Sojourner: Witness of Truth

Rebecca Price Janney

Sojourner: Witness of Truth

The world didn't know her as Sojourner Truth when she entered it in the late 1790s. She was born to slave parents and given the name Isabella Baumfree.

She grew up in New York, a state that allowed slavery until an emancipation decree was passed in 1827. Her mother, Elizabeth, known as Mau Mau Bett, was her father James' third wife.

In this era, marriages between slaves were not recognized legally, and were unstable and often temporary. The slaves united "until death or distance do us part." Since these marriages were not acknowledged by law, any children they produced were subject to the whims of their owners. New York law allowed slave children to be sold and taken away from their parents as long as they were not sold across state lines. This limitation, however, was small comfort to the families who were torn apart when their children were sold. Several of Sojourner's brothers and sisters were sold to other masters during her childhood.

Childhood Memories
Sojourner's earliest memories were of hardship and deprivation. Her family and their fellow slaves were forced to live in the cramped, drafty cellar of their master's house. The icy wind chilled them in the winter, and even in summer, there was never enough food to satisfy their hunger. But although the conditions were primitive and life was difficult, Mau Mau Bett always tried to encourage her children to find the bright side of the situation in which they found themselves. She reminded them that things could be much worse.

Even though Mau Mau Bett's days were filled with backbreaking labor, she still found time to teach her children about the things she knew were important. Sojourner's lessons included frequent discussions about the love and faithfulness of God. Mau Mau Bett taught her children that God cared about everyone, even such seemingly inconsequential people as the slaves were thought to be. She instilled in her children a belief that God would help and guide them at all times and places. This no doubt reinforced her own strong beliefs, beliefs that were often tested by trial and hardship. Even so, Sojourner sometimes found her mother alone crooning, "How long, O Lord? How long?"

During her childhood, Sojourner fostered her relationship with her mother's God by creating a natural sanctuary of willow branches. This was where she retreated to converse with God. She recalled years later that during those quiet times, God actually communicated with her. The character of that discourse remains unclear; were these communications audible, or something she experienced within her spirit? Nevertheless, they were real to her and strengthened her connection with the Almighty, a relationship with a decidedly mystical component.

The Price of a Slave
When Sojourner was about ten years old, her second master died. She was soon purchased for the sum of $100 and a flock of sheep. Her new owner frequently beat the little girl, and at times the beatings she received seemed too difficult to endure. When her flesh bled and oozed from the whip, Sojourner prayed for deliverance. Over the next few years, she was bought and sold by a succession of masters.

Tired of the uncertainty that filled her life, Sojourner decided to take action. She asked her father, James, to help her find a new master who would be kinder to her. James still lived near Sojourner and was a free man since he was too ill to work. He was well connected in the community, and knew of a tavern owner who needed extra help. James interceded on her behalf and the man agreed to buy Sojourner for $105. Sojourner worked hard for this owner until he fell upon hard times and sold her off to yet another master for $300.

During this time, Sojourner married Bob, a slave from a nearby farm. But the marriage got off to a miserable start because the couple was forced to live apart. Bob endured brutal beatings each time he visited his wife, and following the birth of their daughter, Diana, Bob was sold and the marriage dissolved.

Around 1817, Sojourner married for the second time, this time to a slave named Thomas who belonged to her current master. Thomas had been married twice before, but both times, his wives had been sold to other masters. He and Sojourner were together long enough to have four children, but soon their family was torn apart. Sojourner was enraged when their son Peter was sold and sent to Alabama. This was clearly against the law, but when Sojourner told her mistress that she intended to get Peter back, the woman only mocked her, cruelly reminding her that she did not have enough money to retrieve her son. But nothing could shake Sojourner's resolve. "That's not a problem," Sojourner told her, "God has plenty of it."

From Bitterness to Benevolence
As if losing her son wasn't enough for Sojourner to endure, there was more. Although New York law would abolish slavery in 1827, her master had promised to free her a year before this law was to take effect. When he went back on his promise to free her, she pressed him on the issue, but he simply refused to honor his word. Sojourner finally decided she could no longer live under these conditions. She began making plans to escape with her infant daughter, Sophia. She was forced to leave her other children behind when she fled slavery. In later years, she spoke of how God remained with her during this uncertain time, showing her where to go and what to do next.

During Sojourner's flight to freedom, a Quaker couple learned of her predicament and took her in. Maria and Isaac Van Wagenen even helped her find her son Peter, who had been so cruelly sold away from her. Until this time, Sojourner harbored intense bitterness toward white people. They had caused her and her family so much pain that sometimes she wished God would simply kill them all. However, because of the Van Wagenens' benevolence, she began to learn what it meant to love those who had oppressed her. She felt that only God's supernatural grace enabled her do this. For a while, Sojourner used the Van Wagenen's last name as a testimony to her gratitude.

