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Experience, Scripture, and Tradition
Experience, Scripture, and Tradition

Reading the Bible with Black Women

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

In the biblical story of Hagar, womanist theologian Delores Williams (1937–2022) finds affirmation and support for the experiences of Black women.  

Although many themes in African-American women’s history correspond with many themes in Hagar’s story in the Bible, nothing links the … women together more securely than their religious experiences in the wilderness [see Genesis 21]…. Many African-American slave women have left behind autobiographies telling how they would slip away to the wilderness or to “the hay-stacks, where the presence of the Lord overshadowed” them. [1] Some of them governed their lives according to their mothers’ counsel that they would have “nobody in the wide world to look to but God” [2]—as Hagar in the final stages of her story had only God to look to…. 

For many black Christian women today, “wilderness” or “wilderness experience” is a symbolic term used to represent a near-destruction situation in which God gives personal direction to the believer and thereby helps her make a way out of what she thought was no way. I recently encountered black women’s symbolic sense of wilderness when I lectured at Howard Divinity School in 1992. Arriving earlier than my lecture was scheduled, I went to one of the workshops attended almost exclusively by black female ministers…. [One] woman began to tell about her experience in her last parish…. Her ministry was about to be destroyed, she said. But she, alone, “took her situation to God as she fasted and prayed.” Finally God “came to her,” giving her direction. This was a positive turning point and her ministry survived to become one of the most outstanding in the district. Other women around the table in the workshop began to share what they termed their wilderness experiences in ministry.   

Williams points to the similarities of suffering and faith that Black women share with Hagar:   

In the biblical story Hagar’s wilderness experience happened in a desolate and lonely wilderness where she—pregnant, fleeing from the brutality of her slave owner, Sarai, and without protection—had religious experiences that helped her and her child survive when survival seemed doomed. For both Hagar and the African-American women, the wilderness experience meant standing utterly alone, in the midst of serious trouble, with only God’s support to rely upon.  

As a result of these hard-time experiences and the encounters with God, Hagar and many African-American women manifested a risk-taking faith.… Many African-American women (slave and free) have taken serious risks in the black community’s liberation struggle. For example, in the midst of the violence and brutality that accompanied slavery in America, Harriet Tubman, with a price on her head, dared to liberate over three hundred slaves.… She is said to have relied solely upon God for help and strength; she had no one else to look to. Thus we can speak of Hagar and many African-American women as sisters in the wilderness struggling for life, and by the help of their God coming to terms with situations that have destructive potential. 


[1] Elizabeth, Memoir of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman (Philadelphia: Collins, 1863), 7. See Six Women’s Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). 

[2] Elizabeth, Memoir, 4.  

Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993, 2013), 96–97.  

The landscape of our own lives informs how we understand Scripture and Tradition. 

Story from Our Community:

I have spent the last 10 years convincing myself that I am an atheist, pretending I did not need God in my life. However, inside my heart, I felt like a child who learned there was no Santa Claus, who desperately wished they could go back to believing in the magic. I recently had a spiritual awakening when I heard it said that “Love is the truest manifestation of God.” I thought, “I believe Love is the answer and if Love is the truest manifestation of God, how can I continue to pretend to be an atheist?” The answer is that I cannot. —Lisa L. 

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