March 17, 2010

My Spiritual Sister, Zilpha Elaw

About ten years ago, I discovered a book edited by William L. Andrews, Sisters of the Spirits: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. All of the autobiographies here are fascinating, but Zilpha Elaw's captured my interest most deeply.

Zilpha Elaw, an African-American woman and itinerant preacher during the early nineteenth century, published her memoir, Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels, and Labours of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, an American Female of Colour , in England in 1846. Elaw's autobiography is one of three republished in Andrews' collection. Mrs. Elaw, a free woman and native of Pennsylvania, traveled throughout the mid-Atlantic slaveholding states, preaching to large, sometimes racially mixed, audiences despite the threat of capture and enslavement. Elaw went abroad to continue preaching in England. It is believed she planned to return to the States in the late 1840s, but no records of her activities after 1846 are available.

I must admit it is a bit of the mystery surrounding her final days that intrigues me. I wonder what happened to her, or records of her death and final resting place. Was she lost at sea while attempting a return to North America? Did she voluntarily choose to remain in England, living a more private life? Did she meet foul play at the hands of someone opposed to her life and work? Regardless, it is her bravery that impresses me most. Her incredible devotion to witnessing and proclaiming God's goodness in her own way, against mean and incredible odds, is a true encouragement.

It is very easy in this time and place to be intimidated into silence, or into "conciliatory quietness" regarding our testimony of Christ. Zilpha Elaw is a total inspiration to me. I believe it is divine providence that her memoirs remain and are still in print. I think she would be amazed and grateful to know that over a century after her death, her thoughts and her witness continue to inspire.

From Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels and Labors of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw:

"When I was a child, I thought as a child; and often wondered how the ancient servants of the Lord knew the will of God in reference to their movements in life; and how they understood when and whither the Lord required them to go; but when I had fully dedicated myself to the service of the Lord, I experienced "the secret of the Lord to be with them that fear Him (Ps. 25:14). When our souls are in a right position before God, the will of the Lord, in reference to our future movements, is always made manifest and plain to us in the Lord's own time. (Italics are mine--de)

It is only when we are carnal, wayward, neglectful, and disobedient, that our mental vision becomes obscure, and we fail of reading the Lord's indications, or that He ceases to bless us with His guidance. In all the errands on which the Lord has been graciously pleased to send me for the proclamation of His gospel, my work has been attended with the witness of His Spirit, and He hath given seals to my ministry, and souls for my hire."

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