I have been researching for the past six years the life and ministry of Prathia Hall (1940-2002), a civil rights activist, Baptist preacher and womanist scholar.
Little did I know at the beginning of this journey that she would become a spiritual mother to me, continuing to inspire me about the real meaning of life and faith.
Hall was born in Philadelphia and grew up helping with her father’s social gospel oriented church ministry.
In high school and college, she became involved with Fellowship House, a Philadelphia ecumenical social justice organization, where she studied the philosophy of nonviolence.
In 1962, Hall joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Southwest Georgia and Alabama, canvassing door to door to register voters and teaching in freedom schools, educational programs to help potential voters pass registration tests.
She was arrested many times in Georgia and Alabama, and she suffered a minor gunshot wound in Georgia in September 1962.
She resigned from SNCC in 1966 when the organization transitioned away from nonviolence, though she described her time in the movement as the best education she ever received.
Hall became one of the first African-American Baptist women ordained by the American Baptist Churches, USA, in 1977, and was the first woman accepted into the Baptist Minister Conference of Philadelphia and Vicinity in 1982.
She completed her master’s of divinity and doctor of philosophy degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary and became a well-respected professor of Christian ethics, womanist theology and African-American religious history at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and Boston University.
In 1997, Ebony magazine named Hall first in its list of 15 Greatest Black Women Preachers, and she was the only woman considered for its list of 10 Greatest Black Preachers, ultimately placing 11th.
She pastored Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, her father’s church, for nearly a quarter century.
Hall mentored more than 200 aspiring African-American clergywomen; a prominent blog for young African-American clergywomen is named Prathia’s Daughters in her honor.
Until Hall’s death in 2002, following a long battle with cancer, she remained active in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches, USA, the New York Board of Education, the Association of Black Seminarians, and domestic and international advocacy for liberation and equality of men and women of all ethnicities.
Though she led an amazing life and accomplished great things, she was a modest woman.
She worked tirelessly for justice. And not in front of the camera like some of her colleagues, but among the people.
Hall wasn’t afraid to be with the people. She spent hours on the front porch listening to stories, building trust and walking alongside people.
She valued every person, not just those with formal credentials. She empowered people to realize their giftedness and calling in spite of obstacles; her faith inspired others to find their own.
As I have read Hall’s sermons, I have been deeply moved by the power of her preaching and by the way she transformed her suffering into prophetic proclamation.
Hall lost her father in a car accident in 1960, survived four years of police brutality and constant threat of harm during the civil rights movement, earned an Ivy League graduate education as a single mother while teaching and preaching, endured painful injuries from two car accidents, and lost her brother and her daughter under tragic circumstances.
Rather than let these difficulties silence her, Hall allowed her own theological journey to radiate through her preaching.
She articulated the deep emotions of these experiences in her preaching in a way that welcomed all who had suffered to find refuge in the presence of God and reminded them that God’s justice will always prevail over evil.
Hall used to say that she had to preach, had to write, had to let it out to keep from being consumed by anger.
By anyone’s standards, she had righteous cause for anger. Instead, she turned ashes into beautiful breaths of life.
I found myself, and still find myself, being formed by her words, being challenged to speak truth to power and to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.
I will forever cling to her wisdom, to her heroic bravery in the movement, to her unshakeable conviction that the God who calls us will see us through.
And as Hall reminded us of what Ella Baker taught her, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Courtney Pace Lyons works at Baylor University, where she studied Prathia Hall and earned her doctorate in church history. A version of this article first appeared on the Ministry and Motherhood blog and is used with permission. Portions of this article were adapted from her article on Prathia Hall that appeared in African American National Biography, published by Oxford University Press.
Courtney Pace, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Church History and Director of Admissions at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee.