Faith Cures, and Answer to Prayer: The Life and Work of the First African
American Healing Evangelist. Edited by Rosemary D. Gooden. Syracuse, NY:
Syracuse University Press, 2001. Pp. 208. $19.95, cloth.
Long a matter of concern in theological and medical history, in the nineteenth century the question of healing by faith was highly controversial. Prior to the 1920s the white and black religious establishment was highly skeptical of anyone who professed to be able to effect cures by prayer and the laying on of hands. Faith healing was frequently attributed to heretics and con artists who preyed upon and fleeced the blind, lame, deaf and dumb of their money and earthly goods. However, there was a long tradition of faith, or divine healing among black and white Americans. Though mainstream religious denominations did not sanction the movement, some religious groups, including the Shakers, the Mormons, the Oneida Community and Seventh-Day Adventists practiced faith healing. Drawing on their West African religious traditions, many slaves believed in the supernatural, especially conjuring and healing. The African background, especially acceptance of the Yoruba god Elegba as a divine mediator, prepared the enslaved to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, and to assign the deity virtual powers. Merging African religious traditions, beliefs and practices with Christianity, a number of African Americans believed that through faith and prayer one could overcome adversity of all kind, including sickness and illness. Faith healers, root doctors, and conjurers flourished in the slave community and could be found among free blacks, especially in the rural South, but also in northern communities.
Rosemary D. Gooden, editor of Faith Cures, Answers to Prayer, contends that Sarah Ann Freeman Mix was "the first known African American healing evangelist and the first woman known to have made faith healing a full-time ministry." Describing Mix as "a highly respected teacher, preacher, and writer," Gooden argues that Mix's role as a pioneer in the divine healing movement opened up opportunities for the advancement of women evangelists, several of whom became quite famous. These include well-known twentieth century white evangelists like Carrie Judd Montgomery, Maria B. Woodworth-Etter and Aimee Semple McPherson. Mix's fame appears to rests largely upon her contact and success as a healer among whites, many of who were invited by Mix to write testimonials which she published. Seeking to establish Mix as an evangelist and preacher, Gooden compares Mix to Jarena Lee, suggesting that the brief biographical sketch appended to Faith Cures, Answers to Prayer is a spiritual autobiography, and that it is possible that Mix deliberately ended her narrative with a brief mention of her activities as a healing evangelist because of the opposition she faced in her ministry. Gooden neither discusses, nor references any sources related to this "opposition."
Faith Cures, Answers to Prayer, a compilation of letters and personal healing testimonials, is the first reprint of a book originally published by Sarah Mix in 1882 as a testament to her success as a faith healer. The book includes a Preface and Introduction written by Rosemary D. Gooden. Unfortunately, there is no subject index. Gooden's Introduction is divided into five sections, which include a historical overview of the Holiness and divine healing movements, an examination of Mix's healing ministry within the context of African American healing traditions and the healing work of black women, a biographical sketch of Mix, and an assessment of Mix's impact on the divine healing movement in America. Although Gooden asserts that the book was first published in 1882, strangely enough it concludes with a five-page statement by Edward Mix, who states that his wife Sarah died on April 14, 1884. Perhaps this reprint is from a later version of the original work. If this were so, it would be important to compare this version with the original publication.
Who was Sarah Mix and why is she important? Sarah Ann Freeman Mix was born free in 1832 in Torrington, Connecticut. Similar to many free blacks of the time, her family was very poor and at an early age she was sent out to work as a domestic. Mix spent at least thirty years of her life either working as a domestic or laundress, which required long hours of backbreaking work and paid little. At a very young age Mix discovered that she like many members of her family had tuberculosis, commonly known as consumption in the nineteenth century. Following a physician's advice, Mix moved to the country, took medication and dieted. The disease, in remission for a number of years, returned when she was around 45 years of age. This time Mix sought the services of Ethan Otis Allen; a well-known white faith healer who informed her that she had the gift of healing. Accepting Allen's evaluation, Mix worked as his assistant and for a while she and her husband traveled throughout New England with him. Introduced to the art of faith healing by Allen, Mix embarked on a career that included a prayer ministry and faith healing.
