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Feminist Success Stories - Célébrons nos réussites féministes

Karen A. Blackford
Marie-Luce Garceau
Sandra Kirby

Part IV: Healing Body and Spirit — Partie IV : Santé du corps et de l'esprit

The Feminization of the Black Baptist Church in Nova Scotia

Bernice Moreau

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1I believe that any inquiry into Black Canadian women’s tradition could spark controversy and debate over the interpretation of concepts such as spirituality. This paper, an interpretation of the religious or spiritual practices of a group of Black Canadian women in resistance to patriarchal church governance, is no exception. Be that as it may, I will argue that these Black women’s religious or spiritual practices, until recently, were not only for their personal satisfaction and empowerment but were also strategies for change in their spiritual community. It is worthy of note that these Christian Baptist women were not unique in their struggle to feminize their religious community. Many women in other oppressed communities have situated their resistance in spiritual beliefs or in religious organizations.

2For example, Black women from the Caribbean and North America in the Pentecostal movement have made significant sacrifices in their struggle to bring about change into their Church. As a result, they “have engendered a legacy... they have prayed, pioneered and paved the way, each in her own unique way (has) helped (to) inspire this... rich legacy our foremothers bestowed upon all of us through their individual commitment to God, the church and family” (Marcelle and Robinson 1986, iii). Similar examples of the link between oppressed women’s spirituality, empowerment, and feminization may be found among North and South American Aboriginal women (Benecoff 1997). Also, Schussler Fiorenza reminds us that oppressed women of this era, regardless of race, nationality, status, or culture, have found that the Bible

has provided authorization and legitimization for women who have rejected slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, colonial exploitation, (patriarchy) and misogynism as unbiblical and against God’s will. The Bible has inspired and continues to inspire countless women to speak out and to struggle against injustice, exploitation and stereotyping.... It empowers us to survive with dignity and to continue the struggle when there seems to be no hope for success. (Schussler Fiorenza 1984, xiii)

3It is interesting to note that Black women’s spiritual strength has been evident in their struggle for freedom in every area of their lives from slavery to the present. Wade-Gayles found that “the remarkable spirituality of slave women is the dominant chord in the spiritual singing” (Wade-Gayles 1993, 6). Praying and other activities inspired faith, hope, and love in women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman (Wade-Gayles 1993, 6,37 and 149), Catherine Abernathy, Violet King, Phillis George, Maude Sparks, Muriel V. States, Ada Simmons, Marie Hamilton, Pearleen Oliver, and countless others (Hamilton 1982, 1994). Black women’s harmonization and amplification of these everyday spiritual practices have assisted in feminizing the church, as was/is evident across North America and, more specifically, in the Black Baptist church in Nova Scotia.

4The term “feminization,” as it is used in this paper, refers to all the formal and informal religious activities initiated, performed, and maintained by women in the Black Baptist churches in Nova Scotia that have led to the achieving of equality with men in the leadership of the Black spiritual community. The literature (Moreau 1996; Boyd 1976 and others) suggests strongly that Black Nova Scotian women’s spirituality, like that of other Black women in the Western hemisphere, has always been a significant part of their cultural tradition. Consequently, for over two hundred years, these women, whose stories are encapsulated in the life of their church, have been able to initiate, perform, and affirm meaningful feminist changes in the church community through positive “female traditioning.”

5Black female spirituality or religiosity, especially the practice of traditional Christianity, is difficult to define. Its broad range of denominational interpretations and differences makes each women’s spiritual experience unique. However, in this paper, it refers to a distinct Black community’s experience of their deepest religious beliefs, convictions, patterns of thought, emotions, behaviours, and work ethic in respect to what is ultimate, God. Black Nova Scotian Baptist women’s spirituality is holistic, encompassing their relationship with God, with one another in the community, with the society at large, and with nature in a fundamentally cultural way. Consequently, Black Nova Scotian women’s religiosity is not an orthodox theological belief system or a moral code. It is a lifestyle guided by spiritual Biblical principles such as faith, love, and hope that shaped their everyday lives. This was/is manifested in their sharing, respectful attitude, co-operation, caring, and mutual support. The consistent manifestation of the women’s religious practices, through the medium of faith, hope and love for God and others, especially vulnerable others, has had a permanent female influence on the Black Baptist churches in Nova Scotia. Morton (1993) states that the Church provided women opportunity for socially acceptable roles such as Sunday school teachers, musicians, and so forth. I will argue that these women did not wait for the Church to offer them opportunities for service. Their spiritual values led them to initiate work as educators of youth and adults, welfare officers in their community, encouragers, supporters, and counsellors.

