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The Robes of Womanhood: Dress and Authenticity among African American Methodist Women in the Nineteenth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2018


Scholars of American religion are increasingly attentive to material culture as a rich source for the analysis of religious identity and practice that is especially revealing of the relationships among doctrine, bodily comportment, social structures, and innovation. In line with this focus, this article analyses the ways nineteenth-century African American Methodist women turned to dress as a tool to communicate religious and political messages. Though other nineteenth-century Protestants also made use of the communicative powers of dress, African American women did so with a keen awareness of the ways race trumped clothing in the semiotic system of nineteenth-century America. Especially for women entering into public fora as preachers and public speakers, dress could act as a passport to legitimacy in an often hostile setting, but it was not always enough to establish oneself as a Christian lady. Considering the related traditions of plain dress and respectability within the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, this essay finds that AME women cultivated respectability and plainness within discourses of authenticity that tried—with some ambivalence—to use dress as a marker of the true soul beneath the fabric. Based primarily on the autobiographical and journalistic writings of women such as Jarena Lee, Amanda Berry Smith, Hallie Q. Brown, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, as well as accounts from AME publications such as the Christian Recorder and the Church Review, and other church documents, the essay also draws on the work of historians of African American women and historians of dress and material culture. For nineteenth-century AME women, discourses of authenticity could be both a burden and a resource, but either way they were discourses that were often remarkably critical, both of selfmotivation and of cultural markers of class, race, and gender in a world that made a fetish of whiteness.

Research Article
Copyright © Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture 2004

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For their helpful readings of various drafts of this paper, I would like to thank Michael Wayne, Carol Duncan, Stephen Ward Angell, Adrienne Hood, Leigh Schmidt, and John Marshall.

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22. Nash, First City, 190; and Coleman, Willi, “Architects of a Vision: Black Women and Their Antebellum Quest for Political and Social Equality,” in African-American Women and the Vote, 1837–1965, ed. Gordon, Ann D. et al. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 37 Google Scholar.

23. Schmidt, “‘A Church-Going People,’” 40, 48. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, white Wesleyans in Philadelphia modeled their dress after plain Quakers, though they gave this up by mid-century. Maser, Frederick E., “Dress,” in Encyclopedia of World Methodism, 2 vols., ed. Harmon, Nolan B. (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1974), 1: 717–18Google Scholar.

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25. Payne, History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 348–52.

26. Brereton, Virginia Lieson, From Sin to Salvation: Stories of Women's Conversions, 1800 to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 23 Google Scholar. See also Bushman, Richard L., The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992), 314–19Google Scholar; and Winston, Red-Hot and Righteous, 88. For an example of a conversion narrative written by a male AME preacher that does not discuss appearance and clothing, see Henry, Thomas W. and Libby, Jean, From Slavery to Salvation: The Autobiography of Rev. Thomas W. Henry of the A.M.E. Church (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 89 Google Scholar.

27. For examples of other religious communities in which women's clothing marked religious difference, see Luck, “Trouble in Eden, Trouble with Eve,” 207; Epp, Marlene, “Carrying the Banner of Nonconformity: Ontario Mennonite Women and the Dress Question,” Conrad Grebel Review 8 (Fall 1990): 237–58Google Scholar.

28. Bentley, Fannie C. L., “The Women of Our Race Worthy of Imitation,” AME Church Review 6 (1889): 473–77Google Scholar.

29. Carby, Hazel V., Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 32 Google Scholar.

30. Bushman, The Refinement of America, 439. See also Nash, First City, 201, and Willson and Winch, The Elite of Our People.

31. Fischer, Pantaloons and Power, 142.

32. Slaves, however, were also keenly aware of the possibilities of clothing for public performances, even in some cases using cross-dressing to escape to the North, as in the case of Ellen Craft. See Garber, Marjorie B., Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 282–85Google Scholar.

