The Anguish and Joy of Amanda Smith

The Anguish and Joy of Amanda Smith

"I will pray once more," said Amanda to herself, "and if there is any such thing as salvation, I am determined to have it this afternoon or die." It was Tuesday, the 17th of March, 1856. She finished her ironing, set the dinner table and went to the cellar to pray.

She half-expected that the family would find her dead. After all, she had prayed for years without peace. "I cannot remember the time from my earliest childhood that I did not want to be a Christian and would often pray alone," she wrote. But she found no assurance of acceptance with God. She envied wind, sun and moon, because they obeyed God, whereas she had often disobeyed. In her superstition, she even asked them to carry prayers to Jesus.

Perhaps if she would go to the altar rail at the front of the church, she might find peace with God. She did not want to embarrass herself, but eventually the ache inside of her grew so strong she went forward. She came away as miserable as ever. Satan taunted her that there was no salvation for her: "God does his work quick."

Amanda was ready to throw in the towel in her search for God when a whisper said, "Pray again," and so she went to the cellar. Once again her prayers seemed futile. Darkness settled on her.

In desperation, believing God would strike her dead because she had promised to get saved or die, she looked up and said, "'O, Lord, if You will help me, I will believe You,' and in the act of telling God I would, I did. O, the peace and joy that flooded my soul!" From that day forward, Amanda had two ambitions: to know God and to tell others about Him.

Stalked, Set Upon, Savaged
Born a slave in Maryland, Amanda Berry was freed at age three, when her father, John Berry, bought himself and his family, and moved to Pennsylvania. He made their home a station on the underground railroad. Consequently, their property was closely watched to see if they were harboring fugitives. One night, slave-trackers burst in, demanding to know where John had hidden a runaway. The men beat John and tried to stab Amanda's mother.

One of Amanda's freeborn sisters was sold into slavery while visiting an aunt in Maryland. Amanda had to borrow fifty dollars to buy her back. Such experiences taught her how dreadful slavery was. When she found hope in Christ, she praised God that she was twice freed.

Bad Choices, Lasting Consequences
Two years before her conversion, Amanda married. Her husband was kind when sober but mean when drunk. He went to war and never returned. Because she wanted to share the gospel, Amanda next married a deacon who promised to become an evangelist. He was lying to her and eventually abandoned her. She realized that she should have cleared the marriage with the Lord. "O, 1 would God I had always obeyed Him, then would my peace have flowed as the river, but many times I failed."

The consequences of her bad marriages followed her through life. She suffered poverty and had to work long hours and starve herself so that her children might eat. All but one of her five children died in infancy, perhaps the result of lying in damp rooms while Amanda sweated over laundry. The one daughter who lived to maturity died in her twenties. Amanda's hardships taught her to bring every detail of her day to the Lord in prayer. She trusted him not only for salvation, but for shoes. Her autobiography recounts Christ's faithful dealings with her and Satan's whispers to turn her from obedience.

A Hunger for Holiness
In the 1860s Methodist revivalists urged Christians to experience "the second blessing"--sanctification. This was described as an empowerment of the Holy Spirit that would allow them to walk in deep holiness and even five a perfect life. John Inskip was a stirring speaker on this theme. One Sunday in 1868, Amanda felt impelled to go hear him preach. She believed Inskip's claim that God could bring every thought and action into subjection to himself. She asked for this. Waves of joy flooded her soul. Although she was the only black person in the church and afraid of white people, she shouted aloud.

Going to the Fair
What does it mean to be "led by the Spirit"? Amanda believed that she experienced this. In a typical instance, the Lord instructed her to go to the fair. She questioned this. It was not her habit to visit such places. But the Holy Spirit seemed to be telling her to go, so she went, feeling completely out of place. She prayed for direction. "I got up and went and stood at the top of the stairs where the people were coming up.... Then came two young men full of glee. The Spirit seemed to pick out one especially and said, 'Speak to that young man."' She did, but he respectfully brushed her aside. All that night she felt that she must pray for him. Next day, someone asked her, "Did you hear that Charlie S. is dead?"


