A fire in her bones: Autobiographical accounts of women's public evangelism in nineteenth -century America

Rebecca Reno Ford, Purdue University


This dissertation is an interdisciplinary exploration of spiritual autobiography by nineteenth-century American women who engaged in public evangelism. The spiritual autobiographies of Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote, Margaret Newton Van Cott, and Anna Howard Shaw are examined in order to determine why women entered public evangelism at this point in history and how they garnered the authority to speak and write on spiritual matters. Historical and theological factors enabling women's public evangelism during the nineteenth century included evangelical revivalism, post-revolutionary populism and holiness Methodism. Nevertheless, women's public evangelism was controversial, and women evangelists encountered widespread public disapproval of their ministries. They were forced to justify their actions to the public. Three of the evangelists claimed divine inspiration as the reason and justification for their ministries, while one argued in favor of women's natural rights. The evangelists also employed sophisticated narrative and rhetorical strategies in defense of their public ministries, including womanist biblical hermeneutics, testimonial and documentary support, iconographic self-representation, and the manipulation of generic conventions. My study of these narratives reveals the ways religious discourse was used both to empower and to silence women in the nineteenth century.




Lamb, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American literature|Womens studies|Religious history|Biographies

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