This post is part of our forum on “Womanist Theology.”
Anticipation filled the room as attendees gathered at Franklin Hall on Friday, September 21st, 1832, to discuss the state of enslavement in the United States. Franklin Hall was the site of regular monthly meetings of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, which advocated for the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery. One of the primary tactics of the Society was moral suasion, persuading and informing the general public on the immorality, evils, and horrors of slavery. The speaker for the evening was a woman, the first recognized to deliver a public address to an interracial crowd, a monumental, controversial, and potentially dangerous feat. In an era when the cult of true womanhood hinged on docility, silence, and domesticity, Maria W. Stewart, a Black woman, teacher, abolitionist, and political activist, boldly mounted the podium to speak truth to power in front of a “promiscuous audience,” a term describing an audience composed of men and women.
Maria W. Miller was born free in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1803. At the age of five she lost both of her parents and was forced to become a servant in the household of a white clergyman with whom she lived for ten years. She was not afforded formal education but learned as much as possible by reviewing books from the family library. At age fifteen, Miller supported herself by taking on a job as a domestic servant while advancing her education at Sabbath schools. She would later move to Boston, where on August 10, 1826, she married James W. Stewart, a forty-four-year-old veteran of the War of 1812. After the war, James earned a substantial living as a merchant, enabling the Stewarts to live a comfortable, middle-class life among Boston’s Black community. This allotted Maria the opportunity to fully dedicate herself to cultivating her intellectual prowess.
This all changed when, just three years later, her husband died. Although Stewart was left with a substantial inheritance, white executors of her husband’s will defrauded her of it after a drawn-out court battle. Once again, she was forced to return to a life of domestic service. She admonished the restrictive conditions in the US that continued to suppress educational opportunity for Black people, prompting her to educational advocacy. In her 1831 tract, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build, Stewart inquired, “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?” She called to conscious the stringent domestic labor that defined life for many Black women and brought to light the specificity of Black women’s experiences, as regularly defined by both gender and racial oppression. Stewart encouraged Black women to break free from gender confines by pursuing formal education and careers, particularly in teaching and other leadership roles.
But what would inspire her, a Black woman, to defy the social mores of the time—and risk public ostracization, arrest or assault—to publicly advocate for educational equity and freedom during her Franklin Hall lecture? Surely, the urgency of abolition and the gravity of chattel slavery often outweighed the stringent social conventions that restrained women, of all races, from assuming a public speaking role. But what undergirded Stewart’s boldness of speech and action was not only her own lived experience with educational exclusion, gendered violence, and economic suppression, but a particular ethical and theological understanding.
At the beginning of her Franklin Hall lecture, Stewart revealed that just two years prior, she underwent a life-changing, religious conversion that would change the trajectory of her entire life. She remembered this divine encounter, which she felt ordained her to articulate the horrors of slavery and the desolate existence of the enslaved. “Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?” the Spirit interrogated. Stewart’s heart humbly replied, “If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!” By daring to accept the call of the Holy Spirit, Stewart became a living witness, embodying the very equity she called for in her public speeches and writings.
Stewart’s religious fervor inspired her to radical action, and she became “a strong advocate for the cause of God and for the cause of freedom.” She could not imagine a God who was not intimately concerned with the spiritual, emotional, and sociopolitical needs and desires of Black people and, more specifically, Black women. She effectively staked a claim for Black women as leaders of the anti-slavery, abolitionist, and feminist movements, which she believed God himself commanded. She would go on to write prayers, meditations, newspaper articles, and political essays in which she challenged white Americans to become active abolitionists. She also encouraged Black people to take their political, economic, and educational futures into their own hands, in accordance with her theological interpretation of God’s reparative justice.
Likened to the writings of her mentor, the staunch abolitionist David Walker, Stewart incorporated the Black jeremiad tradition into her works, which condemned the sins of white supremacy and racism and prophesized retribution for slavery. Yet, Stewart’s usage of this rhetorical strategy is unique, what some would call a paradoxical theology, as she combined Christian mercy, grace, and radical love with necessary retributive violence. Simultaneously it demonstrates a unique form of abolitionism that did not fit neatly into the abolitionist traditions of the time, and particularly for women. In her October 8th, 1831, piece in the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, she wrote, “Many think, because your skins are tinged with a sable hue, that you are an inferior race of beings; but God does not consider you as such . . . and according to the Constitution of these United States, he hath made all men free and equal.”
Stewart wrote urgently and spoke passionately, advocating for abolition, racial and gender equality, and educational equity as a social witness of her strong Christian faith. She reminded the Black community of their rights, as outlined in the United States Constitution, that all people—including those racialized as Black and gendered female—were created equal and free. Further, she reminded them of their divinely conferred humanity, as well as God’s ultimate rule and reign, which took precedence over oppressive laws, rules, and regulations. Stewart’s radical ways of knowing, being and believing completely inverted the prevailing social order, not just to remind Black people who they were not, but to help them remember who they were, and had always been.
Reception of her (often militant) public sermons and published writings attracted some followers but drew ire as well. Her attempt to speak as a female prophet resulted not in reformation, but in scorn and rejection from both Black and white Americans. Whites refused her abolitionist teachings while the Black community thought that in publicly admonishing Black men to work harder for equality on behalf of Black women, she overstepped the boundaries of acceptable woman behavior. Yet Stewart recognized that her radical message would likely land on deaf ears and be ill-supported by her contemporaries, but she was undeterred.
Emboldened, empowered, and endowed, she declared, “I fear neither men nor devils; for the God in whom I trust is able to deliver me from the rage and malice of my enemies, and from them that rise up against me.” Although Stewart was forced to abandon her public platform as a speaker after only a few years, she found willing ears and open hearts in the private audience of the students that she taught, serving as a schoolteacher in New York, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., for nearly three decades and later in life as a Sunday school teacher.
Stewart engaged in spiritual activism, traveling throughout the North to preach and lecture on issues such as abolition, racial uplift, and women’s rights during the nineteenth century, effectively establishing herself as a public intellectual. She represents early iterations of Black feminist thought and is often identified as a proto-Black feminist, one of the earliest documented to struggle on behalf of Black women during the antebellum era. She helps us to better understand the complex, expansive, and interior forces that shaped both the abolitionist and feminist movements in the early nineteenth century. Stewart is likewise a proto-womanist, placing the lived experience of Black women at the center of her theological interpretations, understandings, and activism. According to womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas,
“[Maria] Stewart shows Black women have believed that . . . God’s presence as the Holy Spirit, has been with them to shield them and their community from death and destruction . . . Their belief in the sustaining presence of God’s spirit is perhaps indicative of what Alice Walker means when she says that a womanist ‘loves the spirit.’”
Maria W. Stewart and other notable nineteenth century race women like Amanda Berry Smith, Jarena Lee, Julia A. Foote, and Sojourner Truth represent proto-womanist wisdom, as they challenged traditional doctrines that characterized Black women’s racial and gender oppressions as part of God’s divine racial-gender hierarchy. They fortified fellow Black women of the past, present, and the future, to “cry aloud and spare not,” publicly renouncing a world system that refused to acknowledge their/our equality, humanity, and spirituality. For these historical Black women, the word and the Word helped them disrupt the sexist and racist foundations upon which American society was built. Examining the theological and intellectual traditions of proto-womanists from the nineteenth century sets the foundation for the further development of womanist theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Their efforts also enable us to carve out multi-faceted, abundant lives bursting with meaning, purpose, and faith-inspired radical action.permission.