Faith, Hope, and Love

6Black Canadian female scholars, in addressing various aspects of Black women’s experience, focus primarily on Black women’s oppression and resistance (Moreau 1996; Brand 1990; 1984; Hamilton 1994; 1982; Cooper 1988; Mannette 1987; Best 1977; Oliver 1953; and others). James informs us that “Black feminist theorizing is rooted in Black communities and nourished by them even as it challenges those very communities to address issues of internal women’s experiences of multiple interrelated oppressions.... While reflecting the diversity of its many adherents it also struggles to embrace contradictions” and differences (James 1993, 2). Therefore, discussion of the feminization of the patriarchal Black Baptist church traditions is pertinent and timely.

7According to Biblical injunction, “faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see... and without faith (trust) it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to God must believe that God exists and He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Bible (NIV) 1985: Hebrews Chapter 11: verses 1+6). Similarly, hope is the confidence we have for a positive expectation of the expression of faith even when the situation appears hopeless. Love, which is understood in practical terms as a deep and tender feeling or devotion to someone or something, allows the practice of faith and hope to become a reality through patience, perseverance, and persistence. Moreover, faith, hope and love are spiritual interrelated gifts which make change possible although not painless. When put into practice, they together resist most negative barriers against feminization found in the Church. In active hope, the women exercised their faith through the hard work they performed in love that brought about desired change.

8An examination of the literature reveals the power of the women’s spiritual gifts, manifested through faith, hope, and love, in the continuous transformation of the Black Baptist Church throughout its history. Hamilton states that “the involvement and presence of Black women vibrates throughout the social, education, cultural, and religious life of the Black community Women were active in most of the churches where they taught in the Sabbath schools and nearby day schools” (Hamilton 1994,34). The application of the spiritual practices that reflected Black women’s ways of knowing and being must, of necessity, have been centered in Black women’s holistic spiritual life-style. Theirs was/is a faith in a God whom they trusted to provide strength, courage, and tenacity for initiating change; strength to resist blatant oppression (i.e., racism, sexism, illiteracy, poverty, and so forth) and the ability to struggle against fatalism, self-destruction, and the like. Theirs was/is a hope in God and in their vision for a progressive and productive community. Theirs was/is a love for God, for themselves, and for their community that inspired and motivated them to resist traditional Christian practices of sexism in the spiritual community and to initiate changes in quiet ways beginning in their homes.

9It is commonly said that ‘charity or love begins at home’ and quickly spreads abroad. I would like to suggest that this love, interrelated with hope and faith, practised by the Black women with patience and perseverance at home, became the element that ignited the feminization process of the Black Baptist church in Nova Scotia. Carrie Best, a Nova Scotian Baptist woman, recalls her mother’s way of making a difference in her home that, over time, influenced Best’s work in the church. She said:

My mother was a meticulous home maker... kind, loving and generous... guiding the sanctity of her home and the family’s safety like a lioness with her cubs. Black womanhood was held in low esteem during the early part of the twentieth century and only the home (and the church) afforded the protection needed to ensure security from outside influences. (Best 1977, 43)

10Best contends further that the only way that our foremothers’ dreams for a better life were to become a reality was through their practice of the spirituality which served as a resistance to any form of oppression against positive change. She reminds us of their past actions:

somehow, though their cups were often empty and battered, these women with their work-scarred hands dared to hope as they dried our tears and rocked us to sleep in the fullness of their bosoms, that their dreams their hope would become reality in us. (Best 1977, 173)

11Similarly, these women’s concern for their community’s welfare, particularly in the early 1900s, was partly responsible for their drive to influence the Black Baptist church to cater to the whole person. Moreover, their involvement in the creation of a continuum of programs offering social, educational, spiritual, financial, recreational, and other services within the Church meant that their recognition as part of the church leadership was inevitable. It is worth repeating that, although women were always the ‘backbone’ of the church, they were not officially proclaimed leaders until they decided to resist women’s absence in church leadership.

Feminization in The Church

12In the 1780s, the Black Baptist church in Nova Scotia came into existence as a form of resistance against all types of oppression by white religious groups (Pachai 1987; Williams 1983). This demanded that Black women and men work together for the survival of their community against the onslaught of religious persecution, racism, sexism, and class and colour discrimination. External religious and social persecution of Blacks by Whites motivated not only the unity of Black women and men in spiritual matters but in every other way. We can conclude that the Black Baptist Church in Nova Scotia, for the most part, has always accepted women as a vital part of its existence but that it needed feminization of its leadership.

