This dissertation examines the spiritual writings of four freeborn nineteenth-century African-American women—Zilpha Elaw, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Julia A. J. Foote, and Frances E. W. Harper—establishing connections across genres (autobiography, poetry, and hymnody), time periods (antebellum, Reconstruction, and post-Reconstruction), and approaches to religious language (prophetic, mystical, devotional, poetic, etc.). Exploring why holiness was attractive to these women, this project examines race and gender as issues that make Protestant Christianity more immediate, urgent, and necessary in their lives and writings.
In order to highlight the function of divinity in these texts and theology-making as self-constitutive, Chapter One (the introduction) proposes the term auto/theo/graphy, or self/God/writing. Instead of attending to the act of narration as self-authorizing, autotheography deemphasizes the individual; the author understands herself in relation to and actualized through God, becoming a spiritual and textual agent by means of the divine. In such works, the self is incorporative, organizing heterogeneous sites of religious belief, avowal, and theology—such as sermons, hymns, poetry, dreams and visions, theological treatises—in a multifaceted conception of theos (God). Putting pressure on accepted critical categories such as spiritual autobiography and the slave narrative, autotheography is a textual process emphasizing the relationship between the divine, the believer/writer, and the believer-to-be (reader).
Each of the following chapters analyzes the author's use of systematic theology and scriptural interpretation to craft the self in relation to her spiritual and material worlds. Chapter Two argues that, for Foote, the Methodist doctrine of sanctification is a textual metaphoric system that also has the potential to overturn social injustice. Chapter Three explains how Jackson's unique construction of sanctification led her to a theology of celibacy, away from her family and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and to embrace the Shaker religion. Chapter Four contends that, as exemplified in Moses: A Story of the Nile, Harper deploys Unitarian theology in first-person and dramatic poems, emphasizing biblical leadership models to inspire holy living. Finally, Chapter Five asserts that Elaw's use of a Pauline-based theological trope, the “spirit of adoption,” reveals her ecumenical vision of the church for all Christians.