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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Julia A. J. Foote

Julia A. J. Foote's autobiography, A Brand Plucked from the Fire (1879), is representative of a large number of similar texts published by nineteenth-century black and white women who believed that Christianity had made them the spiritual equals of men and hence equally authorized to lead the church. Her belief in the androgyny of the Christian spirit and her refusal to defer to husband or minister when her own intuitive sense of personal authority was at stake mark Foote's autobiographical work as an important early expression of the American feminist literary tradition.

Foote was born in Schenectady, New York, the daughter of former slaves. Her parents were strongly committed to Methodism and to the education of their children. Because Schenectady's schools were segregated, Foote's parents hired her out as a domestic servant to a white family who used their influence to place her in a country school outside the city. Here, between the ages of ten and twelve, Julia Foote received the only formal education of her life. Despite the fact that her teenage years were devoted to the care of her younger siblings, she read considerably, especially in the Bible, and attended many church meetings. When she was fifteen, she had a profound conversion experience and joined an African Methodist Episcopal church in Albany, New York. Three years later she married George Foote, a sailor, and moved with him to Boston.

Having no children, Foote devoted a great deal of her time to informal evangelistic work in her community, in which she testified to her belief in the doctrine of "sanctification." The controversial idea that a Christian could be sanctified—totally freed from sin and empowered to lead a life of spiritual perfection—had been under debate in Methodist circles for decades. Advocates of sanctification and perfectionism became leaders in the rise of "holiness" movements in evangelical denominations in the United States during the mid- and late-nineteenth century. Foote's belief that she herself had been sanctified by the Holy Spirit contributed to her growing conviction that her destiny was to become a preacher. George Foote was skeptical about his wife's religious beliefs and attempted to curb her public activities; when she resisted his arguments, he drifted out of her life.

Foote knew that a woman who claimed a divine calling to the ministry challenged Christian tradition and American social prejudice. Women were not expected to assume public leadership positions, nor were they allowed to speak, except under restrictions, in most Christian churches. Yet Foote could neither deny her conscience nor shirk the work that she felt had been given her to do. When the minister of her church in Boston refused her access to his pulpit and threatened to expel her from the congregation, she refused to be daunted. She took her case to higher denominational authorities, and when she received no support from them, she set out on an independent preaching career.

In the mid-1840s she evangelized the upstate New York region, often accompanied or invited by ministers of the A.M.E. church. By 1850 she had crossed the Allegheny Mountains in search of new converts in Ohio and Michigan. She participated in the holiness revivals that swept the Midwest during the 1870s and later became a missionary in the A.M.E. Zion church. During the last decade of her life, she became the first woman to be ordained a deacon and the second woman to hold the office of elder in her denomination. Although her autobiography attacks racism and other social abuses, it is the subordination of women, especially in the spiritual realm, and her desire to inspire faith in her Christian sisters that endow her story with its distinctive voice and intensity.

William L. Andrews
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
from A Brand Plucked from the Fire
      Chapter XIX: "Public Effort-Excommunication" (1879)
      Chapter XVII: "My Call to Preach the Gospel" (1879)
      Chapter XX: "Women in the Gospel" (1879)

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A Brand Plucked From the Fire
Full text electronic version of the book, offered by the New York Public Library.

Secondary Sources

Joanne M. Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography, 1989

Jennifer Fleischner, Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women's Slave Narratives, 1996

Sue E. Houchens, ed., Spiritual Narratives, 1988