33. For more on piety, sexuality, and race, see Carby, Hazel V., “‘On the Threshold of Woman's Era’: Lynching, Empire, and Sexuality in Black Feminist Theory,” Critical Inquiry 12 (Autumn 1985): 264 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Taves, Ann, “Spiritual Purity and Sexual Shame: Religious Themes in the Writings of Harriet Jacobs,” Church History 56 (March 1987): 64 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Giddings, Paula, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Morrow, 1984), 61 Google Scholar.

34. Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent, 188, 195–96.

35. I. H. Welch in Angell, Stephen Ward and Pinn, Anthony B., Social Protest Thought in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862–1939 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000), 272 Google Scholar. See also Perkins, Linda M., “The Impact of the ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ on the Education of Black Women,” Journal of Social Issues, 39, no. 3 (1983): 1728 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36. Humez, “‘My Spirit Eye,’” 133; Zilpha Elaw, Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels and Labours of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, An American Female of Colour, in Sisters of the Spirit, ed. Andrews, 103.

37. Halttunen, Karen, Confidence Men and Painted Women (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 57, 60, 194Google Scholar.

38. Julia F. Early, “What Constitutes a Lady?” Christian Recorder, June 24, 1865.

39. Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, 197.

40. Lee, Jarena, Religious Experiences and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee (Philadelphia: self-published, 1849), 5 Google Scholar.

41. Julia A. J. Foote, A Brand Plucked from the Fire, in Sisters of the Spirit, ed. Andrews, 203.

42. Lee, Religious Experiences and Journal, 5.

43. Isaiah 59:17 (KJV); see also Isaiah 52:1; 61:3; Ezekiel 42:14.

44. Smith, An Autobiography, 44.

45. Ibid., 47.

46. Wesley, Charles, “Waiting at the Cross,” Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church (New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1878), 186 Google Scholar. On AME hymnody and its relation to white Methodism, see Hum, Stephen, “‘When We Were No People, Then We Were a People’: Evangelical Language and the Free Blacks of Philadelphia in the Early Republic,” in A Mighty Baptism: Race, Gender, and the Creation of American Protestantism, ed. Juster, Susan and MacFarlane, Lisa (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996), 235–58Google Scholar. On blackness and whiteness, see Smith, An Autobiography, 118; Humez, “‘My Spirit Eye,’” 134.

47. Smith, An Autobiography, 113, 110, 115.

48. For a parallel example of dress as “shield” in the lives of American Mormons, see McDannell, Material Christianity, 198–221.

49. Smith, An Autobiography, 78, 43, 79.

50. Painter, Nell Irvin, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 43 Google Scholar. For Truth's vision, see Richard Cordley, “Sojourner Truth,” Boston Congregationalist, March 3, 1880. I thank Prof. Nell Painter for this reference. On Baker, see Collier-Thomas, Daughters of Thunder, 71. On Jackson, see Jackson, Rebecca, Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress, ed. Humez, Jean McMahon (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), 93 Google Scholar.

51. Lears, “Beyond Veblen,” 76. See also Shi, David, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

52. Fischer, Pantaloons and Power, 23.

53. “Fashion—What She Does,” Christian Recorder, January 18, 1856. See also J. J. Clinton, “Reflections on Dress” Christian Recorder, November 17, 1854. For a white example, see Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, 67.

54. “Appearances,” Christian Recorder, May 4, 1861; Editorial, “White People Do So, Etc.,” Christian Recorder, March 4, 1871. See also W. Moore, “Letter,” Christian Recorder, April 4, 1855; D. Cooper, “Thoughts on Dress,” Christian Recorder, November 4, 1865; H. Darling, “Nonconformity to the World an Element of Power in the Church,” Christian Recorder, December 7, 1867; Mrs. Ira A. Collins, “Economy among Colored People,” Christian Recorder, February 15, 1877; Catherine Casey, “Women's Department,” Christian Recorder, July 11, 1878; and “Extravagance,” Christian Recorder, February 2, 1882.

