During the summer of 1876, while attending a camp meeting at Epworth Heights, near Cincinnati, my attention was drawn to a colored lady dressed in a very plain garb, which reminded me somewhat of that worn by the Friends in former days, who was engaged in expounding a Bible lesson to a small audience.
I was told that the speaker was Mrs. Amanda Smith, and that she was a woman of remarkable gifts, who had been greatly blessed in various parts of the country.
Having spent nearly all my adult years on the other side of the globe, my acquaintance in America was by no means an extensive one, and this will explain the fact that I had never heard of this devout lady until I met her at this camp meeting.
Her remarks on the Bible lesson did not particularly impress me, and it was not until the evening of the same day, when I chanced to be kneeling near her at a prayer meeting, that I became impressed that she was a person of more than ordinary power.
The meetings of the day had not been very successful, and a spirit of depression rested upon many of the leaders. A heavy rain had fallen, and we were kneeling somewhat uncomfortably in the straw which surrounded the preacher's stand.
A number had prayed, and I was myself sharing the general feeling of depression, when I was suddenly startled by the voice of song. I lifted my head, and at a short distance, probably not more than two yards from me, I saw the colored sister of the morning kneeling in an upright position, with her hands spread out and her face all aglow.
She had suddenly broken out with a triumphant song, and while I was startled by the change in the order of the meeting, I was at once absorbed with interest in the song and the singer.
Something like a hallowed glow seemed to rest upon the dark face before me, and I felt in a second that she was possessed of a rare degree of spiritual power.
That invisible something which we are accustomed to call power, and which is never possessed by any Christian believer except as one of the fruits of the indwelling Spirit of God, was hers in a marked degree.
From that time onward I regarded her as a gifted worker in the Lord's vineyard, but I had still to learn that the enduement of the Spirit had given her more than the one gift of spiritual power.
A week later I met her at Lakeside, Ohio, and was again impressed in the same way, but I then began to discover that she was not only a woman of faith, but that she possessed a clearness of vision which I have seldom found equaled.
Her homely illustrations, her quaint expressions, her warm-hearted appeals, all possess the supreme merit of being so many vehicles for conveying the living truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the hearts of those who are fortunate enough to hear her.
A few years after my return to India, in 1876, I was delighted to hear that this chosen and approved worker of the Master had decided to visit this country. She arrived in 1879, and after a short stay in Bombay, came over to the eastern side of the empire, and assisted us for some time in Calcutta. She also returned two years later, and again rendered us valuable assistance.
The novelty of a colored woman from America, who had in her childhood been a slave, appearing before an audience in Calcutta, was sufficient to attract attention, but this alone would not account for the popularity which she enjoyed throughout her whole stay in our city.
She was fiercely attacked by narrow minded persons in the daily papers, and elsewhere, but opposition only seemed to add to her power.
During the seventeen years that I have lived in Calcutta, I have known many famous strangers to visit the city, some of whom attracted large audiences, but I have never known anyone who could draw and hold so large an audience as Mrs. Smith.
She assisted me both in the church and in open-air meetings, and never failed to display the peculiar tact for which she is remarkable.
I shall never forget one meeting which we were holding in an
If 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 with 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, and when she had finished we had as orderly a meeting as if we had been within the four walls of a church!
In those days a well known theatrical manager, much given to popular buffoonery, wrote to me inviting me to arrange to have Mrs. Smith preach in his theatre on a certain Sunday evening. I was much surprised on receiving the letter, and taking it to her told her I did not know what it meant. Several friends, who chanced to be present, at once began to dissuade her:
"Do not go, Sister Amanda," said several, speaking at once, "the man merely wishes to have a good opportunity of seeing you, so that he can take you off in his theatre. He has no good purpose in view. Do not trust yourself to him under any circumstances."
After a moment's hesitation Mrs. Smith replied in language which I shall never forget:
"I am forbidden," she said, "to judge any man. You would not wish me to judge you, and would think it wrong if any of us should judge a brother or sister in the church. What right have I to judge this man? I have no more right to judge him than if he were a Christian."
She said she would pray over it and give her decision. She did so, and decided to accept the invitation.
When Sunday evening came the theatre was packed like a herring box, while hundreds were unable to gain admission. I took charge of the meeting, and after singing and prayer introduced our strange friend from America.
She spoke simply and pointedly, alluding to the kindness of the manager who had opened the doors of his theatre to her, in very courteous terms, and evidently made a deep and favorable impression upon the audience. There was no laughing, and no attempt was ever made subsequently to ridicule her. As she was walking off the stage the manager said to me;
"If you want the theatre for her again do not fail to let me know. I would do anything for that inspired woman."
