Sojourner Truth was born Isabella, the youngest of 12 children, in Ulster County, NY, in 1797. When she was nine, Isabella was sold from her family to an English speaking-family called Neely. Like many black New Yorkers, Isabella spoke only Dutch. Her new owners beat her for not understanding their commands. She was sold twice more before arriving at the Dumont farm, at 14. There she toiled for 17 years. John Dumont beat her, and there is evidence that his wife, Sally, sexually abused her. Of this time in her life, Isabella wrote: "Now the war begun." It was a war both with her masters, and herself.
Alone on John Dumont's farm with little contact with other black New Yorkers, Isabella found her own ways to worship God. She built a temple of brush in the woods, an African tradition she may have learned from her mother, and bargained with God as if he were a familiar presence. Even though she had worked hard to please her master for 16 years, Isabella listened to God when He told her to walk away from slavery. With her baby, Sophia, Isabella left Dumont's farm in 1826 and walked to freedom.
Like thousands of slaves, free blacks, and poor whites in the early nineteenth century, Isabella was swept up by the tide the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant evangelical movement that emphasized living simply and following the Holy Spirit. In 1827, newly-free Isabella considered returning to the Dumont farm to attend Pinkster, a celebration of New York slaves. She was saved from joining her ex-master by a frightening vision of God, followed by the calming presence of an intercessor, whom Isabella recognized as Jesus. With Jesus as her "soul-protecting fortress," Isabella gained the power to rise "above the battlements of fear."
In 1826, Isabella was living with the Van Wagenens, white Methodists, when she learned that her son, Peter, had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. An outraged Isabella had no money to regain her son, but with God on her side she said she felt "so tall within, as if the power of a nation was within [her]." She acquired money for legal fees, and filed a complaint with the Ulster County grand jury. Peter was returned to her in the spring of 1828, marking the first step in a life of activism inspired by religious faith.
In the late 1820s, Isabella moved to New York City and lived among a community of Methodist Perfectionists, men and women who met outside of the church for ecstatic worship and emphasized living simply through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through the perfectionists, Isabella fell under the spell of the "Prophet Matthias," and lived with his cult from 1833 to 1834. This experience suggests that Isabella, although on her way to self-confidence and independence, still yearned for structure and family, but chose an abusive situation - Matthias often beat her - that felt familiar to her experience as John Dumont's slave.
While living in New York, Isabella attended the many camp meetings held around the city, and she quickly established herself as a powerful speaker, capable of converting many. In 1843, she was "called in spirit" on the day of Pentecost. The spirit instructed her to leave New York, a "second Sodom," and travel east to lecture under the name Sojourner Truth. This new name signified her role as an itinerant preacher, her preoccupation with truth and justice, and her mission to teach people "to embrace Jesus, and refrain from sin." Sojourner Truth set off on her journey during a period of millennial fervor, with many poised to hear her call to Jesus before the Day of Judgement.
Sojourner Truth first met the abolitionist Frederick Douglass while she was living at the Northampton Association. Although he admired her speaking ability, Douglass was patronizing of Truth, whom he saw as "uncultured." Years later, however, Truth would use her plain talk to challenge Douglass. At an 1852 meeting in Ohio, Douglass spoke of the need for blacks to seize freedom by force. As he sat down, Truth asked "Is God gone?" Although much exaggerated by Harriet Beecher Stowe and other writers, this exchange made Truth a symbol for faith in nonviolence and God's power to right the wrongs of slavery.
The 1879 spontaneous exodus of tens of thousands of freedpeople from southern states to Kansas was the culmination of one of Sojourner Truth's most fervent prayers. After the Civil War, Truth had traveled to Washington to work among destitute freedpeople. Inspired by divine command, Truth began agitating for their resettlement to western lands. She drew up a petition (which probably never reached Congress, as intended) and traveled extensively, promoting her plan and collecting signatures. Truth saw the Exodusters, fleeing violence and abuse in the Reconstruction South, as evidence that God had a plan for African-Americans.
During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth took up the issue of women's suffrage. She was befriended by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but disagreed with them on many issues, most notably Stanton's threat that she would not support the black vote if women were denied it. Although she remained supportive of women's suffrage throughout her life, Truth distanced herself from the increasingly racist language of the women's groups. Truth died on November 26, 1883. In her old age, she had let go of Pentecostal judgement and embraced spiritualism. Her last words were "be a follower of the Lord Jesus."