Editor’s note: This article is the first in our 2021 Black History Month and Women’s History Month series. During February and March, the Mutuality Blog will publish articles about Black women and women of color throughout Christian history, to tell and retell the stories of our foremothers of the faith who are often overlooked or misrepresented by history books. We hope this series will inspire you to continue learning more about the egalitarian women who fought for their God-ordained equality and the ways we can continue the work they began.
When you hear the words “I have a dream,” what minister and civil rights activist comes to mind? While many know these as the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoken at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, they were first spoken by another minister and civil rights activist one evening in 1962—Prathia Hall.
Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall Wynn was a womanist theologian and ethicist, pastor, mentor, and civil rights activist who cultivated and lived out “freedom-faith,” a faith in God she first saw exemplified by her parents growing up. It was this faith that sustained her when she began nonviolent organizing in college, and one that would continue to guide her as a pastor and professor later in life, as she worked at the intersection of ministry and activism. She worked toward freedom for Black people broadly in a society in which they regularly faced anti-Black racism, and for poor Black people who often faced classism, and for Black women, like me, in Black church spaces where we often face sexism. Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall Wynn’s freedom-faith can serve as a guiding force for all of us today.
Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall Wynn’s Life and Freedom-Faith
Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn developed the concept of freedom-faith to name a Christian faith that was rooted in freedom, justice, and liberation. This was the faith into which Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn was born. Her father was a Baptist minister, and of him and her mother she wrote:
My parents were part of the mainstream of the Afro-Christian religious tradition in harmony with the African worldview that the religious and the political are profoundly integrated. Therefore, faith and freedom were woven together in the fabric of life. My parents’ ministry was founded on that principle and on their belief that service to people was service to Christ.1
This freedom-faith played a role in Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. She became an organizer in Georgia with SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) after getting involved in nonviolent organizing her junior year at Temple University, where she studied political science and religion. As a SNCC organizer, she was shot at, arrested, and witnessed the burning of churches in Georgia. It was in her prayer following one of the church burnings that she used the phrase “I have a dream,” which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. adapted, with permission, from Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn after hearing it that night.
It was also through her organizing in the South that she encountered many people whose lives demonstrated freedom-faith. Freedom-faith was present in the poor people she helped register to vote despite the life-threatening circumstances doing so would pose. It was present in the organizers she worked alongside who regularly risked their lives and freedom for the movement. It was present within her as organizing was her ministry at the time. She said, “When somebody stood up and made a commitment to participate in a movement activity, that was a religious statement, as profoundly religious as saying a prayer or doing any kind of religious discipline.”2
Then, in 1965, an incident took place that shook her theologically. Following the brutal attack on Bloody Sunday, organizers were chastised by Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff members for not singing freedom songs that promoted love and unity. In response, Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn took her ministry from the streets to the church. While she felt called to ordained ministry early on, she had planned to pursue a career in law as a civil rights attorney, as she knew that a career in ordained ministry would not be very welcoming of a woman. Still, it was after her time organizing with SNCC that she began to pursue her call to ministry and freedom-faith took on a new form.
Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn went on to earn a master of divinity degree, a master of theology degree, and a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. She was one of the first Black women ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA. She went on to mentor many other Black women in ministry, to teach and serve in various academic positions, and to become the pastor of her father’s church, Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA. While she was not able to advance in ministry in the way she desired, applying for other senior pastor positions but never being selected because she was a woman, she worked to open doors for Black women in ministry who would come after her, Black women like me.
Dr. Hall Wynn and My Own Story
I was first introduced to Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn as a sophomore at Georgetown University in African American Religious Rhetoric with Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton (a class that helped change my life trajectory) through her sermon “Between the Wilderness and the Cliff.” Even so, I did not really encounter Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn until I completed a paper in which I analyzed that sermon for a history course at Candler School of Theology last year. It was in completing research for that paper that I really engaged Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn. For the first time, I found a Black Christian woman whose life reflected my own goals and desires as a young Black woman Baptist minister.
I found myself in Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn’s story, despite the fact that she passed in 2002, one day before my fifth birthday. Her concept of freedom-faith echoed my own faith journey in a world in which I have grown up seeing Black people that look like me repeatedly killed and brutalized by the police and others. It was in this context that my own faith developed, a faith that like hers, is inextricably connected to freedom, justice, and liberation and one that is both religious and spiritual as well as political.
For me, loving God and loving others means engaging in justice work. While that was organizing with SNCC for her, I am still navigating what that means for me. So far, it has meant bearing witness through writing and sharing stories of the movement organizers on the frontlines of the work for justice and liberation for Black people in a way that benefits all people, as well as working to mobilize faith communities around the elections in Georgia.
Like Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn, I have had to come to understand my faith and God in new ways following experiences of grief. For her, this grief came with her daughter’s death following a stroke and for me, with my father’s unexpected death following a routine hernia surgery. Like Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn, I also have wrestled with this call to ministry in a Black Baptist church context that in some ways has grown little since she was ordained. It is her life and witness that I think of when I look at the potential challenges I may face within the church context that I have come to love. Even my goal of being ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA is made possible because of pioneers like Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn.
Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall Wynn is a reminder of what is possible for a young Black Baptist woman like me who in many ways is just beginning her ministry journey. Freedom-faith tells me that I can bring my passion for justice and love of God together in the work I do. Her story tells me that there is space for me within the Black Baptist Church as well as academia as someone who also hopes to pursue a PhD. It tells me that I can bring my full and authentic self to the work I do, and it highlights the importance of bringing others along and opening doors for those who will follow.
While she resonates with me personally, Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn is an important figure in Black history, in women’s history, and in American history for her work toward a church and an America in which all people can enjoy the freedom to be, live, vote, worship, and preach without the threat of oppression and violence and efforts to silence their voices. Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn encourages us all to lean into our calling regardless of what others may say, whether it’s social justice work and organizing, ministry, or other career avenues. She encourages us all to embrace freedom-faith that is both spiritual and political and see all people as beings worthy of love and dignity created in the image of God.
1. Prathia Hall, "Freedom-Faith" in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, ed. Faith Holsaert et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 172.
2. Ibid., 180.
Holsaert, Faith S., Martha P. Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, Dorothy Zellner, and Prathia Hall, eds. Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
Pace, Courtney. Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2019.