Turn the World Right Side Up: The Journey of Sojourner Truth

A sermon by Barbara Wells—Paint Branch UU Church
Purchased at the November, 2002 Church Auction by Carol Carter Walker
March 16, 2003

In the Unitarian Universalist Principles statement that is printed in our Order of Service every week are also listed the "Sources" of our faith. These sources are, in my view, as powerful and meaningful as the principles themselves for they remind us of the roots that hold us close as a religious people.

While all of them are important, one source is particularly relevant today:

The living tradition we share draws on many sources including words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.

"Words and deeds of prophetic women and men." These can indeed inspire and challenge us to be better people. Last week you heard Jaco talk about Theodore Parker. Today, at the request (via the church auction!) of Carol Carter Walker, I will share with you some of the life of one extraordinary woman, Sojourner Truth.

Sojourner Truth is a powerful example of a person who used her head, heart, mind, spirit and will to become someone that circumstances might otherwise predict would be impossible. It is my hope her story will inspire you in your own journey, your own sojourn through this world.

Sojourner Truth did not begin life with that evocative name. She was born a slave named Isabella on a New York farm around 1797. At that time, the nation we live in was nothing at all like we know it today. Indeed as a nation it was only a few years old and the people who lived here were only just beginning to understand the power of democracy. Released from the yoke of the British, the leaders of the newly born United States of America imagined a world where "all men are created equal." Yet, those very same leaders could not deal with the biggest issue facing the developing new country—slavery.

Rather than abolishing it in the constitution, the "peculiar institution" of slavery persisted long after the creation of our democracy. It is a legacy that continues to haunt Americans even today.

When most people think of slavery in America, they think of the Deep South, where the huge majority of African-Americans were enslaved. But slavery was not confined to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, or even to Virginia and Maryland. In the Hudson Valley of New York, Dutch families had been slave owners for years. And it was into such a family that the woman who was to become Sojourner Truth was born.

Isabella grew up speaking Dutch. Does that surprise you? It did me. She did not learn to speak English until she was sold, at the age of eleven, to an English family, also in New York State. The many beatings she received because she did not understand the commands she was given forced her to learn English and she did. But she spoke it with a Dutch accent that would stay with her throughout her long life.

In the first eleven years she was able to live with her parents, she learned some important lessons. She learned to tell the truth even when it hurt. Many slaves, not surprisingly, used deceit to keep themselves from being punished, or to protect their children from harm. Isabella, despite her longing to be free and the enormous deprivation slavery brought to her and her family, never stole or lied.

She also developed a powerful belief in God during this same period. Her mother "would sit outdoors and tell her that ‘God lives in the sky’ and that ‘when you are beaten or ….fall into any trouble, you must ask help of Him and He will always hear and help you" [Mabee, p. 3]. This created in Isabella a deep belief in her ability to communicate with God and God with her. Throughout her long life she would call upon this faith to help her make decisions about what was good and right.

Isabella was unusual in that she was extremely tall and strong. In the early 19th century, few men stood as tall as she did, at six feet. Though always slender, she was powerfully built and able to work long hours as a laundress or in other kinds of manual labor. According to the narratives she wrote about her life, she never shied from hard work, and even enjoyed it. But she did not ever enjoy the power that her masters had over her and other enslaved African Americans.

In 1799, New York passed a law that allowed for the gradual freeing of slaves over the course of some years. Which meant that July 4, 1827, was "Freedom Day" when all the slaves in New York would be freed. However, Isabella’s master had promised her she would be freed a year early. When he went back on his promise, she made a momentous decision. She would run away. I believe it was this decision that planted the seed in her mind for her to become Sojourner Truth.

For the first time, she saw herself as something more than a slave or servant, but as a person with all the rights and responsibilities given to every human. If we were to look at this beginning of her metamorphosis through Unitarian Universalist eyes, we might say that for the first time she realized completely that she had inherent worth and dignity. And thus she began her sojourn away from a life that others made for her to a life of her own choosing.

Like any such life, the way was hard. Even in New York, runaway slaves were not generally welcomed. But as fate had it (or as Sojourner believed: as God led her) she found a Quaker family out in the country willing to take her in. When her former owner demanded her return, this family paid him what he demanded, then immediately set Isabella free. For the first time, she drew breath in freedom and her life would never be the same.

