport: Greenwood, 2002. 138-42.

Stanley, Susie Cunningham. Holy Boldness: Women Preachers' Autobiographies and the Sanctified Self. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2002.

Strong, Douglas M. "Julia A. J. Foote (1823-1900) Holiness Preacher: Overcoming Prejudice Through Sanctification." They Walked in the Spirit: Personal Faith and Social Action in America. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997. 17-31.

Walters, Alexander. My Life and Work. New York: Revell, 1917.

JOY A. J. HOWARD Purdue University
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Title Annotation:LEGACY PROFILE
Author:Howard, Joy A.J.
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:For Katharine Coman's family and innermost circle of friends. Not for print nor in any way for general circulation.
Next Article:Excerpts from Julia A. J. Foote's A Brand Plucked from the Fire: from chapter 1, "birth and parentage".

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