African-American Women and Religion 

Postbellum American society was characterized by greater freedom and rights for African Americans. While the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in the South, a new problem arose with regard to the rights of full citizenship to the former slaves. African American played an important role in the transition from emancipation to full citizenship by strengthening the African American external political process through an internal one led by women. They achieved this through religious faith that drew parallels of the Bible to the injustices experienced by former slaves.

Religion helped women to adopt executive roles as leaders in education, and reform movements in institutions such as the National Association of Colored Women and the National Council of Negro Women.

African American women in Postbellum America used religion to change their roles of domesticity to become public opinion shapers through influential women figures and movements that raised awareness on the disenfranchisement of freed slaves. Women used religion to challenge the social hierarchy of subordination and domesticity.

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The Bible was used to reject notions of inferiority and to show that African American women were equal to men. Women claimed a social position of power by showing that God gave women a specific work to do; as co-workers. The Bible was used to challenge sexism and discrimination based on gender, to resist racism, and inferiority. A feminist theology using biblical precedents was promoted to support the emerging role of women as opinion makers in all aspects of social life in black communities.

Galatians 3: 28 was commonly used by African American women to argue against gender inequality and racism: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond or free, there is neither male or female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”.

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A feminist theology proposed that true womanhood can be used to resist black sexism in the church and white racism. The role of religion is best exemplified by Brown who states that “the church provided more than physical space, financial resources, and a communication network; it also provided a cultural base that validated emotion and experience as ways of knowing, and drew on a collective call and response, encouraging the participation of all”. The church as a religious institution provided an avenue where women exercised universal suffrage through rights of voting.

This was the foundation of women’s participation in both internal and external political arenas without having to depend on arguments of “superior female morality or public motherhood”. A greater participation in religious functions and leadership gave African American women the authority to challenge the gender-based assumptions within the African American community and to the larger political discourse in Postbellum American society.Women found positions of leadership in the dual-sexed structure of the mainstream African American churches. This allowed women to exercise leadership and expertise and to propagate “the holiness beliefs of the denominations through teaching, discipline, and spiritual direction, to both men and women”.

Women’s conventions and missionary societies helped women to exercise self-determination and to accomplish the goals of social justice. One area where African American women excelled in was in fundraising due to their numbers through which religious, educational institutions were funded. Newspapers and businesses that served communal needs were also funded. The above institutions were important in the development of African Americans economically and gaining political awareness of their newly found freedom. With an increased voice in church affairs, women could shape public opinion and the process of public discourse within black communities in Postbellum America.

Kate Drumgoold

Kate Drumgoold is a good example of an African American woman who was involved in the development of African Americans through education. Born in 1858, Drumgoold attended Wayland Seminary in Washington so as to gain competence as a teacher with the aim of teaching African Americans. The seminary as a religious institution trained Drumgoold who later became a teacher as a form of domestic “Christian work” that fused education with political and social reform in Postbellum America. This was important since the majority of African Americans after emancipation were poor and illiterate; half the population of Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama was illiterate. Women thus played the role of social transformation and economic empowerment of the emancipated slaves to gain invaluable information in the process of transformation from slaves to freedmen and women.

The role of women in shaping public opinion can be seen in the autobiography of Kate Drumgoold who tries to show young black men the accepted etiquette when dealing with the female gender. She states that “I think that true etiquette is one of the greatest blessings that young men can have for women…it is to them that we look for the protection and love…and it is that which makes a young man what he ought to be”. This is important since there was prevalent sexism toward black women from within. The ability to read and interpret the Bible from her own experiences was important for Drumgoold to show black men and women to build moral values that were based on religion. For women, Bible stories were used to interpret freedom and survival and to create “riveting biblical imagery that bolstered their hopes, sustained their souls, enabled them to endure the horrors of slavery, and helped them to live under the most adverse circumstances”.

Therefore, Drumgoold’s desire to be a teacher was driven by the motivation to be an opinion shaper. Women as early as the 1890s were involved in raising funds for their denominations through Women’s Religious Organizations. These missionary societies taught women how to value their abilities and to work together and organizational skills. The organizational skills would be important in social activism that moved from the church to the public arena in the formation of NACW. Women took on leadership roles to articulate the critical race issues and brought together African American women of different religious persuasions.NACW was a manifestation of the religious belief that women had the same right as men to articulate on issues of “race and sex emancipation”. Members of NACW developed a practical form of feminism at the community and church level that sought to empower black girls and women.

By 1910, NACW had developed a network of state, regional, and local federation. It incorporated leaders of the mainstream movements and organizations that fought for the inclusion of blacks in all social spheres. By using clubs, NACW was able to mobilize a collective consciousness that laid the foundations of the Civil Rights movement. The turning point of NACW was the change in perspective that saw white leaders as potential allies in the fight for social equality for blacks. The new philosophy adopted after 1910 was a broader interracial outlook that led to the formation of Evangelistic Work and Interracial Relations departments. The support from white religious and secular organizations was important in raising resources and accessing doors to white leaders sympathetic to their cause. The Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) was one such white organization.

NACW established the Interracial Committee that worked with white women in the south to promote their agenda. One such agenda was the construction of institutions that could reform delinquent black girls arrested for minor offenses instead of sending them to prisons. Many of the women involved in NACW were middle-class promulgated “class-specific ideas of respectability” and helped to insert them into the public political role as opinion shapers. In the 1920s, NACW helped to raise funding for institutions that were equal but separate for blacks. In 1925, NACW Georgia State federation promoted an agenda to persuade Georgia State legislature to enact laws that would improve housing, justice, and education for blacks (Collier-Thomas, 2013). Education was emphasized as the key to solving the black community and was shown to have the potential for individual growth as well as a collective improvement as a race.


African-American women played an important role in changing the social discourse on racism and black sexism. They developed a feminist theology that promoted equality, participation, and freedom. Prominent figures and social movements founded on feminist theology helped to bring about social change in Postbellum America. The rise of African- American women to political prominence and as social activists was because of the lost political power of men. Women initiated a social discourse that challenged male patriarchal domination from the church to the public political space. The social activism promoted by African American women is important in laying the foundation for the Civil Rights movement using religion as seen in Martin Luther King, a Southern Baptist minister. Religion was used to create a collective consciousness based on a collective memory and history that was based on biblical precedent.

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African-American Women and Religion . (2022, Jan 06). Retrieved from

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