13Pachai informs us that with the arrival of freed Black Christians to Nova Scotia “the existing churches were only prepared to receive them as special members with separate seating facilities” (Pachai 1987, 50). This religious segregation by white churches led to the establishment of the Black Baptist Church. Moreau 1996; Williams 1988; Hamilton 1982; 1994; Walker, 1980; Pachai, 1987; Best 1977; Boyd 1976; Pratt 1972; Oliver 1970; 1969; 1948, and others inform us that Blacks’ enslavement was sanctioned and maintained by most of the mainstream white Christian denominations (Hamilton 1994). This imposition of segregation continued after slavery so that Blacks were not readily or willingly admitted to white public places of worship. Pachai claims that Black Nova Scotians

were denied access to the corridors of real opportunity in the white world of exclusive membership. They set out to create their own opportunities, their own institutions, their own network — not because they loved segregation but because they had to do their utmost to survive. Religion was the centre of survival. (Pachai 1990, 48)

14In some instances, Black Christians were openly rejected, ridiculed, and alienated when they attempted to worship with whites. In others, separate sections of white churches were allocated for Blacks only. In response to these inhumane acts, many Blacks established their own churches. In 1784, David George, his wife, and some other Black Christians organized the first Black Baptist Church in Nova Scotia (Pachai 1990). Black men must be given credit for their leadership role in constructing the church, but Hamilton (1982); Best (1977); Oliver (1953) and others remind us that the wives of those men and other womenfolk also deserve credit. Throughout their history in the province, Black women struggled to provide for their families and communities by changing their barren environments into livable communities, whether in rural settlements or within the margins of white townships and cities (Hooks 1984).

15In spite of the establishment of their own churches, the Black community, as recently as the 1950s, was still perceived by the White churches as insignificant. It was in this hostile religious milieu that Black Nova Scotian women, with faith, hope, and love, worked with the men in their homes, schools, and churches to make a difference. This is where the feminizing of the Black Baptist churches in that province had its genesis. As I have indicated earlier, the Black Baptist Church proffered its community opportunities that were denied its members by white society.

16For example, Black Nova Scotian women (and men) through the church established the first Black educational system. The literature reveals that, until the 1950s, formal education for Blacks in Nova Scotia was not a legal or civic right (Moreau 1996; Pachai 1987; Boyd 1976; Oliver 1970). As a result, in many parts of the province, Blacks were bluntly refused formal education with Whites. Black women (and men) through their church established “little Black schools” taught mostly by women who saw it as their religious calling to educate community members as best they could. One Black woman had this to say about the way the community tried to meet its desperate need for formal education: “Poor as we were, we were made to build our own schools, hire our own Black teachers, and pay the teachers by community effort” (Moreau 1996, 128).

17In the same way, the women, with the help of the Church, established the first welfare agency. They used all the knowledge acquired from their workplaces, their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers (Hamilton 1982) and their own experiences, to nurse, teach, and train the youth and one another to meet the needs of the community from the womb to the tomb (Moreau 1996). Also, the women of the community, with the help of the men, made training available to potential leaders including preachers, teachers, politicians, handicraft makers, and domestic workers. The women worked along with the men in preparing the Church to provide a political platform for public discussion of community issues. The Church was also used as the first sports complex and the medium through which young Black people were able to develop their talents and abilities in different areas of life. Black women in the Church worked to create a forum for Black self-expression and to stimulate the development of group and self-identity. They were instrumental in nurturing group and self-respect among young people who might otherwise have been submerged by societal oppression. Pachai supports this discussion with the reminder that this church was more than a religious organization. It was a training ground for generations of Black leaders, followers, preachers and teachers, politicians and professionals (Pachai 1990, 63).

18It is interesting to note that, in contrast to the feminization of the Black Baptist churches in Nova Scotia, there are similar churches in North America dominated by Black males. In these churches, Black women’s spirituality has not been celebrated or even respected. For example, Martin discusses the sexism prevalent among male ministers of the Black Baptist religion in parts of North America. Historically, Black men dominated and controlled the Baptist convention and missionary outreach: “therefore, it was possible to overlook the presence of women within the African mission movement or to minimize their support for the mission cause” (Martin 1986, 16). While the ranks of the women included teachers, leaders, mission organizers, independent missionaries, or co-workers with their husbands, their efforts to feminize the church went unnoticed because of sexism.

19In spite of the Black religious male leaders’ sexist attitude toward Black women’s spirituality, women continued to struggle for the feminization of the Church. Griffin, in her article “A Layin’ on of Hands”: Organizational Efforts Among Black Americans, 1790-1930, ” leads us to believe that, from the earliest days of the American slavery era, the feminization of the slaves’ environment was continuous. The author points out that “adult female cooperation and interdependence was a fact of female slave life” (Griffin 1988, 23). She notes further that this Black female tradition of cooperation and interdependence, which was an important part of Black women’s spiritual expression, was used as an everyday survival strategy. They were always able to utilize their cooperative organizational skills for the benefit of their own community in times of difficulty. Griffin claims that this tradition continued unabated even during the severe depression years of the early 1930s. She concludes that “in some sense, Black women had an advantage of experience over white women because throughout their history they had to rely on the cooperative nature of their families and neighbours to make do” (Griffin 1988, 8).

