A Band of Sisters

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By Joy Howard | Twitter: @DrJoyAJHoward

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In 1841, a young woman in Boston named Julia Foote dreamed that God handed her a scroll that authorized her to preach the Gospel. She dreamed that God said “You are now prepared, and must go where I have commanded you.”

She woke up terrified. She had felt a call in her heart to preach for some time, but the dream was something she could not ignore. When she opened her eyes from her dream, she saw a group of women she would later name “a band of sisters whom I loved dearly.”

Julia Foote was barely twenty years old when God called her to preach. She appeared to be, like many of us SheLovelys, unlikely for greatness in any way that is recognized by our culture. She was the daughter of former slaves; she had very little formal education; she was the wife of a rough and tumble sailor; and she was black.

Unlikely as it seemed then, Julia Foote would become the first woman ordained a deacon in her denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) Zion Church. And when she wrote her spiritual autobiography in 1879, she emphasized two aspects of her life: God’s grace and her band of sisters.

I have watched this community of SheLovelys unite together online in a grand chorus lately and I want you to tell you a little bit about Julia Foote’s band of sisters to encourage you to keep going, to keep singing, to keep saying “yes” when your sisters share their hearts.

Julia Foote’s band of sisters was much more than her support system. They were a part of a hallelujah chorus that drew out the best she had to give.

After Foote dreamed that God called her to preach, her band of sisters sat in her bedroom with her until she was strong enough to get herself out of bed. Her husband called for a doctor, thinking she was out of her mind with fever. The doctor could not find anything wrong with her and when he left, her band of sisters were still there. The pastor of her church told her that this nonsense about being called to preach needed to stop. He ordered her to stop talking about this dream. Interestingly enough, he also ordered her friends to be quiet.

You see, they were still with her. They had not gone anywhere. Her band of sisters refused to be quiet however, because they knew how to say “yes” to God’s call. I think their “yes” made all the difference in Julia’s life.

Julia Foote was terrified at the idea of accepting her call. She did not want to go against the rules of her denomination. She had experienced great joy in joining the AME Zion Church. The church was made up of black people at a time in 19th century America when they were not welcomed in many churches. Foote had found community in the church as her sailor husband was away at sea most of the time. The leadership structure of her church was sorely unprepared for a woman with a call on her life to preach. Foote even wrote that she too believed what she had been taught; women should not preach.

But her band of sisters refused to let her forget her dream about the scroll. “As my friends told me,” Foote remembered several decades later, “[the scroll] was in my heart, and was to be shown in my life.” Her band of sister believers, she wrote, “advised me to do as God had bid me, or I would never be happy here or hereafter.” They reminded her how often they came to her for advice and teaching. They pushed her to see her own talents.

This band of sisters sat in Julia Foote’s bedroom as she fitfully slept after the dream. They sang hymns and worked on their sewing through the night. When the pastor returned to see her again, Foote no longer shrank away. Her friends had been correct. She just needed some time to accept this call on her life.

“My gifts are very small, I know,” she said to her husband and her pastor, “but I can no longer be shaken by what you or anyone else may think or say.”

Foote started preaching to immediate success even though church leadership filed papers to excommunicate her.

She joined the Holiness movement and preached in houses. Soon, pastors were going against their own bishops and inviting her to preach in their pulpits. She traveled through Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, and as far away as California, preaching to crowds of black and white believers. On the roads, she risked bands of men who kidnapped free black people and sold them into slavery. In cities, she narrowly escaped attacks and she faced all sorts of sexual harassment.

For over 50 years, until she died in 1901, she filled the sanctuaries and summer revival tents of the AME Zion Church, the same denomination that had tried to excommunicate her. She became a beloved, respected, well renowned evangelist. She wrote A Brand Plucked From the Fire in 1879 in order to encourage other black women in their faith and in their call to ministry. When congregations struggled, pastors and bishops wrote to “the Rev. Julia Foote” for help in stirring people’s heart to hear the love of God.

And for the same number of years, there was her band of sisters saying “yes” to her call.

They said:

Yes, you can do this difficult thing. 
Yes, this dream could be God’s voice.

Yes, I believe you.

