Zilpha Elaw

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Zilpha Elaw (c. 1790 – ?) was an African-American preacher and spiritual autobiographer. She has been cited as "one of the first outspoken black women in the United States."[1] Mitzi Smith suggests that Elaw and other Black women of the time used Pauline biblical texts to develop their own "politics of origins".[2]


Elaw was born in Pennsylvania, a free woman.[3] Brought up in Philadelphia, by a black and deeply religious family, after the death of her mother in 1802, she was sent to live with a Quaker family, Pierson and Rebecca Mitchell; her father died just two years later.[4] After seeing a vision of Jesus,[1] she joined a Methodist society in 1808, marrying Joseph Elaw and moving to Burlington, New Jersey. The couple had a daughter, Rebecca,[5] in 1812.[6] In 1817, Elaw attended a revival camp for a week, and after falling into a trance, she gave her first ever public speech.[1] She fell ill in 1819, and while remaining sick for two years, experienced an angelic visitation.[3] After Joseph's death from consumption in 1823, Elaw opened a school for African-American children in Burlington, but increasingly believing she had been called upon as a minister, she departed in 1825 and went on a preaching mission among slaves in Maryland and Virginia.[6] She became a traveling preacher carrying her message and that of her Lord.[7] During the period of 1827 to 1840, she ministered as an itinerant preacher in the United States,[3] and was known to be in Nantucket in 1832.[5]

Elaw moved to England, preaching in the summer of 1840. She was known to have lived there until at least 1845, penning Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, and Ministerial Travels and Labours of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, an American Female of Colour.[6] According to her memoirs, she preached over 1,000 sermons in Great Britain over these years, but often faced hostility and heavy criticism from the Victorian British clergy who believed that it was inappropriate for a woman to preach.[1] It is unclear if she returned to the US before her death.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d "Elaw, Zilpha". Pennsylvania Centre for the Book. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  2. ^ Smith, Mitzi J. (2011). ""Unbossed and Unbought": Zilpha Elaw and Old Elizabeth and a Political Discourse of Origins". Black Theology: An International Journal. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd. 9 (3). 
  3. ^ a b c d Miller, Jonette O'Kelley (November 30, 2001). "Zilpha Elaw". Charisma Magazine. Retrieved 29 August 2012. 
  4. ^ Alexander, Leslie (28 February 2010). Encyclopedia of African American History. ABC-CLIO. p. 397. ISBN 978-1-85109-774-6. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Goode, Gloria Davis (Winter 1992). "African-American Women in Nineteenth-Century Nantucket: Wives, Mothers, Modistes, and Visionaries". Nantucket Historical Association. Retrieved 29 August 2012. 
  6. ^ a b c Andrews, William L.; Foster, Frances Smith; Harris, Trudier (15 February 2001). The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-983956-8. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  7. ^ Hine, Darlene Clark., and Kathleen Thompson. A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.