Amanda Berry Smith had the wrong credentials to be an evangelist. She was born in 1837, a black, a freed slave, and a woman during a time when women were second-class citizens. Yet this small, black woman dressed in plain Quaker garb became a well-known deeper-life speaker and evangelist in both white and black churches and camp meetings in the United States and in Britain. Later, she served as a missionary in India and Africa.
How could a former slave, a common servant and wash woman become God’s spokeswoman? Certainly Amanda Smith’s education did not prepare her well. One of 13 children born to slaves, she received a second-hand education. She attended a school for white children for a few years where the Berry children received instruction only when the white boys and girls were at recess or in the cloak room.
Although Amanda’s parents lacked money and formal education, they taught their children about human dignity. Since the Berry home was one of the stops on the underground railroad, the family often fed and housed fleeing slaves with whom they also shared the gospel of Christ.
Amanda Smith overcame her impoverished circumstances, poor education, limited social prospects, two unhappy marriages, and the death of all of her children to become a dynamic spokeswoman of God’s amazing grace. However, Amanda did not begin her adult life as an enthusiastic proclaimer of the gospel.
Neither Amanda nor her first, C. Divine, were Christians. When Divine did not return from the Civil War, Amanda struggled to raise their surviving child. Then she met a Methodist lay minister named James Smith.
Knowing she was not saved and not wanting to begin another marriage without God, Amanda cried out for salvation. After weeks of questioning if God’s grace could save someone as persistently sinful as she, Amanda entered into a new life with Christ. She later wrote:
“O Lord, if thou wilt help me I will believe Thee.” And in the act of telling God I would, I did. O, the peace and joy that flooded my soul! The burden rolled away; I felt it when it left me, and a flood of light and joy swept through my soul such as I had never known before. I said, “Why, Lord, I do believe this is just what I have been asking for,” and down came another flood of light and peace.1
Both Amanda and Smith felt God leading them into evangelism. Smith agreed to ask the annual conference to appoint them to evangelistic work. Once they were married, however, he grew cold toward God and his wife. Her husband left her frequently with the care of her young child and their new baby. Amanda supported her children by taking in washings. Disillusioned by her unhappy life, she cried out to God for a fresh work of grace.
One Sunday she heard that deeper-life preacher, John Inskip, was to speak at a white church some blocks away. Leaving her daughter with the baby, Amanda made her way to the meeting. She slipped in and found a seat on the back pew. Inskip preached on Ephesians 4:24, “And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”
Still arguing with God and herself, Amanda thought, “With my trials and peculiar temperament and all that I have to contend with, if I could get the blessing how could I keep it?”2 “Later she wrote that it seemed the minister was looking directly at her. Amanda tried to hide behind a post, but the minister seemed to peer around it looking directly at her as he said, “You don’t need to fix any way for God to live in you; get God in you in all His fullness and He will live Himself.”3 Amanda writes,
“. . . God in you, God in you and I thought, doing what? Ruling every ambition and desire, and bringing every thought unto captivity and obedience to His will. How I lived through it I cannot tell, but the blessedness of the love and the peace and power I can never describe. Oh what glory filled my soul! The great vacuum in my soul began to fill up; it was like a pleasant draught of cool water, and I felt it. I wanted to shout glory to Jesus! . . .”4
The preacher continued his message, unaware that on the back pew, a small black scrub woman was filling up on the enduring grace of God. The preacher and the congregation were not to remain ignorant long, however.
Aware that she was the only black in the service, Amanda was careful to observe what she calls “a sense of propriety.” The more Inskip preached, the more Amanda felt God’s grace. Wave after wave of glory swept over her soul. She found it increasingly difficult to keep from shouting, “Glory!” Yet, she felt afraid of what the white folks would say if she were to testify to the work God was doing in her soul. As Amanda stood to sing the last hymn, she writes,
“I took hold of the pew in front of me, and trembling from head to foot I stood up . . . Just as I got fairly on my feet they struck the last verse of the hymn,
Oh! bear my longing heart to Him,
Who bled and died for me
Whose blood now cleanseth from all sin,
And give me victory.
And when they sang these words, “Whose blood now cleanseth,” O what a wave of glory swept over my soul! I shouted “Glory to Jesus!” Brother Inskip answered, “Amen, Glory to God.” O, what a triumph for our King Emmanuel.”5
That morning Amanda writes that God freed her from more than sin. God freed her from her fear of white people just because they were white and she was black.
Not long after her deeper-life experience both her husband and baby died. Her daughter, Mazie lived with friends and attended school while Amanda, the woman “of royal color” (as she liked to talk about her race), accepted speaking engagements at white and black camp meetings and churches. Often her rich contralto voice filled prayer sessions and meetings as she sang and later spoke about God’s grace to save and sanctify.
Amanda looked to God to supply her needs of housing and money, and God provided. When her ministry expanded to the British Isles and later to India and Africa, travel money and support was given. Of her effective preaching, Bishop J. M. Thoburn writes,
I was told that the speaker was Mrs. Amanda Smith, and that she was a woman of remarkable gifts. . . when I chanced to be kneeling near her at prayer meeting, . . . I became impressed that she was a person of more than ordinary power. . . .
Something like a hallowed glow seemed to rest upon the dark face before me, and I felt in a second that she was possessed of a rare degree of spiritual power. That invisible something which we are accustomed to call power, and which is never possessed by any Christian believer except as one of the fruits of the indwelling Spirit of God, was hers in a marked degree.
The novelty of a coloured woman from America, who had in her childhood been a slave, appearing before an audience in Calcutta, was sufficient to attract attention, but this alone would not account for the popularity which she enjoyed throughout her whole stay in our city. She was fiercely attacked by narrow- minded persons in the daily papers and elsewhere, but opposition only seemed to add to her power.6
Before Amanda returned to America, Mazie, her last living child, died. Amanda’s already fragile health was broken from years of ministry in India and Africa. Her friends urged her to retire. Yet Amanda continued her speaking ministry and began an orphanage and school for black children. She died at age 78 in 1915.
Amanda Smith’s testimony to God’s amazing grace is a model for those of us today, who, like Amanda, cry out to be so filled by God’s Spirit that we never get over it!
1 (Smith, Amanda, Amanda Smith, The King’s Daughter (Stoke-on-Trent: M.O.V.E. Press, 1977), p.27).
2 Ibid, p. 41.
4 Ibid, p.42.
5 Ibid, p. 44.
6 Ibid, pp. 153–158.
Sandra Higgs is a college student, wife, mother of three sons, active lay woman in her Christian Missionary Alliance church, and a free-lance writer. Sandra and her family reside in Wilmore, Kentucky.
Higgs, S. J. (Fall, 1999). Amanda Smith’s amazing grace. Holiness Digest, 12–13.