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Abstract

Unlike Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists, African American Methodist preacher and fellow abolitionist Zilpha Elaw initiated her Atlantic crossing to England not as part of the anti-slavery initiative, but as a mission to bring authentic wisdom to English Christians whose pride, she asserted, corrupted real spirituality. When she met in London with the religious leaders who later lionised Douglass, they rejected her immediately. She, in turn, rebuked them for their arrogant assumptions of spiritual superiority. Like Douglass, though, Elaw’s wayfaring to England marked a turning point in her life. On her sacred venture, she became a critic of the very Christianised reform culture that Douglass praised in his autobiography. As a result, Elaw spoke more directly than any of her African American peers about the need for the radical transformation of Christianised western civilisation itself. However, her ideas never seem to extend further than the pages of her memoir; she faded from history after the 1846 publication of the text in London. Despite Elaw’s historical erasure, her memoir of pilgrimage provides perceptive countercultural insights about new world revivalism in conflict with resistant English religion in her era; her unusual perceptions spring from her itineration as an independent black American woman preacher pursuing what she understood to be a divine mandate to bring renewal to a respected bastion of Christendom.

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