Now that she was finally free, Sojourner moved to New York City and found work as a domestic servant. The work was similar to what she had done as a slave, but now she was free. She soon became active in a Methodist church, and later joined the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. She did volunteer social work and especially enjoyed helping former slaves. Those who had recently gained freedom needed help building new lives for themselves and their families, and Sojourner was happy to help them as she once had been helped.

Elijah Pierson was a controversial evangelist of that day who noticed that the former slave had a talent for public speaking. Sojourner possessed a dramatic and compelling style, and Pierson invited her to speak at his meetings. Although Sojourner did not remain affiliated with Pierson's ministry, she did discover the work she believed God had called her to do.

"I Left Everything Behind"
In 1843, Isabella had a life-changing experience She sensed God calling her to adopt the name "Sojourner" and travel the country sharing the gospel and her testimony. When they heard this news, her children were horrified. How could a poor, illiterate former slave hope to survive as an itinerant speaker? Women weren't supposed to speak publicly during this era, and she was also a former slave. Sojourner reassured her family that if, as she believed, the calling was from God, then He would protect her.

She described her experiences in a letter to her friend, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the famous Uncle Tom's Cabin:

"My name was Isabella, but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa'nt goin' to keep nothin' of Egypt on me, an' so I went to the Lord an' asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an' down the land, showin' the people their sins, an' bein' a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, ‚ 'cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people."

Sojourner Truth first ministered to communities in Long Island and Connecticut. She did most of her travel on foot, and by the end of her first year on the road she had made her way up to Northampton, Massachusetts. It was here she faced danger at the hands of an irate throng that stormed a camp meeting one night. The mob threatened to burn the tents unless the evangelists disbanded. Sojourner feared what they might do to her if they discovered that she was among the featured speakers, since many people took great offense at a black woman speaking in public. She fled to a tent corner, shaking with fear as the mob shouted outside. But then her faith revived and overcame her fear. She realized that she was God's child, and it was His business to protect her as long as she was doing what He had called her to do. Gathering her courage, she ventured outside and climbed a hill overlooking the fray. She began to sing, and as she sang, the rabble-rousers turned in her direction and charged at her. She called down to them, "Why do you come about me with clubs and sticks? I'm not doing harm to anyone." Several of them yelled, "We ain't goin' to hurt you, old woman. We just came to hear you sing!"

Sojourner survived that particular peril and continued her unusual mission along the East Coast before heading west in 1850. She traveled to Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas, addressing both abolitionist and pro-slavery audiences. The proceeds of a book published that year, entitled The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, by Olive Gilbert, helped provide financial support for the ministry. The preface of the first edition was written by celebrated abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

As she had done at the Massachusetts camp meeting, Sojourner frequently broke into song during her appearances. She was perhaps most famous for her speech "Ain't I a Woman?" in which she compared and contrasted treatment of women and Negroes. She spoke at meetings with leading abolitionists and women's suffrage figures, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the renowned former slave Frederick Douglass. In one of their best-known engagements, Douglass spoke passionately of the need for revolt in order to bring about an end to slavery. At one point, Sojourner reminded him of their need to trust God. She rebuked him, saying, "Frederick, is God dead?"

Sojourner was well into her 60s when the Civil War broke out, but she solicited supplies for the Union Army's black volunteer regiments. She met President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. She also served as a counselor in the national Freedmen's Association for a year, helping emancipated slaves get established. For some time, she worked toward the goal of a special western settlement for them. She continued to teach and lecture after the war. When at last she retired, Sojourner moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she died in 1883.

This issue has been adapted from Great Women in American History, by Rebecca Price Janney, available on line at www.christianpublications.com.

I am pleading for my people
Below is an excerpt from Sojourner Truth's most famous song, sung to Auld Lang Syne.

I am pleading for my people
A poor, down-trodden race
Who dwell in Freedom's boasted land,
With no abiding place.

I am pleading that my people
May have their rights restored
For they have long been toiling,
And yet have no reward.

I bear upon my body
The scars of many a gash,
I am pleading for my people
That groan beneath the lash.

But while your kindest sympathies
To foreign lands do roam,
I ask you to remember
Your own oppressed at home.

I plead with you to sympathize
With sighs, and groans, and scars.
And note how base the tyranny
Beneath the stripes and stars.
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