55. Smith, An Autobiography, 200–201.

56. Ibid., 145–46, 110.

57. Elaw, Memoirs, 118, 107; Hardesty, Nancy A. and Israel, Adrienne, “Amanda Berry Smith: A ‘Downright, Outright Christian,’” in Spirituality and Social Responsibility: Vocational Vision of Women in the United Methodist Tradition, ed. Keller, Rosemary Skinner (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 64 Google Scholar.

58. Andrews, Sisters of the Spirit, 21.

59. Shane White and Graham White, “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Past and Present 148 (1995): 179. See also Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend, “‘Together and in Harness’: Women's Traditions in the Sanctified Church,” Signs 10, no. 4 (1985): 685 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60. Lee, Religious Experience, 23. Frances Harper had similar accusations directed to her. See Hazel V. Carby quoted in Garber, Vested Interests, 267.

61. Elaw, Memoirs, 63; Andrews, Sisters of the Spirit, 21; D. H. Johnson, “Reviaal [sic] of Holiness,” Christian Recorder, May 2, 1889.

62. “To Avoid a Bad Husband,” Christian Recorder, March 16, 1861; “Which Manhood—A Word to Young Men,” Christian Recorder, July 6, 1872; “Lessons from Cox's Fate,” Christian Recorder, July 29, 1880; “Finis,” “The Dignity of Woman,” Christian Recorder, July 26, 1877; Miss E.M.L.W., “Emulation— Its Good and Bad Effects,” Christian Recorder, March 3, 1887; Lydia Maria Child, “The Present Fashions,” Christian Recorder, September 9, 1865; Harriet Beecher Stowe, “The True Standard of Dress,” Christian Recorder, July 7, 1866; and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, “Woman's Dress,” Christian Recorder, May 22, 1873.

63. A. W. Talbert, “Dress,” Christian Recorder, June 30, 1881. On women's financial contributions to the church, see Dodson, Jualynne E., Engendering Church: Women, Power, and the AME Church (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)Google Scholar; Harley, Sharon, “For the Good of Family and Race: Gender, Work, and Domestic Roles in the Black Community, 1880–1930,” Signs 15, no. 2 (1990): 348 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Beck, Carolyn Stickney, Our Own Vine and Fig Tree: The Persistence of the Mother Bethel Family (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 23 Google Scholar; and Gregg, Sparks from the Anvil of Oppression, 123.

64. Painter, Nell Irvin, “Representing Truth: Sojourner Truth's Knowing and Becoming Known,” in This Far by Faith: Readings in African-American Women's Religious Biography, ed. Weisenfeld, Judith and Newman, Richard (New York: Routledge, 1996), 285 Google Scholar.

65. Ruth G., “Reply to Thoughts on Dress,” Christian Recorder, December 23, 1865. See also Mrs. M. E. Lambert, “Bon Tons,” Christian Recorder, August 16, 1877.

66. J. T. Jenifer, “Piety Compatible with Pleasure,” Christian Recorder, January 7, 1875; Gregg, Sparks from the Anvil of Oppression, 73.

67. R. Seymour, “Ought Women to be Admitted to Membership in the Legislative Bodies of the Church,” Christian Recorder, November 20, 1890.

68. “Finis,” “The Dignity of Woman”; “Bishop Ives and Wife—Their Apostacy and Present Prospects,” Christian Recorder, May 1, 1855; James Freeman Clarke, “Votes or Veils?” Christian Recorder, May 12, 1887.

69. “Before Breakfast,” Christian Recorder, July 30, 1874; “Christine,” “A Voice from the Cradle,” Christian Recorder, November 29, 1883. See also “Sensible Talks to Girls,” Christian Recorder, July 16, 1874, and Old Fogy John, “Next to Godliness,” Christian Recorder, July 25, 1889.

70. “Penny Wise,” Christian Recorder, October 21, 1880 (italics original); G. T. Strickland, “A Virtuous Woman,” Christian Recorder, September 30, 1880. On AME women's early-nineteenth-century efforts to “improve the appearance of the clergy,” see Dodson, Engendering Church, 43–44.

71. D. Ella Johnson, “Affectation,” Christian Recorder, January 12, 1893; T. G. Steward, “Colored Society,” Christian Recorder, January 11, 1877 (italics original).

