Monday, February 22, 2016

Plucked from the Fire, the story of Julia A.J. Foote

The African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.C) was founded in 1794 as a response to racial discrimination in the American Methodist Church when officials at St. George’s MEC pulled members of the Free African Society off their knees while praying. These members desired a congregation where they would not be discriminated against while trying to pray and formed the Bethel A.M.E.C. The A.M.E.C. spread throughout the Northeast and by 1837, Schenectady’s first A.M.E. congregation was formed, the Duryee Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. Schenectady was the birthplace of first female ordained deacon in the A.M.E. Zion Church, Julia A.J. Foote. Her autobiography, A Brand Plucked from the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch gives a harrowing account of her early life in Schenectady and the struggles she faced throughout her life as a black female preacher. It's also an engaging read and a lot of Julia's beliefs are surprisingly modern, such as her views on gender and racial equality.
Sketch of the A.M.E. Church in Schenectady from the
April 25, 1908 issue of the Daily Gazette.
According to her autobiography, Julia’s father and mother were slaves. In a tragic turn of events, her father was actually born free but was stolen as a child and enslaved. Her mother was born a slave in New York. Julia’s father eventually saved enough to buy his family from slavery. Her parents were Methodists and would regularly attend the Methodist Church in Schenectady where blacks were required to sit in certain seats and had to wait till every white person finished communion. She remarks on the vast inequality in the Church, saying “How many at the present day profess great spirituality, and even holiness, and yet are deluded by a spirit of error, which leads them to say to the poor and the colored ones among them, 'Stand back a little—I am holier than thou.'"

Julia A.J. Foote as shown
in her autobiography.

Many of the chapters in Julia’s autobiography act as a parable that relates back to her faith and spiritual beliefs. Chapter six tells the story of the hanging of her teacher, her reaction to it, and how it formed her beliefs. When Julia was ten, she was sent to live with the Prime family in Glenville who sent her to be taught by John Van Patten in Rotterdam. She was a quick study in reading and writing due to her “great anxiety to read the Testament.” However, she wasn't able to be taught by Mr. Van Patten for very long. Mr. Van Patten shot and killed a paramour who insulted him and was hung for his crimes. Julia witnessed the hanging and it shook her, “The remembrance of this scene left such an impression upon my mind that I could not sleep for many a night.” The hanging of her former teacher formed her belief that the taking of any life, even “a life for a life, as many believe God commands,” was a horrible, barbarous thing.

Her family eventually moved to Albany to join the A.M.E. Zion Church where her faith was reignited. She married George Foote at the age of eighteen and moved to Boston. In Boston, she was dedicated to informal evangelizing in her community. Foote believed that she had been sanctified by the Holy Spirit and was destined to become a preacher. This was a highly controversial belief that challenged Christian tradition, as well as many American beliefs. Her mother, husband, and minister of her church all disapproved of Julia’s public preaching. Not even the lack of higher support from higher church authorities could sway Julia from preaching, and she began an independent preaching career.
"When Paul said, ‘Help those women who labor with me in the Gospel,’ he certainly meant that they did more than to pour out tea!”- Julia A. J. Foote

Julia traveled throughout upstate New York with other A.M.E. ministers and worked her way west to Ohio and Michigan, often attracting crowds of thousands of both white and black Americans. Her sermons would often focus on the evils of racism and sexism. She was the first woman ordained as a deacon in 1894 and was the second to hold the office of elder in the A.M.E. denomination in 1900. Julia died on November 22, 1901 and was buried in the Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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