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Black women preachers who changed—and are changing—history

As Black women remain the heartbeat of the Black church, they are also clergywomen and change-makers revolutionizing faith.

Black women have been the backbone of the Black church and the vanguards of ministry, in and out of the pulpit. This Women’s History Month, we take a moment to lift Black clergywomen who stood in the full power of their call and identity and charted new territory for generations of Black women coming behind them. Through their sermons and writings, they leave a legacy of faith and Black feminism.

Prathia Hall, a spokeswoman for demonstrators in Atlanta, Ga., reads a statement demanding an end to discrimination and segregation to Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. on Jan. 29, 1964.
Photo: AP

Jarena Lee (1783-1864)

Jarena Lee was the first woman to be recognized as a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In addition to blazing trails within the AME denomination, Lee was also the first African-American woman to publish an autobiography. The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, a Coloured Lady, Giving an account of her call to preach the gospel was first released in 1836.

Image: Pantianos Classics

Rebecca Jackson (1795-1871)

Rooting her feminism deeply within her faith, Rebecca Jackson was a writer and religious activist who believed God endowed men and women equally. Her creation of a Shaker community for Black women and her fierce advocacy of egalitarianism made her one of the most controversial religious figures of her time. Her autobiography, Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson is considered one of the most important spiritual autobiographies of all time.

Image: UMass Press

Julia Foote (1823-1901)

Julia Foote was the first Black woman to be ordained a deacon with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Later, she was elevated to the office of elder, becoming the second woman within the denomination to hold that distinction. Foote’s autobiography, A Brand Plucked from the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch, is noted for its discussion of mental health as Foote chronicles her experience as a Black preaching woman.

Image: First Fruits Press

Pauli Murray (1910-1985)

In 1977, Pauli Murray became the first African-American woman to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. An activist and attorney, Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” in 1947 to highlight the racial and gender oppression Black women experienced during and post-Reconstruction. A queer person of faith, many scholars have begun to recognize Murray as one of the first transgender ministers. Murray’s autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage, recounts a childhood in North Carolina and the experiences that formed a life of activism.

Left: The cover of Song in a Weary Throat; Rev. Pauli Murray is the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest on Jan. 8, 1977.
(Penguin Random House; AP Photo)

Prathia Hall (1940-2002)

A womanist theologian and ethicist, Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall (pictured in our header) is largely considered one of the greatest preachers of all time. During the Civil Rights Movement, she was an active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and is the inspiration behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech, “I Have a Dream”. Dr. Courtney Pace’s Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall examines the life of one of the first women to be ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA denomination. Additionally, Pace recently released an edited volume of Hall’s sermons and scholarly essays.

In the spirit of these pioneers, here are five contemporary Black women in the clergy who are following in their footsteps and forging new paths of their own.

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

Gafney is an Episcopal priest, former army chaplain and congressional pastor in the AME Zion Church. A professor of Hebrew Bible, Gafney’s searing biblical analysis grounds her works Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and of the Throne and Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel. She is also co-editor of The Peoples’ Bible and The Peoples’ Companion to the Bible. Gafney’s latest work, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, builds an entire lectionary centering the stories, voices and experiences of women—and Black women, in particular.

Bishop Yvette A. Flunder

Flunder is the Founder and Senior Pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland, California. She is also the Presiding Bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, which is grounded in a theology of radical inclusivity. Considered a beloved pastor of the movement, Bishop Flunder identifies her call as to “blend proclamation, worship, service and advocacy on behalf of those most marginalized in church and in society.” An award-winning gospel artist, Flunder is also the author of Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion.

The Rev. Raquel S. Lettsome, Ph.D.

A nationally renowned preacher and biblical scholar, Lettsome is the founder of RSL Ministries, where she works with faith leaders and laity offering courses in exegesis, sermon preparation and ways to build better bible studies. Lettsome holds the distinction of being the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary and is currently a Visiting Scholar of the New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary.

Dr. Melva L. Sampson

Sampson is the creator and curator of Pink Robe Chronicles (PRC), a digital hush harbor that centers faith and spirituality utilizing the womanist tenets of redemptive self-love, critical engagement, radical subjectivity and traditional communalism with a focus on Black women. PRC streams live, on Facebook and YouTube, every Sunday at 8:00am EST. Sampson is also the author of the forthcoming Going Live!: Black Women’s Proclamation in the Digital Age.

The Reverend Courtney Clayton Jenkins

Clayton Jenkins is the Senior Pastor and Teacher of South Euclid United Church of Christ in Ohio. At 27, she made history as the first woman, first African-American and youngest pastor of the congregation. Committed to social justice and advocacy, Clayton Jenkins can be found on social media, blending scriptural truths with innovation to make preaching appealing and relevant to younger generations.

Candice Marie Benbow is theGrio’s daily lifestyle, education and health writer. She’s also the author of Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @candicebenbow.

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