Yes, answer this call.

“Sisters, shall not you and I unite with the heavenly host in the grand chorus?” Foote wrote near the end of her autobiography.

Oh, how Julia Foote believed in the power of a band of sisters when they heard the call on their lives. She knew first hand that the rest of our world will often say “no” to women, but that we sisters can rise up and “yes” to each other.

Her band of sisters interpreted the prophetic call in her life.

They prayed for her as she traveled.

They traveled with her when they could and carried her bags full of books so she could study.

They stood together on dark streets when confronted with racist and sexist violence.

They sat up all night in sleazy hotels, protecting her so she could get some sleep before her next service.

They made her meals when she returned to the East coast to fund raise.

They handed her cups of tea for her exhausted throat, hoarse from speaking to thousands at a single time.

They washed her clothes, mended her hats, and her sisters made sure she had a bed to fall into.

They cared for her so she could follow her call.

We need our sisters to say: “yes.” (And sometimes, we can cook for each other and make each other tea. But mostly, we need a “yes.”)

We need a strong, loud chorus that affirms our being in God as we understand it.

We do not need to worry about approval—your call might not be mine.

We do not need an “okay” or a “whatever”—a shrug or neutrality.

We need to join with the heavenly hosts in a “yes.”

I need you to join in for a “yes.”

We can say to each other: 
Yes, you can do this difficult thing.

Yes, this dream could be God’s voice.

Yes, I believe you.

Yes, answer this call. 
Yes, I am here. Yes. Yes. Yes.

_______________

SheLoves readers can read Julia Foote’s autobiography online: A Brand Plucked From the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch. 1886. New York: The Digital Schomburg, The New York Public Library.

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About Joy:

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Joy Howard is an early Americanist and an Assistant Professor of American literature in New Jersey. She reconstructs the stories of early American women who have been silenced in history one way or another. Joy lives in the Mid-Atlantic region with a husband who studies fire ecology and a sister who is an artist and crafter. Joy and her sister took a leap of faith this year and started “Sistercraft” — a broom, basket, and blanket business that emphasizes women’s crafts and a handmade life full of goodness.

______________

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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  • Joy, thank you for sharing Julia Foote’s story – it is beautiful! I love love the image of the band of sisters, their collective yeses and faithfulness making Julia’s yes possible. I needed to read this today, and am sure I will still be passing on this story to others in years to come!

    • Joy Howard

      Naomi, I’m honored to know that this piece is one you will tuck away and then pass along to others in the future. Thank you!!

  • Bev Murrill

    Oh Joy! Something about this made tears spring to my eyes. This is one of the strongest, most amazing posts I’ve read for such a long time. I can’t tell you (though to have written this shows you already know) how heartening and empowering and encouraging it is to read something like this.

    We need to read and hear and understand and grasp the astonishing things that women can be and do, for God and for each other and themselves…

    Awesome awesome awesome post… it has encouraged my heart so much.

    • Joy Howard

      Bev, Thank you so much for saying this. I have wanted to start sharing these stories I have found in my research with a wider audience, but I didn’t know if anyone would be interested. Thank you for reading and being here.

      • Sandy Hay

        Bring it on Joy….LOTS of interest here !!!

        • Joy Howard

          That means SO MUCH to me! Thank you.

  • HBurns

    …and I am in tears. This is a stunning story of sisterhood. Thank you for sharing it so magnificently here today Joy. I know I will read this many times and will also teach from the strength of this amazing trailblazer, Julia Foote’s life. xo

    • Joy Howard

      I am thrilled to hear you will teach from this fabulous women’s work. Rev. Foote’s life and writing teach well in the classroom or Bible Study. She knew how to draw in an audience!

  • Thank you, Lord, for the “hallelujah chorus” of sisterhood in Christ. What a great phrase and a great historical perspective.

    • Joy Howard

      It IS a fantastic phrase? 🙂 Julia Foote had all sorts of amazing phrases like that in her book. I am willing to bet that these sentences sounded even better in her own voice from the pulpit of a packed church, people crowding together on a hot summer evening to hear her preach.

