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Women in Church History: Octavia Albert ‘Bleeds Bible’

Nana Dolce

I’m the mother of two pink loving girls–gifts I wouldn’t trade for the world. Raising daughters is a high calling, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to shape and shepherd the hearts of my two little women.

As we recognize the achievements of women this Women’s History Month, my prayer is my labor as a mother might produce future women whose lives contribute worthily to others in the world, and in the church. More specifically, I’m praying for Christian daughters with deeply rooted faith and worldviews defined by Scripture. Whatever the Lord might call my babies to be, my hope is for their work and thinking to be governed by God’s Word. I want my children to be women who bleed bibline, women like Octavia Albert.

Albert was a former slave, pastor’s wife, mother, teacher, writer and archivist of slave history. She’s said to have “chronicled two-hundred-fifty years of African American history.”[1] Albert served as a mouthpiece for numerous ex-slaves in the era of Reconstruction. Her book, The House of Bondage, tells their stories as a challenge to the narrative of “paternalistic Christian slave owners [who] cared for, fed, and employed uneducated, untrained blacks.”[2] In addition, Albert writes in praise of the God who triumphed gloriously over the evils of chattel slavery.

Octavia Albert was a gospel thinker, and a woman with “harvest dirt” beneath her feet.

Slave and Teacher

Octavia Albert was born a slave on December 24, 1853 in Oglethorpe, Georgia. Her spiritual freedom in Christ came while living in Oglethorpe. There, she became a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, under the pastorate of the famed Bishop Henry McNeal Turner.

Emancipation Proclamation offered Albert a privilege unknown to many others: a college degree. She saw teaching as a Christian duty, and so studied education at Clark Atlanta University. Her first teaching position introduced her to the Rev. A.E.P. Albert, D.D., her eventual husband. The couple moved to Houma, Louisiana and there, Octavia became a chronicler of the African American History.

Academic Excellence and Sympathetic Brilliance

The Albert home gathered former slaves and welcomed them with meals, Scripture readings, reading and writing lessons, and a listening ear. Octavia Albert was known to mourn with those who mourn, and would often comfort with Scripture. Her book, The House of Bondage, recounts her words to a wearied former slave: “Yes, Aunt Lorendo, the Bible promises that there is  ‘rest for the people of God.’ And it affords us joy to know that although we have trials and tribulations here, we who prove faithful till death shall enter that ‘rest prepared for the people of God.’”[3]

Dr. Robert Kellemen calls Octavia Albert’s ministry a combination of “academic excellence [and] sympathetic brilliance.” From her kitchen table, Albert skillfully records history, consoles the forgotten, and challenges the proud with the Gospel of Christ.

Octavia Albert’s Cosmological Gospel

Octavia Albert’s desire for racial justice flowed out of a solid Gospel identity. She writes this in her book:

“Consider that here in this Bible land, where we have the light, where the Gospel was preached Sunday after Sunday in all portions of the South, and where ministers read from the pulpit that God has made of one blood all nations of men, etc., that nevertheless with the knowledge and teachings of the word of God, the slaves were reduced to a level with the brute.”[4]

Saving faith is seen by its works. A profession of faith without the fruit of love of neighbor ought to astound us. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ affords salvation for those who repent and believe. Their belief in Christ is evidenced by a Spirit-empowered life that gives a foretaste of the complete cosmological restoration to come.

A Christian then who exploits, or even disregards the exploitation of, others (particularly those in the household of faith), is not living in the truth of God’s Gospel. Octavia Albert’ understood this. She writes: “When I pause and think over the hard punishments of the slaves by the whites, many of whom professed to be Christians, I am filled with amazement…We know we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.’”[5]

Octavia Albert Sings

Octavia Albert died at the age of 37. Her life was brief, but she seems to have lived her days without buried talents, for she based her work on God’s Word. She explains her reason for telling the narratives of former slaves:

“I believe we should not only treasure these [stories], but should transmit them to our children’s children. That’s what the Lord commanded Israel to do in reference to their deliverance from Egyptian bondgage, and I verily believe that the same is his will concerning us and our bondage and deliverance in this country.” [6]

I’m eager to share these “deliverance stories” with my daughters; and in so doing, I will stress God’s grace in the lives of persevering saints like Octavia Albert.

Her book ends with the words of the hymn, Sound the Loud Timbrel O’er Egypt’s Dark Sea. Like Miriam before the women of Israel, Albert sings, boasting of God’s triumph over evil. Let’s leave this post doing the same way:

Sound the loud timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea!

Jehovah has triumph’d — His people are free!

Sing — for the pride of the tyrant is broken,

His chariots, his horsemen, all splendid and brave,

How vain was their boasting! — the Lord hath but spoken,

And chariots and horsemen are sunk in the wave.

Sound the loud timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea!

Jehovah has triumph’d — His people are free!

[1] Kellemen, Robert, and Susan Ellis, Sacred Friendships: Celebrating the Legacy of Women Heroes of the Faith, (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Custom Books, 2000) 216.
[2] Ibid, 222
[3] Ibid, 221
[4] Ibid, 222
[5] Ibid, 223
[6] Ibid, 216-217

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