Dr. Joshua M. Murray is an Assistant Professor of English at Fayetteville State University, a constituent institution of the University of North Carolina. He teaches early to contemporary African American Literature. His research primarily focuses on the Harlem Renaissance, paying particular attention to transnational and diasporic elements. He has articles published and forthcoming on authors including Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Toni Morrison.
Ashley chats with Dr. Joshua Murray (Fayetteville State University) about early African-American print culture, African-American women writers, and how these women’s readings of Scripture shaped their views regarding abolition.
1. What first got you interested in studying African American literature?
2. One scholar has noted that, “early black print culture is not simply the story of a single genre like the slave narrative or...exceptional individuals like [Phillis] Wheatley." What can you tell us about early black print culture in the United States?
3. During my research, an early Afro-Protestant church that I came across was the African Methodist Episcopal Church and their involvement in early print culture. What can you tell us about the AME Church?
4. Based on your research, would you agree with the statement that “early black women entering print culture felt...called to do so by their faith"?
5. Scholars point to an African-American evangelist named Jarena Lee (1783-1864) as a trailblazer for women in ministry. Tell us a little bit of her story.
6. Maria W. Stewart (1803–1879) was a teacher, writer, and advocate for African-American women. What can you tell us about her?
7. Frances E.W. Harper (1825-1911) was another early African-American writer. What is her story?
8. Your primary area of research is the Harlem Renaissance. What is the Harlem Renaissance and what role did women writers play in this movement?
Final Questions (standard for every interview)
9. Which do you prefer: tea or coffee? Definitely coffee.
10. What is a book that you have read more than once that you would recommend? Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (1940).
11. Do you have a hero of the faith? Rev. Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer
Featured Women of the Church
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784): With the publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, she “became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poems in the English language, marking the beginning of an African-American literary tradition” (Gates 31).In her poems, Phillis articulated the truth that God made all humanity, regardless of class, gender, or race, in his image.
Jarena Lee (1783-1864): After hearing “voices,” she felt called to become a preacher. As she later wrote in her autobiography, “Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity — hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St. Paul ? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel ? for she preached the resurrection of the crucified Son of God.” The AME Bishop Richard Allen commissioned Jarena as a preacher. While she faced prejudice as a black woman, she preached for more than twenty years.
Maria W. Stewart (1803–1879): Widowed in her twenties, she worked as a school teacher, writer, and lecturer. Throughout her writings and speeches, she critiqued the hypocrisy of racism in the United States. In her final lecture, she argued that women throughout history “have had a voice in moral, religious, and political subjects” and asked rhetorically “What if I am a woman; is not the God of ancient times the God of these modern days?”(Eric Gardner, “Early African-American Print Culture”).
Frances E.W. Harper (1825-1911): While Frances is now best known for her writings around the Civil War, she wrote poetry, speeches, and novels into the twentieth century. One latter such example of Frances’ work is her novel Iola Leroy (1892), which features a mixed-race heroine. When Iola Leroy’s white suitor asks her to conceal her black heritage, she responds, “Doctor, were I your wife, are there not people who would caress me as a white woman who would shrink from me in scorn if they knew I had one drop of Negro blood in my veins? [. . .] No, Doctor, I am not willing to live under a shadow of concealment which I thoroughly hate as if the blood in my veins were an undetected crime of my soul.”
Early African-American print culture: “[There was] a lot more poetry and non-fiction than fiction in the earliest times.”
The AME Church: “We kind of think now that religious congregations being defined by their theology but at the time it was much more on their racial identity and their desire for freedom, for abolition, for civic and social justice.”
When teaching his early survey courses on African-American Literature: “We look a lot at the power that was afforded to these individuals through the written word [and speeches]…Because language and literacy had been taken away from slaves as they were brought over to the United States.”
Religion in early African-American writings: “What we see in early African-American writings…is that religion and Christian speech, specifically using the plight of the Jews in Egypt within the writings as a metaphor for their contemporary situation as slaves searching for the promised land of freedom…As the time progresses in the nineteenth century, the writers get bolder and bolder in their writing.”
“Ethopia” by Frances E.W. Harper
Yes, Ethiopia yet shall stretch
Her bleeding hands abroad;
Her cry of agony shall reach
The burning throne of God.
The tyrant's yoke from off her neck,
His fetters from her soul,
The mighty hand of God shall break
And spurn the base control.
Redeemed from dust, and freed from chains,
Her sons shall lift their eyes;
From lofty hills and verdant plains
Shall shouts of triumph rise.
Upon the dark, despairing brow
Shall play a smile of peace;
For God shall bend unto her woe,
And bid her sorrows cease.
'Neath sheltering vines and stately palms
Shall laughing children play;
And aged sires, with joyous psalms,
Shall gladden every day.
Secure by night and blest by day,
Shall pass her happy hours;
Within her peaceful bowers.
Thy bleeding hands abroad;
Thy cry of agony shall reach
And find the throne of God.
Terms to Know
African Methodist Episcopal Church: The church started in Philadelphia in 1816 and it was the consolidation of several black Methodist churches. The first bishop was Richard Allen (1760-1831). According to Christianity Today, “Blacks in Baltimore, Wilmington, Attleboro, and Salem followed Allen's example and established independent African Methodist churches. Allen oversaw the rapid growth of the AME's mother church in Philadelphia, which grew to 7,500 members in the 1820s. The denomination became by all accounts the most significant black institution in the nineteenth century, and today has over 6,000 churches and over 2 million members” (“Ricard Allen”).
Second Great Awakening (1795-1835): This was a wide-spread Protestant religious revival in the United States. Like the earlier First Great Awakening, preachers (particularly from the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) held outdoor meetings to preach the Gospel. This revival led to social reforms like temperance, the abolition of slavery, prison reform, ministries for the disabled, and more.
Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s): Women writers and editors like Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Jessie Redmon Fauset were a part of this literary movement. Dr. Murray notes that the movement had many “moving parts”: “Some felt that fitting with the modernist movement of the time that it should be leaving the morality of Christianity, of the old writers.” Another term of the Harlem Renaissance was the “New Negro Movement.”
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Dr. Murray’s Sources
The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (Third Edition, 2016), edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith.
Peterson, Carla L. "Doers of the Word": African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North. 1995.
Haywood, Chanta M. "Prophesying Daughters: Nineteenth-Century Black Religious Women, the Bible, and Black Literary History." African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures, edited by Vincent L. Wimbush. 2000.
Harper, Frances E.W. "Ethiopia" (1853), “Our Greatest Want,” (1859), and "Woman's Political Future" (1893).
Lee, Jarena. Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (1836),
Stewart, Maria W. Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality (1831).
Walker, David. Appeal (1829/30).
Fauset, Jessie Redmon. Plum Bun (1928).
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea (1940).
Picture of Frances E.W. Harper. Source Unknown.
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