20In Nova Scotia, the same is true of the women’s ability to cooperate and thus bring about change. For instance, in the first half of the twentieth century, Black Nova Scotian women were determined to play a more prominent role in the life of their church. In 1917, the women of the African United Baptist Association (AUBA) formed what they called the Ladies Auxiliary of the church during an AUBA meeting in East Preston Baptist church. It is interesting to note that the women chose to hold the first meeting of their Auxiliary at the community well, a biblical symbolic meeting place for women. The “Women at the Well,” as they were referred to, organized and cooperated under the leadership of Sister Maude Sparks to implement and administer church programs and the social services needed in the community. Sylvia Hamilton, a Black Nova Scotian scholar, gives us a brief account of what the women did in the early 1900s. She points out that the objective of the Ladies’ Auxiliary was stimulation of the spiritual, moral, social, educational, charitable, and financial responsibilities of all the local churches in the AUBA. She further states that

In 1917 the women of the African Baptist churches in the province... gathered outside around a well in the community of East Preston since the church had no space for them to use. This gathering became know as “Women at the Well.” (Hamilton 1982, 35-36)

21Williams also gives some insight into the dedication of these women to making things happen. They took on the financial responsibility of the Church and did a better job of raising money for Church programs than the men did. The author claims that financially the Ladies’ Auxiliary was and is the strength and backbone of the Association. During various years, the Auxiliary has raised more money than the total receipts of the Association (William 1983, 448). Through this organization, the women of the Church promoted and organized social work programs that provided for the welfare of the orphans, the destitute, and the aged in the community (Winks 1977).

22In addition, they worked as equals with the men in administering to the needs of orphans and juvenile delinquents in a Home for Coloured Children. This was a notable accomplishment by the women (and the men) in the Black Baptist church since Nova Scotia’s White social services department refused to accept Black orphans and or juvenile delinquents into their institutions. Another history making event was promoted by the women of the Black Baptist Church: “In 1920 for the first time in Canadian history a convention of coloured women was held in Halifax, Nova Scotia” (Hamilton 1982, 36). By this time, women in the Black Baptist church in Nova Scotia were responding to the need for ordained female ministers to serve as official spiritual leaders in various ministries of the church. The women’s resistance to patriarchy in their spiritual community through their practice of faith, hope, and love had made inroads in the feminizing of their church.


23This brief investigation of the feminization of the Black Baptist Church in Nova Scotia is used as a notable example of the way Black women were/are able to bring about changes in community organizations. I have found that, from the Church’s establishment in 1782, feminization has always been in progress. Women’s involvement in changing the Church has been an on-going process throughout its history. When the Black Christians responded to White religious persecution by establishing their own Church for spiritual worship, the women played a major role in creating an amicable spiritual and cultural environment in silence (Oliver 1953). They practised a spirituality that was inclusive of culture and religion, and, in their quiet ways, they created the feminization of the Black Baptist Church. It was not accomplished with specific celebration or violent revolution. It was a subtle, almost invisible, continuous process that resisted most efforts by the men of the Church to control the women’s creative participation in the organization. We can conclude that Black Baptist Nova Scotian women’s spiritual practice of faith, hope, and love, as manifested in their everyday work activities, set the state for feminization in the Black Baptist Church in the early 1900s. Their holistic and inclusive approach to spirituality has motivated them historically to begin the feminization of the early Church. This laid the foundation for the later progress that was made by the “Women at the Well” and others in the early 1900s in the feminization of the Black Baptist Church in Nova Scotia.

24We believe that the spiritual principles of faith, hope, and love form the foundation of this feminization process, and, in the context of this study, we make three significant observations. First, any investigation of Black Nova Scotian women’s feminization of their Church is an examination of their spiritual behaviour and, as such, should be done holistically. Second, it is important that the investigation be an honest interpretation in order to prevent an underestimation of the women’s ability to administer and perform in a spiritual setting. In addition, it must show how the women supported the men in their efforts and accepted the assistance offered by the men but rejected any attempts to hinder initiatives to make the Church “woman-friendly.” The discussion demands respect for the women’s self-defined meaning of spirituality, thus making a strong case for the inclusion of all their lives’ experiences as spiritual. Finally, we believe that the utilization of the women’s spiritual principles of faith, hope, and love, as a way of understanding the feminization of the Black Church in Nova Scotia, has given us a clearer understanding of the Black women’s ways of implementing visible changes in the Black Baptist Church in Nova Scotia to this day.



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Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Carleton University

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