A Mysterious Life and Calling

From Slavery to Ministry in South Carolina

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Charlotte S. Riley
Crystal J. Lucky
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
  • Madison, WI: 
    University of Wisconsin Press
    , January
     152 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Big things can come in small packages. Such is the case with Crystal Lucky’s pearl, A Mysterious Life and Calling: From Slavery to Ministry in South Carolina by Charlotte S. Riley. This timely treasure reveals the heart and soul of a Southern black woman preacher during a time when such characteristics rarely existed in the same person. With subtle, yet striking commentary, Lucky guides this narrative from behind the scenes, only stepping in to create context or contrast that will deepen our modern understanding of this important autobiography. 

Lucky’s introduction sets the stage of American life in the South in the 1800s. She provides important context on pre- and post-Reconstruction life for formerly enslaved blacks and paints a picture of both the opportunities and challenges facing those who were longing to build new lives. This foundation becomes an important backdrop to explain both the commonalties and points of dissonance between Riley’s story and those of her contemporaries. Drawing on key narratives of similar preachers, including Jarena Lee, Fredrick Douglass, Julia Foote and others, Lucky carefully explains what makes Riley’s autobiography truly mysterious, living up to its name. For example, although Riley amplifies her friendships with middle and upper-class whites, Lucky cautions readers that such instances “must be read through the veil and influence of an institution that resisted human freedom and legally disallowed formal education for enslaved black people” (9). While Riley departs from her early counterparts by not detailing her experience of emancipation from slavery, Lucky draws her story into the larger story of those who ministered in similar times. The editor graciously invites us to remember the names and stories of Hannah Craft, Harriet Tubman, and Harriet Jacobs, all of whom escaped the grip of slavery and were educated enough to record their lives. This constant reminder of the individual narrative within a larger narrative helps us to remain grounded in the brutal truths of history in the American South. 

The editor serves as a partner with readers, providing detail on everything from historical context to AME doctrine. Throughout the story, Lucky draws attention to the necessary observations including Biblical interpretations, common hymns, and even notes about medical conditions that help us understand the depth of Riley’s words. What is likely the most significant gem is the background Lucky provides on the names of the more than 150 individuals and families listed throughout the book. For example, when Riley mentions her connection to Bishop Tucker Tanner, Lucky steps in to share that this was the father of “the first black woman physician and the first woman of any race to practice medicine in Alabama” (60). When Riley casually shares that George Prioleau became her son in the ministry, it’s Lucky who points out that Prioleau went on to teach theology at Wilberforce University and Payne Theological Seminary, served as one of the Buffalo Solider chaplains, worked with the NAACP and more (80). The bibliography alone serves as its own roll call of the courageous, identifying resources for voices and stories so often overlooked.

Her gift of historical relevance allows readers to step into the past and see its gift to the future. Such accuracy of context only left me wanting more. I found myself longing for Lucky’s post-editorial perspective that would round out the unspoken legacy of Riley’s life. Since the introduction started with such prowess, the ending felt undone, leaving us to wonder what more could have been said about the impact of this undoubtedly mysterious life.

I was personally struck by the timeless nature of Riley’s story and by the weight of Lucky’s editorial voice. By unearthing the life of this extraordinary preacher, Lucky weaved another thread in the rich tapestry of the black American experience. As a black woman preacher and educator living in the south, I found myself wrestling along with Riley as she navigated her relationships, standing in awe of her unusual ministry, and agreeing in the end that God’s mystery was indeed revealed through her calling. In many ways, Lucky’s work affirms the dynamism of God’s calling on women in ministry, knowing that we will all wear many hats and often at one time. Like Riley, we will serve across barriers as teachers, preachers, mothers, social advocates, and leaders, walking in whatever lanes we choose. It’s as if Lucky holds up this story as a banner of victory, reminding women and men everywhere of the great things God can do when we are willing to yield to the divine calling. 

This short but weighty piece of literature is an invaluable resource for anyone who leads in ministry. By inviting us to look back, Riley’s story prepares us for our lives now and in the future. It reminds us to persevere despite the challenges we face and to be willing to cross boundaries for the sake of those who follow. With conviction and grace, both Riley and Lucky remind us that we all have mysterious lives and callings of our own.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicole Massie Martin is Assistant Professor of Ministry and Leadership Developmennt at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
January 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Crystal J. Lucky is Associate Dean of Baccalaureate Studies for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University.

Charlotte Levy Riley (born August 26, 1839, Charleston, SC) was a preacher, teacher, and postmistress who was born into slavery but became a popular evangelist after emancipation.


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