During the eighteenth century, the United States was not a particularly welcoming place for women looking to speak their minds—especially not African American women looking to speak their minds. But that did not stop God from blessing strong women to speak his words to people who needed to hear. Zilpha Elaw was one such woman.
Born free in 1790 in Pennsylvania, Elaw’s life was marked by a deep assurance of God’s presence, which societal structures could not prevent. In Elaw, we see a woman daring enough to follow God’s call no matter where it took her.
When Elaw’s parents died when she was twelve, she went to live with a Quaker family. It was during this time that Elaw attended her first revivalist camp meeting. While milking her cow one day, she had a vision of Jesus. From then on, Elaw lived boldly in the certainty of her salvation. Elaw’s preaching was powered by a steadfast reliance on the Holy Spirit’s power in her life.
It was Elaw’s reliance on the Holy Spirit that shaped one of her most central tenets, that is, her belief in the transformative power of sanctification. It wasn’t until her vision that she truly felt the Holy Spirit moving in her, allowing her to work for God’s kingdom in powerful ways. God was in charge of Elaw, cultivating a deep sense of humility. She knew that she was a “simple and weak” instrument “sustained by the mighty power of God.”1 For Elaw, humility was necessary for true sanctification, because “the death of self made possible the empowered self.”2
Elaw was an effective preacher because she understood her absolute reliance on God’s strength, not her own. God was the one at work sanctifying her, and so she was subject to God’s authority. This basic understanding of God’s ultimate authority meant that Elaw considered societal powers inferior to the call of God. Therefore, even though Elaw lived during an oppressive time for women and African Americans, she overcame these obstacles through Christ. Once again, Elaw’s actions were firmly rooted in the Bible. Because she was a woman, her preaching was controversial, but she pointed to biblical examples like Phoebe as precedent for her ministry. Racism was another societal structure that stood in the way of God’s work. Elaw knew that God gifted blacks and whites equally, regardless of ethnicity, and that prejudice too often hindered growth in wisdom. She said, “Oh! That men would outgrow their nursery prejudices and learn that ‘God hath made of one blood all the nations of men that dwell upon the face of the earth.’ Acts 17:26.”3
Zilpha Elaw’s voice is seldom heard today, but her preaching was compelling and life-changing during her time. In Zilpha Elaw, we see a woman who was so confident in God’s call and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit that she did not allow the obstacles of the world, such as patriarchy and racism, to hinder her. By knowing her story and her steadfast faithfulness to God, we, too, may be inspired to follow God’s call regardless of what road blocks may stand in the way.
For more information about Elaw, check out this article from Charisma Magazine by Jonette O’Kelley Miller, and Holy Boldness: Women Preachers’ Autobiographies and the Sanctified Self by Susie C. Stanley.
1. Susie C. Stanley, Holy Boldness, 203.
2. Susie C. Stanley, Holy Boldness, 98.
3. Susie C. Stanley, Holy Boldness, 13.