149: Zilpha Elaw (c 1790-1873), American preacher

Historians who have noticed Zilpha Elaw’s Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels and Labours, of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, an American Female of Colour. Together with Some Account of the Great Religious Revivals in America which was published in London in 1846 assumed that she died not long afterwards. In fact she lived much of her adult life in England.

She wrote that she was freeborn in Pennsylvania, married Joseph Elaw around 1810, and they had a daughter Rebecca. Her husband died in 1823. From 1827 to 1840 she was an itinerant Christian preacher, travelling widely including in the slavery states. Elaw suffered from bouts of ill health that confined her to bed for many weeks, and she also had visions. Despite most Christian leaders thinking that female preachers were inappropriate, Zilpha Elaw continued in this activity in America until 1840 when she sailed for England.

She arrived in London on 25 July 1840 and found accommodation in Wellclose Square near Cable Street and the docks. She noted that shops were open and streets were packed on Sundays. She attended various Nonconformist chapels and meetings, and was known to British anti-slavery personnel. Her self-imposed task was to preach to the British.

She went to Ramsgate and Canterbury, and in late 1840 moved north to Pontefract in Yorkshire. In February 1841 she was in Leeds, then Bradford and Hull, moving in August 1841 to Liverpool. She was in Manchester, Glossop and Stockport, Huddersfield and Newcastle. The 172 page Memoirs are tedious. Some of the people she met might be identified as she gives their initials, but what she said and its impact are seldom noted. From her perspective that she spoke about the Christian faith was enough. We do not know how she paid her way — the sales of her book may have helped later on. She seems to have stayed with fellow Christians met through her travelling.

On 9 December 1850 Zilpha Elaw, a widow of full age, married the widowed Ralph Brassey Shum at the parish church of St Mary in east London’s Bow Road. Shum’s father was or had been a pork butcher, named John Caspar Shum. She said her father, also a butcher, had been named Sancho Pancost. No addresses were recorded other than ‘Bow’. Ralph Shum died in 1854. His widow, the black preacher, died in London in 1873.

Studies of local newspapers, and British Nonconformist publications, should reveal more. David Killingray found the wedding had been announced in the Watchman and Wesleyan Advertiser of 15 January 1851 as he advised when I informed him I had traced the marriage registration in the freebmd website resource. The impact of this woman’s preaching, her presence in locations all over England, and what happened between publication of the Memoirs in 1846 and her death in 1873 are wide open for research.

Nigel Scotland noted the marriage and death details in his Apostles of the Spirit and Fire: American Revivalists and Victorian Britain, published by Paternoster of Milton Keynes in 2009.

In July 2016, seven months after the above article was published, the will of Ralph Bressey [sic] Shum was located in the National Archives, file PROB 11/2198/110. He had lived near Turner Street off the Mile End Road. He requested that £25 was immediately paid to his widow and other items were to be divided between Zilpha Shum and his daughter Elizabeth. The document mentions his son Caspar and another daughter.


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