During Mrs. Smith's stay in Calcutta she had opportunities for seeing a good deal of the native community. Here, again, I was struck with her extraordinary power of discernment. We have in Calcutta a class of reformed Hindus called Brahmos. They are, as a class, a very worthy body of men, and at that time were led by the distinguished Keshub Chunder Sen.
Every distinguished visitor who comes to Calcutta is sure to seek the acquaintance of some of these Brahmos, and to study, more or less, the reformed system which they profess and teach. I have often wondered that so few, even of our ablest visitors, seem able to comprehend the real character either of the men or of their new system. Mrs. Smith very quickly found access to some of them, and beyond any other stranger whom I have ever known to visit Calcutta, she formed a wonderfully accurate estimate of the character, both of the men and of their religious teaching.
She saw almost at a glance all that was strange and all that was weak in the men and in their system.
This penetrating power of discernment which she possesses in so large a degree impressed me more and more the longer I knew her. Profound scholars and religious teachers of philosophical bent seemed positively inferior to her in the task of discovering the practical value of men and systems which had attracted the attention of the world!
I have already spoken of her clearness of perception and power of stating the undimmed truth of the Gospel of Christ. Through association with her, I learned many valuable lessons from her lips, and once before an American audience, when Dr. W.F. Warren was exhorting young preachers to be willing to learn from their own hearers, even though many of the hearers might be comparatively illiterate, I ventured to second his exhortation by telling the audience that I had learned more that had been of
Throughout Mrs. Smith's stay in India she was always cheerful and hopeful. In this respect, too, she differed from most visitors to our great empire. Some adopt gloomy views as they look at the weakness of Christianity, and observe the stupendous fortifications which have been reared by the followers of the various false religions of the people.
Some even yield to despair, and refuse to believe that India ever can be saved or even benefited, while only a very few are able to believe not only that India will yet become a Christian empire, but that Christ will yet lift up the people of this land, and so revolutionize or transform society as it exists to-day, as to make the people practically a new people.
Our good Sister Amanda Smith never belonged to any of these despondent classes.
She sometimes was touched by the pictures of misery which she saw around her, but never became hopeless. She was of cheerful temperament, it is true, but aside from personal feeling, she always possessed a buoyant hope and an overcoming faith, which made it easy for her to believe that the Saviour, whom she loved and served, really intended to save and transform India.
Soon after Mrs. Smith's visit to India, another Virginian visited Calcutta on his way around the globe. This was Mr. Moncure D. Conway.
These two persons, Mrs. Smith and Mr. Conway, were representative Virginians. They had been born in the same section of the country, brought up as Methodists, and were thoroughly acquainted, one by observation and the other by experience, with the terrible character of the American slave system.
Mr. Conway in early life was for several years a Methodist preacher, but by his own published confession he never comprehended what the true spirit of Methodism was. He was at one time a well known and somewhat popular Unitarian minister, but finding the Unitarians too narrow and orthodox for a man of his liberal mind, he set up an independent church or organization of some kind, in London, and preached to an obscure little congregation for a number of years, until his last experiment ended in confessed failure.
His recorded impressions received in India were of the most
Mrs. Smith, the other Virginian, without a tittle of Mr. Conway's learning, and deprived of nearly every advantage which he had enjoyed, not only retained the faith of her childhood, but matured and developed it until it attained a standard of purity and strength rarely witnessed in our world.
She also came to India, but unlike the other Virginian, she cherished hope where he felt only despair, she saw light where he perceived only darkness, she found opportunities everywhere for doing good which wholly escaped his observation, and during her two years' stay in the country where she went, she traced out a pathway of light in the midst of the darkness!
As she left the country she could look back upon a hundred homes which were brighter and better because of her coming, upon hundreds of hearts whose burdens had been lightened and whose sorrows had been sweetened by reason of her public and private ministry.
She is gratefully remembered to this day by thousands in the land.
Her life affords a striking comment at once upon the value of the New Testament to those who receive it, both in letter and in spirit, and upon the hopelessness of the Gospel of unbelief which obtains so wide a hearing at the present day.
A thousand Virginians of the Conway stripe might come and go for a thousand years without making India any better, but a thousand Amanda Smiths would suffice to revolutionize an empire!
I am very glad to learn that Mrs. Smith has at last been induced to yield to the importunities of friends and prepare a sketch of her eventful life. I trust that the story will be told without reserve in all its simplicity, as well as in all its strength, and I doubt not that God will crown this last of her many labors with abundant blessings.
Calcutta , October 22, 1891.