According to Mix, as news of her local success spread, she gained a reputation as a faith healer. The tuberculosis was in remission for approximately seven years prior to her death at the age of 52. It was during this period (1876 to 1884) that Mix embarked on her brief career as a faith healer. From the testimonials we are able to glean information about the nature and scope of Mix's prayer and healing ministry. It is important to note that the testimonials were solicited from persons who claimed to have been healed by Sarah Mix. She and her husband carefully identified the respondents requested to write letters about their faith healing experiences. Gooden primarily utilized the testimonials to describe Mix's faith healing work, validate her success as a faith healer, and certify her relationship with Carrie Judd. However, the letters also yield significant information relevant to the nature and extent of Mix's faith healing ministry. The correspondence covers the years 1878 to 1882, the bulk of which was written in 1880. The sixty odd testimonials reveal that the majority of her clients lived in five states B Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New York. And, there are three letters from individuals residing in Pennsylvania, Illinois and England, which suggest that Mix's ministry was more local and regional, than national. Interspersed among the testimonials, are several poems, letters to editors reprinted from regional newspapers such as the New Haven Journal and Courier, Utica Observer, and Danbury News and brief accounts of individual healing cases written by Sarah Mix. Perhaps the most important testimony validating Mix's healing powers are the letters written by several local ministers certifying the accounts of a few individuals, and the letter written by Carrie Judd testifying that Mix had cured her.
The testimonials reveal the healing techniques employed by Mix, and the venues in which she performed. Mix's reputation was based largely upon word of mouth reports of her faith healing activities. As the longtime sufferers of various illnesses heard about Mix's healing powers, they often requested her services. Mix traveled throughout New England where she conducted prayer meetings and visited persons desiring to be healed. She attended camp meetings where she rented tents, held prayer meetings and prayed with the sick and afflicted. Like many faith healers, Mix also worked as an intercessory prayer, one who operated a long-distance faith healing ministry which did not require face to face contact, rather it involved regular prayer sessions with a recipient at an agreed upon time.
Faith Cures, Answers to Prayer is part of a genre of nineteenth and twentieth century publications written by persons, who like Sarah Mix were aware of the importance of promoting their services, for after all faith healing was also a business. Similar to other faith healers and Spiritualist, Mix also advertised in local newspapers. There was a lot of money to be made in this industry that experienced tremendous growth during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a faith healer and intercessory prayer, Mix was paid for her services. Though faith healers rarely set a price for their work, they often received generous contributions from satisfied customers. Faith healing provided Mix and her husband with a comfortable living and enabled them to establish a faith healing home where they housed and administered to persons who required long-term treatment. This is an important aspect of Mix's career that needs further exploration.
Though Mix concluded her book with a very brief sketch of her life, it is not substantial enough to support Gooden's statement that she was an important evangelist and preacher. Except for a fleeting reference by Edward Mix, Gooden presents no evidence for this claim, and Sarah Mix made no mention in her book of preaching or working as an evangelist. Mix did conduct prayer meetings in her home and at private residences and churches where she spoke extensively. Like other black and white religious women she employed biblical text and evangelical language whenever she spoke in large or small religious gatherings. Use of the language of biblical preachers does not mean that one is a preacher or evangelist. In recent years there has been a tendency among some scholars to label female religious workers and social reformers as preachers, who freely used evangelical language to achieve their goals. What is clear is that for a brief period in her life (1877-1884), Mix achieved widespread notoriety, primarily in New England and in the upper Northeast, for her prayer ministry and healing powers. Given that her ministry was concentrated among New England's white population, she does not appear to have been well known among African Americans. This is not unusual for persons who worked primarily among whites.
Unlike black women preachers Amanda Berry Smith, Jarena Lee, and Julia Foote, during her career as a faith healer, Mix does not appear to have had significant contact with black people and their institutions, or to have developed the kind of national reputation which would have merited her the level of attention Smith, Foote and Lee received from both blacks and whites. Aside from a brief mention of Mix attending a revival at an A.M.E. church in New Haven, Connecticut, Gooden does not establish her connections to the African American community. In a fairly detailed search of black newspapers during the period of Mix's faith healing ministry, I found only one reference to Sarah Mix. The New York Age regularly published a column entitled "Doings of the Race" which included news from white and black newspapers. On April 26, 1884, the Age reprinted an article from a white newspaper published in Connecticut that stated that Mrs. Mix had been successful as a faith healer, testified to her local popularity, and reported that "our best citizens" attended her funeral. The article also asserted that Sarah Mix "seemed to be nearly a full-blood[ed] Negro and was certainly possessed of more than average intelligence for one of her race and station."
Gooden's attention to Mrs. Mix and the faith healing movement is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on African American women in religion. The resurrection of this little known text suggests the need for further research on Sarah Mix, the history and role of black women as faith healers, and African Americans in the divine healing movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gooden's historical overview of the Holiness movement is also important, though her focus is primarily on white leaders and the white led movement. Additional research needs to be done on the history of African Americans in the Holiness movement. The addition of demographic data on the city of Torrington and its population would have provided a larger context for assessing Mix's life and career as a black woman. However, for now we must be content with Mrs. Mix's story and await future studies, which hopefully will shed more light on her and the subjects that engaged her life and career.
Bettye Collier-Thomas, Temple University