Hi guys. It’s one of those times where I have so much to say and in so little time, so quick introduction: my name is Jasmine Holmes, and I am a public historian. Most of the history that I share is on Instagram. I was a classroom teacher for nine years, I’ve been a research assistant for over a decade, and in my research, I really like to focus on stories—especially stories of Black Christians in American history. I love to focus on their stories of resistance and their stories of Christian conviction, and today I wanna bring one of those stories to you. I would love to talk to you about Maria Fearing.
So, Maria Fearing was born in Alabama in 1838. And in a lot of states, a lot of southern states, there were laws as to what Black enslaved people could and couldn’t do. For instance, in a lot of states, they couldn’t assemble, so they weren’t allowed to have their own church services. They weren’t allowed to read, they weren’t allowed to write, and the penalties were pretty stiff for White people who were found aiding and abetting them in doing these things. In Alabama, it wasn’t just the enslaved, but also free Black people who weren’t allowed to read or write at the time that Maria Fearing was born, and so she was enslaved by a Presbyterian minister’s family who abided by the law and kept her illiterate.
They taught her the Gospel, they catechized her, she read Bible stories alongside their children, and it’s really important to remember in stories like this that even though they were relatively kind to Maria, the kindest thing of course would have been to set her free. The kindest thing would have been to stand for justice, no matter what the law said, right? But, at any rate, she wasn’t free until after the Civil War. At this point, she’s a full grown woman, and she wants nothing more than to learn how to read and write, so she goes to school with young children and she learns alongside them. After she learns how to read, she starts working at the school. She also does some other domestic labor; things that she did while she was enslaved, she’s now getting paid for. So eventually, Maria does so much of this domestic labor that she’s able to earn enough money to purchase her own home, which is an incredible feat for any woman of the period, let alone a woman who started out her life as an enslaved person. And so, she’s bought her own home, she’s working for the school—she has a pretty good life, and she’s happy.
But then, William Henry Sheppard comes and speaks at her school. William Henry Sheppard is a Black missionary to the Congo. He wasn’t the only Black missionary to Congo; there were actually quite a few: Lulu Fleming, Althea and Alonzo Brown Edmiston, the Sheppards, and a couple of others are working at different missions in Congo. And so William tells all of these stories, and he tells about how treacherous it is to work in the Congo. At this time, King Leopold of Belgium has colonized the Congo. And this is like the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, and it’s… trendy to colonize African countries. And so all Leopold wants is to be part of this trend and to get his piece of the pie and his piece of the wealth, and so though he never physically visits the Congo, he enacts a regime that is built on extracting as much wealth possible from the Congo. And the wealth that he extracts is rubber, so rubber mines. It is estimated that in his reign of terror, King Leopold was responsible for the death of up to 10 million Congolese men, women, and children. And to put that into stark relief for you, it’s estimated that 6 million Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust—11 million people in total, if you include all of the other people that Hitler’s reign of terror targeted—and so we have 10 million in the Congo, 11 million in the Holocaust, 15 million in Russia during the reign of Stalin, and so it’s up there, right? It’s up there in numbers.
One of the harshest punishments that King Leopold exacted was that when men and women didn’t meet their quotas in the rubber mines, they could lose a limb, right? Lose a hand, lose an arm. So there’s lots of pictures of William Henry Sheppard standing with young people who have lost limbs in King Leopold’s rule of the Congo. William Henry Sheppard is a huge part of bringing worldwide attention to the abuses carried out in the Congo. And another Black journalist visited the Congo, and watching the reign of King Leopold there was when he coined the term “crimes against humanity,” okay? So just to give you this picture of what Maria witnesses and what she sees being talked about by William Henry Sheppard—and yet still she wants to go. She feels called to go. And so she goes to the missionary association that sent William Henry Sheppard, and she asks for them to send her. And they say, “You’re 50, it’s a little bit old.” Now, I know, but 50 is different in this time period than it is now—although she lived to be 99, but anyway. So Maria ends up selling her home so that she can finance her own missionary journey, and she makes the treacherous journey to this treacherous place.
She has to cross an ocean, she has to cross rivers, she has to—there’s this mode of transportation where a chair is elevated on the backs of four men. She has to, like—she’s sitting on this chair and going through the jungle to get to the Congo. And so she goes, and she sets up a home called Pantops Home for Girls, but she also helps rescue young boys as well. It’s wild—just the crazy nature of living in Congo, this constant conflict that’s happening from King Leopold, his soldiers, the fact that he employs Congolese soldiers—and Maria’s having to do insane things, like trade a pound of salt for a child’s life. It’s insane, and she works for years and years, and she pours her life out to such a degree that by the time she gets sent back to America for medical leave, she has no more teeth left in her mouth, right? She has poured her life out to that extent. And so she goes back to Alabama several years later, and she never makes it back to the Congo, but she saves up money so that even if—if the Lord ever calls her, she has enough money to get back overseas. She dies at the age of 99, still teaching, still loving the Lord. And one of the best biographies that’s written about her is by Althea Brown Edmiston who worked with her and saw her up close and personal in the Congo.
The reason why Maria’s story is so important to tell is because a lot of times when we talk about Black Christians—when we talk about Christianity in general, I shouldn’t even say Black Christians—when we talk about Christianity in general, there is an accusation leveled against Christians for allowing chattel slavery to happen and participating in chattel slavery and being some of the premier voices making excuses for chattel slavery. And so the question then becomes, how could somebody who was enslaved who was not allowed to read and write by Christians grow up to become a Christian who then helps translate the Bible into the language of a “unreached people group?” How does this happen? And I think it’s really important to point out that the enslaved and the self-emancipated were completely aware of the hypocrisy of American Christianity and loved the Lord because they understood that that hypocrisy did not define their faith. Fredrick Douglass says that he loves the biblical Christianity, the Christianity of Christ; he hates the women-whipping, cradle-plundering Christianity of America.
So he understands the difference. And so, I think it’s so important to find heroes like Maria and to find people who framed the Christian faith in ways that were completely consistent. I think it’s really important to find new heroes, so that we can differentiate between the hypocrisy that happened by and large in the nation and the faithfulness of God that was displayed in the lives of so many of the oppressed. That’s a lesson for us as we’re looking at history, but it’s also a lesson for us as we’re looking today, as we’re looking at the Christianity of our nation, the Christian nationalism of our nation, knowing that there is always space for a minority of voices who hold fast to the truth of the gospel, that God really maintains and preserves his church, even if it doesn’t look like the broader powerful body that we’re used to seeing at the center of the story. That’s what I think Maria has to teach us about the past and the present and the future, and I hope that she encourages you as much as she has encouraged me.
Want To Dig A Little Deeper?
Check out Ep.32 of the podcast: How the Histories of Black Christians Help Us Hold On to Truth with Jasmine L. Holmes