Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Each of our lives is shaped by a convoluted set of circumstances which mix in families, human culture and historical events and opportunities. Furthermore, Scripture teaches us that in all the seemingly random events, myriad of human choices and activity of spiritual forces that God is providentially guiding and ordering all things. Certain human lives are particularly marked by a convergence of people, events and history such that the fingerprints of God become more evidently seen. One such individual was a woman born unnoticed, in bondage, under the name Isabella Baumfree. She died known to the whole nation as Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth was born at the close of the revolutionary century in America. She arrived into the world in 1797 under the slave name of Isabella. She was born in Ulster County, New York and was sold several times before becoming the property of one John Dumont at the age of thirteen. She underwent brutal treatment and was beaten often as a child beginning at the tender age of nine. Slavery was made illegal in New York State by 1827 but Isabella would flee the tyranny of her masters three months ahead of this time. Her master had promised to free her and provide housing for her and her children in 1826, but upon his reneging on this promise she took matters in her own hands and walked away. She would find shelter in the home of Issac and Maria Van Wagener who were devout Quakers. She recounted how God had shown her their home in a vision prior to her taking refuge there.
An interesting fact from this period of her life involves the vengeful act taken by her former master. In light of her escape, he sold one of her sons back into slavery in Alabama where slavery had not yet been abolished. She actually sued her former master as New York law did not allow slaves to be sold across state lines. She won in court and her son was reconciled to the family.
A New Name and New Calling
Truth’s faith was beginning to deepen and in this period of her story and she describes an awakening to Jesus that would shape the direction of her life. According to her narrated biography, A Narrative of Sojourner Truth, she experienced a conversion which she described as follows:
God revealed himself to her, with all the suddenness of a flash of lightning, showing her, ‘in the twinkling of an eye, that he was all over’–that he pervaded the universe–‘and that there was no place where God was not.’ She became instantly conscious of her great sin in forgetting her almighty Friend and ‘ever-present help in time of trouble.
In 1843 she moved to New York City and had a time of wandering among some of the cults and false teachers of the great city. After coming out of these groups she became a member of The Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a congregation with its roots in historic biblical Christianity. She would remain affiliated the AME Zion denomination for the rest of her life. At this juncture, she also sought God for a new name that would connect with her deep felt calling. She sensed that God wanted her to be called “Sojourner” as she was to “travel up an’ down the land, showin’ people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them” and “Truth” as “I was to declare the truth to the people.” Under this new name, one not chosen by slave masters, she set out to influence her world.
Sojourner Truth began to speak widely and her message would come to center on three great subjects. First, she spoke on the subject of Jesus changing her life, declaring on one occasion to a group of ministers the following:
“When I preaches,” she said, “I has just one text to preach from, an’ I always preaches from this one. My text is, “When I found Jesus.”
She also took up the great cause of the 19th century which was joined by many others who named the name of Christ, that of the abolition of slavery. This caused her to connect and work with some of the looming figures of the abolitionist movement including William Lloyd Garrison and the imminent Frederick Douglas. In addition to the abolitionist cause, she also took up women’s rights in the early 1850s. In 1851, while giving a speech in Akron, Ohio she spoke what would become her most famous and remembered words:
And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm. I have plowed, I have planted, and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?
Sojourner truth began her life in slavery and over the course of one lifetime she found freedom, met the risen Jesus, pointed out the sins of slavery and struggled for equality for women. While she remained illiterate her entire life she was able to make a myriad of speeches and gain an audience with Abraham Lincoln. Sojourner Truth would retire to Battle Creek Michigan in 1875 and remained there until she died on November 26, 1883.
To close this brief biography I want to share a few things I learned reading about the life of Sojourner Truth.
Things I Learned
Sojourner Truth was born into a time of injustice and bondage in the early days of the American Republic. Though uneducated, she saw her life as usable in the hands of God and did not shrink back from pursuing what she sensed as a divine call. She was one who exercised great courage and boldness in her life which was exhibited on many occasions. She stood up to a slave master suing him for his breach of the law in the New York courts. She would not shrink back from speaking even when under threats and pressure to remain silent. In one particular instance she was beaten by a mob which left her walking with a cane for the remainder of her days. On another occasion, after disobeying a segregated street car ordinance in Washington DC, she was violently thrown from one of the cars by the conductor. This was some 90 years before a similar protest was taken up by Rosa Parks to fight segregation on the buses of Montgomery Alabama in 1955. Yet even in the midst of such realities Sojourner Truth maintained a quick wit and a vibrant spirit. Two stories demonstrate this well. First, when some people heckled and accused her of being a man disguised as a woman she simply opened her blouse on stage to settle the matter; an open-and-shut case. On another occasion, when the venue where she was supposed to speak was threatened to be burned down, she replied “Then I will speak to the ashes.” Finally she demonstrated in her life what it meant to suffer as a follower of Jesus. She had been beaten cruelly in her childhood, raised her own children in slavery, was forced to do hard labor, was beaten by mobs, thrown from a street car and yet she never gave up. In fact, when Frederick Douglas was despairing about the cause of abolition in 1852, Truth rose up and shouted from the congregation, “Frederick, is God dead?” No, he was not and the sojourn of truth in the American experience resulted in the abolition of slavery with the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.
As a follower of Jesus, Sojourner Truth was never able to read the Scriptures herself, yet she still committed to having Bible stories read to her over and over again for her understanding. Though unable to have formal theological training, she lived and acted upon that which she did know. The Jesus died for her and could change people’s lives. How much more should the literate believer attend themselves to the words of God in our day?
As we reflect upon the lives of others who have been transformed by forgiveness and grace, let us too follow with passion and courage the one who lived and died and rose again.
Reid S. Monaghan
 Mark Gali and Ted Olsen, ed. 131 Christians that Everyone Should Know, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman) 2000, 289.
 Marvin A. McMickle, African American Christian Heritage, (Valley Forge: Judson Press) 2002, 165.
 Gali and Olsen, 289.
 McMickle. An interesting accounting of the story has Truth saying the following: “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.” See Women in History, Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree) http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/trut-soj.htm
 Gali and Olsen.
 A Narrative of Sojourner Truth, was published in 1850. It is available online http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/truth/1850/1850.html Her autobiographical account was dictated orally and written down by one Olive Gilbert as Truth was illiterate.
 Gali and Olsen.
 A really challenging read from history is Douglas’ powerful call out of the church and white Christians in his day. See “The Church and Prejudice” http://www.frederickdouglass.org/speeches/index.html#church
 Gali and Olsen, 290.
 McMickle, 166.
 Gali and Olsen, 289.