Amanda Berry SmithJul 4th, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Faith & Religion, Social Sciences
1837-1915 Amanda Berry Smith devoted her life to the ministry of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Her most noted achievement is the opening of the first orphanage for black children in Illinois.
Called to God
Smith was born January 23, 1837, in Long Green, Maryland. Her lather, Samuel Berry, and her mother, Mariam Matthews, were both slaves. Sometime before 1850, Berry was able to purchase his family’s freedom, and moved them to a farm in York County, Pennsylvania. The oldest of 13 children, Smith had very little formal education, and was mainly home-schooled and sell-taught, gleaning information from the many people who passed through her family’s home m its capacity as part of the Underground Railroad. During a three-month term at a predominantly white school, she was recognized for her impressive vocabulary and beautiful singing voice. Smith began to sing regularly at area churches and even to preach from the pulpit on occasion.
At age 17, Smith married Calvin Devine, and the couple moved to New York City She worked as a domestic servant and bore two children, though one died in infancy. The marriage lasted until 1863 when Devine was killed in battle during the Civil War. Smith soon remarried a coachman and church deacon named James Smith, and moved with him to Philadelphia. On arrival, she joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church where her husband planned to pursue the ministry. His interest in the church quickly waned, however, while Smiths interest increased. She felt a strong pull toward evangelism and total devotion to the church. After the family moved back to New York in pursuit of job opportunities, she established ties with the religious community there. When James Smith again moved In pursuit of work, she remained in New York with their three young children. In 1868, at age 31, Smith had an experience during a sermon that she interpreted as a call to preach. When her husband died the following year, and all three of their children succumbed to illness and died as well, she devoted herself entirely to religion.
Smith began attending camp gatherings and revival meetings for the church where she tempered the passionate delivery of her religious messages with exceptional singing. A follower of the Holiness movement, which espoused equal voice for all in describing their religious life in public, she was soon invited to preach and sing at churches throughout New York and New Jersey, especially those with interracial congregations. Smith met with some initial resistance from the AME Church, which did not ordain women and frowned on female preachers, but she persevered and gained popularity. She began to receive special requests for her services at meetings and religious gatherings. By 1870, the ministry was Smiths full time vocation, and she soon became known all the way from Maine to Tennessee.
In 1875, Smith became a charter member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and was one of the few black women to gain notoriety among its members. She also became associated with the Colored Women’s Clubs, a progressive organization that addressed issues of importance to African American women. Her activism and the energizing influence she brought to such organizations made her the most popular and recognized of the 19th century women who became religious leaders.
The First Black Orphanage of Illinois
Smith traveled to England in 1878, and although she was not ordained as a minister in any official capacity, she became the first black woman to work internationally as an evangelist. Using her charisma to spread the ideas of the AME Church, she worked in India the following year, and eventually preached in the African countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone as well. While in Africa, Smith adopted two young black children, having lost four out of five of her biological offspring. In all, she spent 12 years abroad as a missionary, and chartered numerous churches and temperance societies, which were groups dedicated to high morality and good character. Smith returned to the United States in 1890, and traveled as an itinerant preacher before settling near Chicago the next year.
In Harvey, Illinois, a suburb founded by temperance groups south of Chicago, Smith took up the duties of the national representative for the WCTU, and wrote her life’s story. An Autobiography: The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, the Colored Evangelist was published in 1893. Through book sales, donations, and lecturing fees, she began to raise money for a new cause: an orphanage for black children. She founded and distributed a small newspaper, The Helper, in order to generate publicity and income for the orphanage and other worthy charities. In 1899, the orphanage opened its doors to homeless African American girls. The 12-room brick house that served as the orphanage was the first of its kind in Illinois.
The community at large was receptive to Smith’s evangelical message and supported the presence of the orphanage. By 1910, the building housed 33 children, up from 12 in 1900. Despite the fact that the home accrued debt and sometimes failed to meet state requirements, its certification continued to be renewed because it was deemed such a worthy institution. Smith retired in 1912 due to declining health. A wealthy white real estate developer named George Sebring provided her with a cottage in Florida, where she remained until her death in 1915 at age 78. The state of Illinois took over the orphanage, which was renamed the Amanda Smith Industrial School for Girls, until it was destroyed by a fire in 1918.
Smith was a powerful evangelist and a pioneer in helping homeless black children. With passion and determination, she triumphed against race and gender discrimination to become a beloved and well-respected religious leader in the United States and abroad.