72. “True to Nature,” Christian Recorder, January 11, 1894.

73. B. T. Tanner, “Three Crimes,” Christian Recorder, May 5, 1887. Tanner was editor of the Christian Recorder from 1868 to 1884. On racial hierarchies of beauty, see Sander Gilman, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” in “Race,” Culture and Difference, ed. James Donald and Ali Rattansi (London: Sage, 1992), 180; Higginbotham, “African-American Women's History,” 263.

74. Catharine Casey, “Our Woman's Column,” Christian Recorder, May 24, 1888.

75. Cott, Nancy F., The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman's Sphere” in New England, 1780–1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977)Google Scholar; Frances E. W. Harper, “Enlightened Motherhood: an address by Mrs. Frances E. W. Harper; before the Brooklyn Literary Society, November 15th, 1892,” Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection (Library of Congress), at$REF$.

76. Lora L. Lawson, “Woman's Influence,” Christian Recorder, July 8, 1887; Virginia A. Hatcher, “Advice to Young Ladies,” Christian Recorder, November 21, 1878. See also Julia W. Mason, “What Shall We Do with Our Girls?” Christian Recorder, May 24, 1888.

77. For Harper on mothers, see F. E. W. Harper, “Mothers’ Meetings,” Christian Recorder, July 8, 1887; on her deportment and education, see Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins and Foster, Frances Smith, A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1990), 15 Google Scholar, and Foster, Frances Smith, Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 81 Google Scholar. On free produce, see Coleman, “Architects of a Vision,” 37.

78. Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins, “True Politeness and False Politeness,” in A Brighter Coming Day, ed. Harper and Foster, 400 Google Scholar.

79. Harper, “Enlightened Motherhood,” 4, 5.

80. Tomes, Nancy, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 160 Google Scholar.

81. On Ida B. Wells as a supporter of respectability, though one with a rocky relationship to the AME church, see Wells, Ida B., Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, ed. Duster, Alfreda M. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 409 Google Scholar, and Townes, Emilie M., “Because God Gave Her Vision: The Religious Impulse of Ida B. Wells-Barnett,” in Spirituality and Social Responsibility, ed. Keller, , 152–55Google Scholar.

82. Painter, Sojourner Truth, 225. On Harper's style, see Harper and Foster, A Brighter Coming Day, 15, 17; on her struggles to gain authenticity, see Foster, Written by Herself, 81–82.

83. See Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 3 Google Scholar.

84. For Smith's description of being sent out of a church, see Smith, An Autobiography, 195; for Truth's account of being forcibly ejected from a streetcar, see Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Boston: published for the author, 1875), 187; for discussions of Harper's and Wells's experiences of being sent or thrown from railway cars, see Bettye Collier-Thomas, “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: Abolitionist and Feminist Reformer, 1825–1911,” in African-American Women and the Vote, ed. Gordon et al., 46, and Townes, “Because God Gave Her Vision,” 143.

85. For example, Banner, Lois, American Beauty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 14 Google Scholar.

86. Bushman, The Refinement of America, 437.

87. Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend, “The Politics of ‘Silence’: Dual-Sex Political Systems and Women's Traditions of Conflict in African-American Religion,” in African-American Christianity: Essays in History, ed. Johnson, Paul E. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 106–7Google Scholar.

88. For example, see Hale, Grace Elizabeth, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 (New York: Pantheon, 1998), 125 Google Scholar. On the authority of voice, see Humez, Jean M., “Visionary Experience and Power: The Career of Rebecca Cox Jackson,” in Black Apostles: Afro-American Clergy Confront the Twentieth Century, ed. Burkett, Randall K. and Newman, Richard (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978), 109–10Google Scholar; and Gilkes, “The Politics of ‘Silence,’” 106–7.

89. Harper, “Enlightened Motherhood,” 1, 6.

90. Hirschkind, Charles and Mahmood, Saba, “Feminism, the Taliban, and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency,” Anthropological Quarterly 75, no. 2 (2002): 353 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.