It was with these gentle Quakers that she began to understand that she had rights as an American. In the early 19th century, slaves, women and free blacks had little power.

They were denied the right to vote, and in many places to own property or make any of their own decisions. Despite this, it appears that the woman who was becoming Sojourner Truth believed in the dream of democracy and the hope of America even as she was denied much of the reality of those dreams and hopes. In a landmark court case, Isabella had her son returned from slavery in the Deep South, where he had been sold in direct violation of New York State law. This unlettered woman took her former master to court and won back her son’s freedom. It is remarkable that such a thing could happen but it did.

It was during this same period that Isabella found religion. Although her belief in God had never wavered, she found in the new religion of Methodism a place where her spirit felt filled. Methodists of the time were great evangelists, and had profound belief in the individual’s ability to commune directly with God. It was at this juncture in her life that she decided that she must be an instrument of God and follow God’s plan for her. When it became clear that she needed to leave her old life behind, she did just that. Taking only her son Peter, and leaving her other four children behind, she moved to New York City where she was to live for 14 years.

Her time in the city was a period of great growth for Isabella. She had to work hard but she discovered something very precious there—the freedom to follow her own religious pursuits. Her New York City sojourn led her down some strange by-ways, including into the path of a 19th century religious fanatic who started a commune based on what he thought were true Biblical principles. While Isabella was at first taken by his charisma, she discovered that on the commune she was the only one doing any real work! When she left its confines, she had grasped an important insight: true religion was found less in what people said than in what they did. And she began to ask herself if her own life reflected this principle.

As biographer Peter Krass writes, "Isabella began to dream of starting a new life away from New York City, [and] she realized that her experiences as a slave, a mother, and devout Christian gave her a perspective on human rights and spiritual well-being that she wanted to share with others…. In her own mind, she heard powerful voices telling her that she had a mission to help the needy and the oppressed" [Krass p. 57]. So she left New York and as she walked away from the teeming city the thought came to her that she needed a new name. No longer a slave nor a servant to any master but God, she was ready to give up the name given to her by others. And as she believed that God had called on her to journey on God’s behalf, she called herself Sojourner. But not content to have only one name, she became Sojourner Truth believing that, in her own words, "The Lord gave me Truth, because I declare the truth to the people" [Mabee p. 45].

Leaving New York was an enormously courageous thing for Sojourner Truth to do. She had few possessions and little money. Yet, she had a powerful trust that she was doing the right thing and that God was leading her on a path that would become clear eventually. She found her way to Massachusetts. It was here that she was to meet the famous abolitionist and newspaperman, William Lloyd Garrison. As publisher of The Liberator, Garrison believed that one way to convince Americans to end slavery was to tell them what it was really like. He published accounts, firsthand if he could get them, of slaves and former slaves.

Inspired by this, and with the help of new friend Olive Gilbert, the illiterate Sojourner Truth decided to write her life story. She dictated it to Miss Gilbert. As she told her story to others, she began to see God’s purpose for her. She was to go out into America and speak for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights, both causes for which she was both knowledgeable and passionate. With the help of Olive Gilbert and William Lloyd Garrison, she appeared on the stages of many a lecture hall around Boston. When she discovered the courage to speak in front of the crowds of abolitionists, she was electrifying.

It is said she had a powerful speaking voice but she often began her remarks with a song she had written. For instance, she might sing: I am pleading for my people, a poor downtrodden race; Who dwell in freedom’s boasted land, with no abiding place. I am pleading for the mothers who gaze in wild despair upon the hated auction block and see their children there.

And then she would speak. A natural orator, she spoke simply and eloquently of things that mattered and of her own experiences as both a former slave and a woman. For it was not only abolition which drew her deep concern and prodigious gifts. She had become fired up for the rights of women and became well known for a speech she gave at a Woman’s Rights convention in Akron, OH in 1852. Some of us may have read the speech she supposedly gave called "Ain’t I a Woman?" It is powerful and moving. Here was this unlettered former slave who spoke truth to power. The narrative comes down to us from Frances Gage, who was a famous early feminist and friend of Truth’s. You may remember the words as Gage recorded them. Truth rises from the crowd and calls out "Ain't I a woman?! Look at me, look at my arm! I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman!?"

