Born in Pennsylvania to free parents, who raised her in the Christian faith, she was sent around the age of twelve, after her mother died, to live with a Quaker couple. At the age of fourteen, she began attending Methodist meetings, where she was converted. In 1810, she and Joseph Elaw were married; they settled in Burlington, New Jersey, because of his job as a fuller. They had a daughter, who was eleven years old when Joseph died of consumption in 1823.
Zilpha’s call to preach came through her sister, Hannah, who said she had a vision on her deathbed and was told by Jesus that Zilpha was to preach the gospel. Reluctant at first to obey, perhaps due in large part to Joseph’s disapproval, Zilpha acquiesced when she was healed of a potentially fatal illness. In her late twenties, she was commissioned to preach at a camp meeting.
She did not begin full-time preaching immediately; instead, she founded and ran a school for African American children in Burlington for two years. When she felt she could no longer deny the call to travel and preach, she set out for Philadelphia and then went South, risking arrest or being sold into slavery. Eventually she made her way to England, where she remained for at least five years, preaching over 1,000 sermons. After 1845, nothing more is known about her life. Her autobiography, published in 1846 and the only extant information on her life, is one of the earliest examples of this genre by an African American woman.