"He was found dead in his bed this morning; he was at the fair the other night well and hearty." Curiosity prompted Amanda to go look at him. "There he was, dead, no sign of sickness, and the very young man that God had sent me to speak to." Incidents such as this assured her that she was obeying God.

Fiery Letters Spelled "Go"
The year after her sanctification, Amanda sensed the Lord telling her to preach. In a vision, she saw fiery letters spelling "GO." Women preachers were not well accepted--much less black women. Dressed plainly in black, gray, and white, she began speaking in African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches. Her songs, sung in a rich contralto voice, her vivid testimony, and her obvious faith spurred others to seek her source of joy. The self-educated ex-slave won souls on five continents, challenged Christians to live lives consistent with faith, and forged a more prominent role for women in the AME church.

Praying a Riot to a Standstill
In 1878, Amanda was invited to hold three months of services in England. A year later she was still there. From England she went by invitation to India, where she worked for two years. Bishop James M. Thoburn of Bombay wrote, I shall never forget one meeting which we were holding in an open square, in the very heart of the city. It was at a time of no little excitement, and some Christian preachers had been roughly handled in the same square a few evenings before. I... noticed a great crowd of men and boys who had succeeded in breaking up a missionary's audience on the other side of the square, rushing towards us with loud cries and threatening gestures.

"Left to myself I should have tried to gain the box on which the speakers stood in order to command the crowd, but at the critical moment, our good Sister Smith knelt on the grass and began to pray. As the crowd rushed up to the spot and saw her beaming face upturned to the evening sky, pouring out her soul in prayer they became perfectly, still and stood as if transfixed to the spot. Not even a whisper disturbed the solemn silence.

Thoburn said that at a glance Amanda was able to see through philosophical errors that fooled brilliant men. He insisted that he learned more from her that was of actual value to him as a preacher than from any other person he met! He considered her work in India thoroughly practical.

Following her successful efforts in India, Amanda worked eight years as a missionary in West Africa. Revival broke out. "The people came from all directions. We went on for two weeks without a break. We had several all-night meetings.... Some old men were converted that were never known to pray or be serious before." Not until malaria, rheumatism, and arthritis debilitated her did Amanda return to the U. S. She had been gone twelve years.

Still At It to the End
Old age and ill health did not shelve Amanda. She opened a home in Chicago for black orphans. It struggled for funds. To raise support for it, she spoke and sang in churches.

Amanda died in 1915 of a paralytic stroke at the age of seventy eight. Her autobiography, with its homey details of her struggle for survival and her hunger for holiness, has become a classic in women's studies and is an inspiring glimpse into the mind of a soul devoted to God.

Amanda Faces God While Her Baby Dies
"When you stand by your dear ones dying, with not two dollars for funeral expenses, with a husband and father away, and when be might have come, yet did not, with no one to go to, when the the heavens seemed brass, and the earth iron, and you and your own body exhausted from bard work and watching day and night, and with but little food to sustain the body, then to say, 'Thy will be done' from the heart, is more than all burnt offerings and sacrifice; and this prayer, prayed from the heart, is what is meant by being entirely and wholly sanctified.

As "dear little Willie ... the brightest and most promising of all the five children" she had had was dying, Amanda struggled with God. "I wanted to say it, and then resolved that I would neither eat nor drink until I could from my heart say, "The will of the Lord be done." It took me from Thursday till Friday afternoon about three P.M. before I got the victory. While I was alone pleading with God .. all at once my heart seemed to sink into a deep quiet ... Oh, how sweet it was; it seemed to me I could taste it, it was sweet as honey; and a voice seemed to reason, 'Now Amanda, you can have your choke if you say the life of your child, you may have it as easy as turning your hand.' And I said, 'Lord, Your will is so sweet, I only want Your will....' Then the joy sprang up in my heart ... About two o'clock the next morning, little Willie fell asleep in Jesus, in my arms. I washed the little body and laid it out myself ... "

Afterward Amanda collapsed and was scarcely able to dress to go out and make funeral arrangements. Friends refused to help. Her separated husband, father to the dead lad, excused himself as sick. In this crisis, a Christian lady, a virtual stranger, heard of the death and gave Amanda the $20 the funeral would cost. Amanda saw this as evidence of God's faithfulness.

Originally published April 28, 2010.