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This Far by Faith

Journeys

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People of Faith Sojourner Truth

Albert Cleage James Cone Warith Deen Mohammed Thomas Dorsey Frederick Douglass Olaudah Equiano Prathia Hall Daniel Payne Howard Thurman Sojourner Truth Henry McNeal Turner Denmark Vesey Cecil Williams


Sojourner Truth

Photo of Sojourner Truth "How came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed by God and few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk an' a buzzard." --Sojourner Truth, addressing the 1851 Ohio Women's Convention, as recorded by Marius Robinson, secretary

Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 as Isabella, a Dutch-speaking slave in rural New York. Separated from her family at age nine, she was sold several times before ending up on the farm of John and Sally Dumont. As was the case for most slaves in the rural North, Isabella lived isolated from other African Americans, and she suffered from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her masters. Inspired by her conversations with God, which she held alone in the woods, Isabella walked to freedom in 1826. Although tempted to return to Dumont's farm, she was struck by a vision of Jesus, during which she felt "baptized in the Holy Spirit," and she gained the strength and confidence to resist her former master. In this experience, Isabella was like countless African Americans who called on the supernatural for the power to survive injustice and oppression.

In 1828, Isabella moved to New York City and soon thereafter became a preacher in the "perfectionist," or pentecostal tradition. Her faith and preaching brought her into contact with abolitionists and women's rights crusaders, and Truth became a powerful speaker on both subjects. She traveled extensively as a lecturer, particularly after the publication of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which detailed her suffering as a slave. Her speeches were not political, but were based on her unique interpretation-as a woman and a former slave-of the Bible.

With the start of the Civil War, Truth became increasingly political in her work. She agitated for the inclusion of blacks in the Union Army, and, once they were permitted to join, volunteered by bringing them food and clothes. She became increasingly involved in the issue of women's suffrage, but broke with leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when Stanton stated that she would not support the black vote if women were not also granted the right. Truth also fought for land to resettle freed slaves, and she saw the 1879 Exodus to Kansas as part of God's divine plan. Truth's famous "Ar'n't I a Woman?" speech, delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention, is a perfect example of how, as Nell Painter puts it, "at a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks."

"...the force that brought her from the soul murder of slavery into the authority of public advocacy was the power of the Holy Spirit. Her ability to call upon a supernatural power gave her a resource claimed by millions of black women and by disempowered people the world over. Without doubt, it was Truth's religious faith that transformed her from Isabella, domestic servant, into Sojourner Truth, a hero for three centuries at least." --Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol


KEY MOMENTS OF FAITH

ISOLATION IN NEW YORK

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.

CALLED BY GOD TO FREEDOM

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.

BAPTIZED IN THE HOLY SPIRIT

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."

WITH THE POWER OF A NATION

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.

TWO YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS

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.

THE BIRTH OF SOJOURNER TRUTH

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.

IS GOD GONE?

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.

EXODUSTERS AS GOD'S DIVINE PLAN

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.

EMBRACING WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE

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."