Here’s the problem. Most modern scholars say that Sojourner Truth probably never said those words, at least not in that way. But what she did say is powerful enough even without Frances Gage’s poetic license. Here is a contemporary and thus more accurate account:

One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the Convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity:

May I say a few words? Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded; I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights [sic.]. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint and man a quart – why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much – for we won't take more than our pint'll hold.

The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble. I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The lady has spoken about Jesus, how lie never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept – and Lazarus came forth. And 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 be God and a few of them 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 and a buzzard.

[From The Anti-Slavery Bugle, Salem, OH, June 21, 1851. In Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend by Carleton Mabee, pp. 81-82.]

If ever I wanted to believe in the virgin birth, here is that moment!

It was this kind of powerful oratory that made Sojourner Truth famous in her day and ours. But she was not simply a talker. As her long life progressed, she continued to act out of her sense of fairness, honesty and justice. She spent a number of years in Washington, DC. She helped to integrate the streetcars in our fair city and when one of the drivers refused her a seat, then pushed her off the car, she took him to court and won!

She always showed remarkable courage even when others might be meek or afraid. She also began working with the Freedman’s Bureau. She was convinced that the freed slaves needed education and land more than they needed handouts. For years she tried to get Congress to give freed slaves land in the west, where they could build new lives for themselves away from the memories of their past. While she lobbied politicians hard (she had, after all, met with Presidents Lincoln and Grant and showed no awe at their power!), she was not successful in her attempts to convince Congress. When my ancestor, Senator Charles Sumner, finally got a Civil Rights Bill passed in Congress in 1875 it was extremely watered down and, as Sojourner said, "did the black man no good." She wanted to move blacks out of the south, she said, to "where they could get civil rights for themselves" [Mabee, p. 163]. While she was discouraged, she never stopped working to make the world a better place.

When Sojourner Truth died, in her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1883, some people thought she was over 100 years old. While only 86, she had lived a remarkable life. Her influence was felt in the lives of former slaves and in the highest echelons of American power. She was beloved by women who thanked her for her great gifts to their movement. As one of the speakers at her funeral, the Unitarian minister Giles Stebbins, put it, Truth had "moral worth and spiritual greatness."

How does the prophetic life of Sojourner Truth speak to us today? She was not a Unitarian or a Universalist, though her religious beliefs grew more liberal as she aged (and she had Unitarian friends like Stebbins). Why then did a UU congregation in DC name itself after her? Why do so many UUs find her an effective role model and exemplar? Why does her story speak to me and hopefully through me to you?

I think it is because she exemplifies much of what our religion affirms about the journey of faith. She was a profound believer in her own abilities to do good and right and she carried that belief everywhere she went. She trusted others and the people who knew her spoke often of her ability to bring out the best in them. While her faith was deeply Christian, she was never narrow or dogmatic. And perhaps most important, she had a life-long commitment to freedom, as a woman and an African-American. Though she was technically "freed" by someone who had bought and paid for her, she was always free in her heart and that freedom guided her throughout her long life.

Sojourner Truth was born into a world turned wrong side up. She lived and worked to turn it right side up again. Our world today—in some ways vastly different than the one Sojourner Truth lived in—is the same in one important way: there is much work still to be done to make it just and fair. We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do to turn it right side up. I give thanks to visionaries like Sojourner Truth who pushed it in the right direction all these years ago. She was a woman of extraordinary courage and vision. She was an individual who worked with others to make the world more just.

So if at times the way seems too long and the task too difficult, may we gain courage by remembering the lives of prophetic women and men like Sojourner Truth who have taught us that, in the words of Truth's contemporary Susan B. Anthony, "Failure is impossible." Today's world needs people like Sojourner Truth to set it right again. As Unitarian Universalists may we be inspired by her to live our lives in such a way that we can help turn this world right side up by continuing to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love. Amen.

Sources consulted:
Journey Toward Freedom: The Story of Sojourner Truth by Jaqueline Benard
Sojourner Truth: Anti-Slavery Activist by Peter Krass
Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend by Carleton Mabee

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