Education as a Foundation for Reconciliation: Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Mary Church Terrell

February is Black History Month. In celebration, today’s post highlights two Black Christian educators, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Mary Church Terrell. These two women advocated for the social welfare of African American children as leaders in the Black Women’s Club movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the 19th century, emancipation, reconstruction, and urbanization forever changed the lives of Black Americans. It was a time of upheaval and social hostility. Both those who were free before the end of slavery and those recently freed found themselves oppressed by the majority culture. Jim Crowe laws and religious ideologies like the curse of Ham segregated and limited opportunities for Black Americans. They responded by creating institutions that were parallel to those from which the White majority had excluded them—independent churches, schools, banks, insurance companies, burial societies, and clubs for social reform.

Scarcity of work and growing illegitimacy during urbanization influenced the African-American family in ways that undercut the influence of fathers and established de facto matriarchal structures. As a result, African American women founded many of the most important social reform clubs.

These women believed that children represent the community’s theological hope for the future.

These women believed that children are gifts to the community (not simply to a single family) who represent the community’s theological hope for the future. They were rightly convinced that if Biblical morality, a Biblical theology of justice, and the Bible’s story of liberation and reconciliation were to be passed down to the next generation, literacy and basic education were the necessary foundation.

Practically, this meant that the Black Women’s Clubs advocated for education of the community’s youngest members. They formed many kindergartens across the South—often in association with black colleges such as Hampton in Virginia and Tuskeegee in Alabama. Mrs. A. H Hunton was chair of the executive board of the Southern Federation of clubs in 1905. She wrote this about the kindergartens:

To those who believe that everything that contributes to the culture of right thought contributes also to the culture of right character, the kindergarten must hold a deep and active interest, since it is the most beautiful system of education extant for the training of those tender little human plants we call children in all of their relations to nature, man, and God... It is in meeting this special need that our women have united their earnest efforts, for they know the value of this phase of education as a redeeming force in the world.

In was in this context that Ruffin and Terrell worked as advocates as well:

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1895)

Ruffin was born in Boston, MA. Her father was a successful clothier and founder of the Boston Zion Church. She was educated in public schools around Boston and in New York. As an activist, Ruffin was a strong supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Later in life, Ruffin started the Women’s Era, the country’s first newspaper published by and for African-American women. She served as the editor and publisher from 1890 to 1897. She was also a pioneer of Black Women’s Clubs including the New Era Club in Boston (1894) and the National Federation of Afro-American Women (1895). In a speech about children’s education to The First National Conference of Colored Women in America in 1895, she said simply “We need to talk…”

We need to talk over those things that are of especial interest to us as colored women—the training of our children, openings for our boys and girls, how they can be prepared for occupations and occupations may be found or opened for them, what we especially can do in the moral education and physical development, the home training necessary to give our children in order to prepare them to meet the peculiar conditions in which they shall find themselves, how to make the most of our own, to some extent, limited opportunities.

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

Terrell was born in Memphis, TN, in the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. She did not know slavery herself, but both of her parents had been slaves. Later in life, she spoke with feeling and anger about the impact of slavery on the lives of mothers and children. Because her parents wanted the best education for their daughter, she was sent to Ohio to attend Charles Finney’s Oberlin School. She graduated from both high school and college there. After college, she traveled abroad to continue her education and later began an active career as a public lecturer. She served three terms as president of the National Association of Colored Women. What birthed in Terrell was a fierce conviction that education is the foundation for reconciliation:

Through the children of today, we must build the foundation of the next generation upon such a rock of integrity, orality, and strength, both of body and mind, that the floods of prescription, prejudice, and persecution may descend upon it in torrents, and yet it will not be moved. We hear a great deal about the race problem, and how to solve it. This theory, that and the other, may be advanced, but the real solution of the race problem, both so far as we who are oppressed and those who oppress us are concerned, lies in the children.

African-American Christians needed social advocates like these women to first lay a foundation. Like brave Deborah in the time of the Judges, these reformers of the Black Women’s Clubs stood in the gap for children in a time of tremendous family upheaval. Their work for literacy and general education provided a necessary foundation for local contexts where the full gospel message is now proclaimed. Their lives should be truly celebrated.


  • “African American Children, ‘The Hope of the Race’: Mary Church Terrell, the Social Gospel, and the Work of the Black Women’s Club Movement” by Marcia Y. Riggs in The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

  • “Family Ministry: Discipleship and Family Ministry in African American History,” and interview with Kevin Jones, Kevin Smith, and Timothy Paul Jones. Accessed at

  • “The Challenge of Matriarchy: Family Discipleship in the African-American Experience” by Kevin Smith. Accessed at

Jeff's Top 10 Books of 2014

This week, Jared, Pat, and I will be listing our top reads of 2014. If you are setting reading goals for the next year, these are books you should consider picking up. If you think we've missed something, leave a comment below and let us know about it.

1. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World by Paul Miller. This is the best book I've read on prayer. Paul Miller did a masterful job of talking about prayer and applying it to our everyday life. Using examples from his own life it was easy to resonate with how to pray, why it is so vital, and how we can continue to grow. Reading much like a devotional, this book isn't just a manual on steps of prayer. It engages the reader spiritually, emotionally and practically. A Praying Life helped me go deeper with my love of God, my standing as his son, and challenged my sinful cynicism. Every Christian should read this book. 

2. The Hole in our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness by Kevin DeYoung. Robert Murray M'Cheyne, minister in the Church of Scotland, once said, "The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness." In this short book DeYoung discusses what holiness looks like in today's world, how we grow in holiness through sanctification, and how we are continuing to grow more like Christ. This is an important book in today's culture. I have many conversations about why holiness matters since we live in God's grace. This is a short book on this topic that is very helpful. 

3. Live Like A Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis's Chronicles by Joe Rigney. Live Like a Narnian is a great companion book to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Joe Rigney is able to take stories from the chronicles and dive deep, giving readers a  richer understanding of Narnian mythology. This book was a quick, fun, and easy to understand. My kids have been reading through the chronicles and for a time I was reading this with my kids for our nightly devotions.

4. Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad. One of my goals each year is to read a biography. I chose Jackie Robinson for two reasons: First, I love baseball and wanted to learn more about an important aspect of baseball's history. Second, and more importantly, I wanted to know more about the man who broke the color barrier in America's national pastime. I wasn't disappointed. Jackie was an extraordinary man who struggled with many things throughout his life. This extraordinary man had to overcome racism throughout his life, health issues later in his life, and hard struggles with his family. Jackie's story is quite inspiring. If you haven't read about Jackie Robinson you should add it to your reading list for 2015. 

5. Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis by Tim Townsend. I enjoy history. This book is historically compelling on a national and international level, but also has significance for me because the main figure is from St. Louis. The book is about Lutheran minister, Henry Gerecke. Gerecke volunteered to be a World War II chaplain at age 50 and went on to minister to Nazi's war criminals after the war. This book was interesting from a historical perspective but it was also great from a pastoral perspective. Gerecke struggled with his assignment to be a chaplain to some of the greatest war criminals in our time. He struggled because he understood many of the atrocities the Nazi's were on trial for. Read for yourselves and learn how he came to embrace his assignment and in the end brought some of the men to Christ. 

6. The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry. I have many friends who have recommended Wendell Berry's writings. I was not disappointed as I read my first Wendell Berry book. This book focuses on racism, specifically racism that not everyone notices. Berry examines how racism effects all of us and changes how we view culture and each other. He pulls from experiences in his own life growing up in Kentucky with African-American workers on his farm. He shares his thoughts on how this shaped his entire life. If your looking for a good book to help you process through your own beliefs about race, then take time to read The Hidden Wound. 

7. Exploring Grace Together: 40 Devotionals for the Family by Jessica Thompson. Exploring Grace Together is a family devotional with 40 weeks on how are families live out grace together. This book hits so close to home that at times, when reading through different scenarios she included, I thought she had a spy in my house. From legos to kids tempers, Jessica Thompson writes a great book that helps kids and parents understand God's grace and our need for Him. One night we were going through the devotional and I looked over and my oldest son was crying. The devotional was talking about how God's love and legos and my son was able to connect with a new understanding of the depth of God's love. 

8. On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church by Deepak Reju. Deepak tackles an incredibly important topic for our churches. Every church needs to look at how it is protecting it's children. Deepak helps churches to understand why protection is such an important topic today, how to implement protection in our church, and finally what happens if a child is abused at your church. This is such an important issue and good book: I got a copy for each of the elders at our church.

9. Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy history and like reading biographies. This book captures both. Eric Metaxas was able to summarize 7 men from throughout history that impacted the world around them because of their faith. I say summarize because the book isn't very long and it captures the lives of seven men. Metaxas isn't able to go into as much detail since each chapter is relatively short. I recommend men take time and read this book to see how faith impacts lives. 

10. Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem by Kevin DeYoung. Everything in culture seems to draw us to go 100 mph. Most people have multiple events every week and church on the weekends. DeYoung talks about the need for slowing down and the importance of taking a Sabbath. DeYoung reminds us that Sabbath isn't a suggestion but a command.  Important for all of us in this technological, immediate gratification world. 

What books do you think I missed? What would you add? Leave a comment below to let me know about what you've been reading over the past year.