      On the same page as: “Sisters, shall not you and I unite with the heavenly host in the grand chorus?”, she also wrote: “What though we are called to pass through deep waters, so our anchor is cast within the veil, both sure and steadfast?”

      THAT sentence is one that sustains me. Indeed the water is STILL deep for women, but like Anne-Marie Heckt wrote here on Sep 19th, we’re made for the deep water 🙂 http://shelovesmagazine.com/2015/swimming-in-the-deep/

      Foote would agree because she knew who her anchor was!

  • What a wonderful story! I can’t believe I haven’t run across it before and I thank you for sharing it here. I am so grateful for the people in all of our lives who have said, “I believe you.” (And also, “I believe IN you.”)

    • Joy Howard

      THANK YOU, Amelia!! Having been doing research about women of faith (of all sorts) in early America now for quite some time, I’m convinced that one of the ways women are oppressed is that we are not told each other’s stories. Powerful women like Foote that gathered & raised up other powerful women around her are out there–always have been! Dominant culture teaches the name of John Wesley, but not Foote. We learn about Jonathan Edwards, but not Amanda Smith.

      BUT I also think we women need to learn how to have ears for each other’s stories. I think we need to ask the spirit of LIGHT & LOVE to open our ears and our eyes because we have grown up in these cultures that value men more. Our eyes & ears do not function the way they should for us to see the band of sisters out there.

      Once I started trying to track down the details we did not know about Foote’s life 15 years ago or so, suddenly, I noticed her name pop up in many places. I heard a sermon by one of my heroes, Bishop Vashti McKenzie, and she cited Foote as one of her models. I stumbled across an out of print book in a used book store where she was mentioned in an endnote. I met to someone who knew Professor Bettye Collier-Thomas well and she often taught about Foote in her classes. May we have ears to hear.

      • Yes! I agree with both points. It’s so true, we could point to all the places in history where women’s voices have been excluded or suppressed but calling calling attention to injustice is only half of our battle. We do also have to find those voices–past and present–and lift them up. My curiosity has been piqued; I’ll look for more words by the women you’ve mentioned here and in the comment above.

        • Joy Howard

          🙂 I am hoping to write more about these women in our history. Fingers crossed.

  • Sandy Hay

    Yes and Amen, Joy !!!! The holiness movement also gave a platform for a friend’s mother back in the 50’s in the hills of West Virginia. What a loyal “front row” Julia had. She was a forerunner for shelovlies dangerous women. Our present sisterhood has grown all over the world but certainly wonderful to read the amazing blog from another from NJ. I live in Mt Holly.

    • Joy Howard

      What a great story. You know someone who rose up in the Holiness Movement! It was a fascinating movement & a lengthy one http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2004/issue82/6.26.html
      Conservative in many ways that historians would label “fundamentalist” but because of their trust in “the call”, women rose to preach. And preach & minister they did!

      Women such as Amanda Smith (Holiness Preacher who like Julia Foote, believed that life in the Spirit and in LOVE would reveal to white people their racism & they could overcome that sin with the help of the Spirit).

      • Joy Howard

        Thought of two more big names in the Holiness Movement that you SheLovelies will appreciate: Phoebe Palmer (founder of the Five Points Mission in the multi-racial, poverty stricken slum in NYC by that same name. She and her band of sister feed and clothes thousands). And Hannah Whitall Smith (author of The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, a book that continues to encourage women today especially in the midst of great physical suffering…the title does not do the book justice).

  • Donna Abma

    SWEET MOTHER OF PEARL
    THIS IS FANTASTIC 😍

    • Joy Howard

      Donna, thank you! I love the ALL CAPS. I did not know if Foote’s story would interest anyone. I worried that although I find her story encouraging, she was too “old fashion” to speak to people today. Your smiley emoticon is awesome! Thank you for the love!!

  • cjdeboer

    I love the strength in this post Joy – of your writing, this phenomenal band of sisters, and the knowledge that sisterhood has been strong for centuries. I also appreciate the history lesson 😉

    • Joy Howard

      Claire, Thank you so much. You have such a wonderful way with words as a writer, so your comments mean even more to me. Thank you for being part of SheLoves and dreaming big!!

  • This writes strength on my heart. Thank you, Joy!

    • Joy Howard

      What a wonderful phrase “writes strength on my heart.” I reflect a lot on what kind of cultural work my research accomplishes & I might steal this phrase. Am I writing strength on people’s hearts by my work? Thank you, Idelette. Thank you.

  • Shonagh Chimbira

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I am currently taking a course on the history of women in the church as part of my MDiv program. This is article, Julia’s story, and the amazing story of sisters supporting each other is the reason I am taking this course. I hadn’t heard her story but I plan to share it now. Truly inspirational!

    • Joy Howard

      I’m so thrilled this piece came along aside this course on other women in the church. What great timing. Thank you for posting. That means a lot to me.

  • Emily Evilsizor

    What encouraging and empowering words! Thank you as always, Joy!

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you dear friend! I’m lucky to have you in my band of sisters. Hugs!

  • Leah Kostamo

    Wow. I love this line: “They sang hymns and worked on their sewing throughout the night.” There it is — trust, practicality, presence. Thank you for telling us Julia’s story.

    • Joy Howard

      I’m consistently struck by this same thing when I hear women tell their stories. There’s verbal & soul-strengthening support, but then there is also the practical I’ll-scrub-your-floor-you-go-follow-your-call support. I know this has been true in my life. Sometimes I needed the “Yes you can” talk and sometimes I’ve needed someone to grocery shop for me. And I think both kinds of “YES” are so powerful.

  • Rea

    Wow. Thank you for telling this story. What an amazing woman. What an amazing band of sisters. I want to be the sister who sees the gifts and callings in the lives of the women around me and says “Yes!”

    • Joy Howard

      Me too, Rea. I hope for this same thing so much. Thanks for reading.

  • Bethany

    This article was a great read. The perfect blend of religion, history, and faith tied together with a lesson that we all can take to heart: we can do the hard things and our band of sisters will support us. Thank you, Joy, for sharing such a magnificent story of strength, perseverance, and sisterhood. I look forward to reading more work from you.

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you so much for such a lovely comment. I think you nailed it. We can do the hard things together 🙂

  • What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing the testimony of Julia Foote – inspiring!

    • Joy Howard

      thank you Morag!

  • Joy Howard

    Thanks for reading!! I am blessed by your comment.

  • Love this! When will I see this in print? 🙂

    • Joy Howard

      🙂 Your question makes me smile! I do have two pieces on Foote in print with academic presses. One is a chapter in: Nineteenth-Century American Women Write Religion and the other is an article in Legacy http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/legacy/toc/leg23.1.html.

      Although, I am now seriously thinking about including Foote in a book that is aimed at encouraging women leaders of faith. Mmmmm.

      • Ordinary Women—Extraordinary Callings? Sounds like a book. I will go to the link you provided to read more. Thanks again.

  • Anne-Marie

    ‘ She knew first hand that the rest of our world will often say “no” to women, but that we sisters can rise up and “yes” to each other.’ Amen! Thank you, Joy. Amazing commitment from Joy and all her lovelies. Wonderful to know!

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you Anne-Marie. Those words mean a lot. I love your writing too.

  • Saskia Wishart

    Wow Joy, this piece encapsulated the heart of this community of women so perfectly, and gave us a glimpse of a powerful ‘band of sisters’. Thank you for sharing this. It inspired me to think, what God-dreams can I sit with my sisters in?

    • Joy Howard

      I love your question, Saskia. I am going to borrow that. “What God-dreams can I sit with sisters in?” Even when the night is long and there is push back, with whom can I sit?

  • This is a wonderful story that’s worth remembering and being inspired by. Thanks for getting it out!

    • Joy Howard

      Thanks for reading & commenting 🙂

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  • Toni Pennington

    Excellent! Thank your taking the time to present yet another fascinating story about the women on this continent. There is a missing, rich voice that needs to be heard/exposed and you are certainly doing your part!

    • Joy Howard

      Thank you, Toni!

  • oddznns

    Thank you Joy. Thank you Lord! I was beset by doubts about my new book of prayers going out in aid of a fund raiser. Then THIS came in the mail. Yes!

    • Joy Howard

      I am so glad that this encouraged you!