Zilpha Elaw (1790-18??), was born into a free, devoutly Christian family near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was only twelve years old when her mother died in childbirth and her father placed her in the care of a local family. Two years later, her father also passed away. Though her foster family was Quaker, their home life was not very spiritual, and Zilpha’s interest in the Lord gradually waned.
Her journey to salvation would begin as a teenager. One day, she jokingly took the Lord’s name in vain. That night, she dreamed that the angel Gabriel announced the end of time, with God’s judgment imminent—and she knew she was not ready to face Him. She awoke shaken, unwilling to be comforted, and anxious about her standing before God.
Soon, the Methodist Society began holding camp meetings nearby, which Zilpha began to attend twice a week. During this time, her autobiography describes her salvation as a gradual process, like a light slowly coming on in her heart. However, she does highlight one particular day as the point of her conversion: While attending a camp meeting, she had a vision of Jesus standing before her with His arms extended. His expression instantly assured her of her acceptance before God.
At that same camp meeting, Zilpha sensed a call to ministry, and began reaching out to local families. She would go into a house and minister the Word to the people there, sometimes leaving whole households hidden away in their quarters, weeping in conviction. Thriving in these outreaches, Zilpha continued in them as she felt led and earnestly pursued her own growth in the Lord.
After some time, however, she was stretched beyond this comfort zone. When Zilpha’s sister Hannah was on her death bed, she claimed she had been taken to heaven, had seen Jesus and the angels, and was instructed to tell Zilpha that she must preach the gospel. Zilpha was shocked, considering herself vastly unqualified to be a preacher.
Though this prophecy was confirmed multiple times through several other people, Zilpha staunchly resisted it for the next few years. It was not until she herself suffered a near-fatal illness—which she considered God’s discipline on her life—that she relented. When she was in her deepest sickness, a supernatural figure appeared to her and told her she would live to see another camp meeting, and that there she would know the will of God for her.2
After many months, Zilpha recovered, and did, in fact, attend another camp meeting. While there, spontaneous prayer and repentance broke out in the tent she shared with several other black believers. Some were weeping, some were rejoicing, and the noise attracted hundreds of other attendees, black and white alike. In the ruckus, Zilpha felt an invisible hand on her shoulder, and heard a voice tell her to go outside of the tent. Going outside, she felt a sudden internal prompting, and began preaching loudly to the crowds around her. Her autobiography does not give the topic of her message, but states that afterwards, many people were in tears. Finally, Zilpha was convinced that she was called to preach.
Her preaching would take her to many states in the Northeastern U.S., and even eventually through the South, despite the very real danger of being arrested and forced into slavery there. She preached at poor black congregations, wealthy white chapels, and everything in between. Many people were saved under her ministry, and more than one was healed.3
Two primary factors Zilpha feared would hinder her preaching—namely, being black and being female—were many times what drew people to hear her. They came initially due to curiosity, but soon were genuinely convicted and hungry to hear more. Some came expressly to mock and threaten her, but found themselves weeping and asking her to pray for them. Zilpha remained active in ministry her entire adult life, even traveling overseas after becoming a grandmother.
Zilpha faced many obstacles through her life. She endured life-threatening illness more than once, and in her older age experienced continual physical frailty. She was opposed personally at various levels by jealous church members, leaders who discounted her gender, and even by her own husband before his death in 1823.4 However, through it all, she remained committed to adhere to the will of God above all else.
Zilpha was a woman of deep devotion to Christ, with a consistent prayer life and a clear love of the Word. The course of her ministry trips were often determined in a time of prayer, seeking the Lord for where to go. Sometimes the answers came in remarkably vivid visions, but many times she simply knew in her heart what God was saying. She enjoyed what she called “delightsome heavenly communion”5 with the Lord, and viewed it as vital to the Christian walk. If she sensed a heavy cloud on her heart, losing touch with the vibrancy of that communion, she would become deeply distressed and seek the Lord for its cause and removal.
Zilpha believed firmly in walking out one’s Christianity, having a lifestyle that matches one’s confession. This is what she both preached and lived. Zilpha Elaw is an amazing example of what God is able to do with an individual who faithfully yields to His will.