They Called Her "Old Elizabeth"
Elizabeth was born into slavery around 1765-1766 in Maryland to slave parents. If she had a surname, no one ever knew it. Her parents both belonged to the Methodist Society and her father frequently read to her from the Bible.
Although Elizabeth remained mostly illiterate throughout most of her life, those Biblical lessons remained with her. They would dictate the course of her life as an outspoken early African Methodist Episcopal evangelist, at a time when preaching by women of any color was frowned upon or even forbidden by most religious leaders. Even at the age of five during her father’s bible readings, she felt the Lord’s spirit resting upon her soul, although at the time she was too young to understand what it meant.
Much of what’s known about her comes from her own words published in an 1863 autobiography. She was an born into slavery, but freed in her 30s by an owner who didn’t believe people should be enslaved their entire life.
At the tender age of 11, Elizabeth was sold to a new owner living several miles away. Naturally, she missed her family so she asked her overseer if she could go visit. He denied her request in no uncertain terms. When she could no longer stand the loneliness of being separated she slipped away to see them and stayed several days. Before she left, her mother said something she never forgot. She told her daughter she had "…nobody in the wide world to look to but God."
When she returned she was severely beaten for the transgression. Elizabeth’s feelings of loneliness continued to mount over the next six months until she wasn’t able to eat and her body became emaciated. But, she still had her duties to perform. It came to the point she believed she wouldn’t live to see another day.
She began to pray and as her tears flowed she heard a voice say, "Weep not, some will laugh at thee, some will scoff at thee, and the dogs will bark at thee, but while thou doest my will, I will be with thee to the ends of the earth." Elizabeth was not yet thirteen years old and there was no place where preaching or religious instruction was to be found.
For a brief time Elizabeth was moved back to the farm where her mother lived but was soon sold again. During following years she continued to pray and had visions of distant lands where she believed were places she should go and deliver her Lord’s message. Years later she did go to those places, many of which she had never heard of before.
After her emancipation at about 30 years old she found herself living in a neighborhood where she could occasionally attend religious meetings. However, she refrained from speaking out until she was 42, mostly out of fear of being criticized and the fact she was not able to read well. She questioned whether she could teach the scriptures when she was unsure whether she understood them.
At one meeting when she was again doubting herself, she felt herself moved to open a bible and her eyes fell upon a passage saying in part: "Gird up thy loins now like a man, and answer thou me. Obey God rather than man…" Not understanding well what it meant she went to various religiously learned men enquiring of them what it meant to her, if anything. Basically, their response was to scoff and ask what a woman could do. Receiving no help, she returned to praying and asking for guidance. She felt certain the Lord would eventually reveal His will, and make her way plain.
Not long afterwards while living in Baltimore, she felt herself directed to go to the house of a nearby poor widow and ask if she would allow a meeting in her home. The widow was overjoyed at the prospect. When the meeting took place, it was only attended by a few other black women. But, it was at this meeting’s closing she felt obligated to say a few words. As she was speaking the meeting was abruptly interrupted by a watchman. All fled except Elizabeth, the widow and one other woman. Naturally, they were all frightened fearing some harm would come to them. The watchman told Elizabeth "I was sent here to break up your meeting. Complaint has been made to me that the people round here cannot sleep for the racket."
By this time Elizabeth felt the Lord’s strength and she was no longer afraid to speak. She laid her hand upon him and said "A good racket is better than a bad racket. How do they rest when the ungodly are dancing and fiddling till midnight? Why are not they molested by the watchmen? And why should we be for praising God, our Maker? Are we worthy of greater punishment for praying to Him? And are we to be prohibited from doing so, that sinners may remain slumbering in their sins?"
The watchman turned pale and apologized explaining it wasn’t his wish to interrupt them. With that he vowed never to disturb a religious assembly again. Unfortunately, others in the community felt differently and forbade any more assemblies.
However, Elizabeth’s spirit would not be quenched. Much like Christ was rejected by the Jews she was hunted down in every place she managed to hold a meeting. She continued seeking instruction from other ministers only to be publicly denounced. Eventually, under such pressure she began to think these so called righteous learned ministers of God might be right.
But Elizabeth persevered and soon met an aged sister who could sympathize with her. She offered her house as a meeting place, running the risk of persecution by the church. Many were afraid to open their houses fearing they would be turned out of the church. Even so, few attended these meetings and the Church continued with their complaints, that as a woman she shouldn’t be allowed to teach. At one of meeting attended by some class leaders, one cried out, "Surely the Lord has revealed these things to her!"
At another meeting, a great number of whites as well as blacks were in attendance, no doubt from curiosity to hear what the old colored woman had to say. Amongst the group was one well versed in the scriptures that hid behind a door with pen and ink in hand ready to take down in short hand what she said. Half way through her lesson he threw down his writing implements and joined the rest. He later paid for Elizabeth’s trip back home.
In Virginia people would not believe an uneducated black woman could preach. Moreover, authorities strove to imprison her because she spoke out against slavery. They also persisted in questioning by what authority she spoke and if she had been ordained. She answered “…not by the commission of men's hands: if the Lord had ordained me, I needed nothing better.”
Elizabeth traveled to many states as well as Canada. She met many Quakers who treated her with kindness and sympathy. Later on she found herself in Michigan at the age of 80, where she remained for four years.During that time she established a school for black orphans. At first there was resistance, but after hiring white teachers it was welcomed.
At 87, she moved to Philadelphia. In 1863 at the age of 97, she published an autobiographical account, Memoir of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman. It was republished after her death by Quakers, and renamed, Elizabeth, a Colored Minister of the Gospel,Born in Slavery.