March is Women’s History Month, first recognized in 1987. Remembering great figures in history inspires us to use our influence for Christ’s kingdom. Sojourner Truth exemplified this ideal. Though she faced danger and ridicule at every turn and could never read or write, she used her voice to be a culture-changing Christian.
The history of America is scarred by its large-scale endorsement of the lie that certain “races” of humans are superior or inferior to others. It is a stark reminder that sinful people rule the nations and that the powerful will injure and subjugate others. Slavery became entrenched in America, and efforts to expunge it led to the Civil War.
Before the Civil War, all politicians were white men and white men were the only ones allowed to vote. Even after the Fifteenth Amendment, it wasn’t until the nineteenth amendment was passed in 1920 that women were allowed to vote.
In a culture hostile to her because of her African descent, this visionary woman spoke against racism, slavery, and misogyny.
Who was Sojourner Truth?
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery around the year 1797 as Isabella Baumfree. She grew up in New York and her first language was Dutch. She was a lanky character, standing nearly six feet tall, and she wore glasses. Truth eventually had five children by a coerced marriage to another slave.
She endured unthinkable horrors under the evil oppression of slavery. One of her oppressors named Nealy beat and frequently raped her when she was between the ages of nine to twelve. Truth wasn’t allowed to pursue the man she loved, another slave named Robert, because he was under the subjugation of a different master. She was frequently whipped and never learned to read or write.
In 1826 her subjugator at the time, Dumont, told her he would free her a year ahead of emancipation in New York. When the time came for her promised release, he went back on his word. So, the next morning at dawn, she left with her infant daughter and escaped to the home of an abolitionist family, the Van Wageners.
Soon, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her youngest son, Peter, to someone in the South. She knew nothing about the legal system and had no money to speak of, yet she ignored everyone’s mockery. Through persistence and raw determination, Truth became the first black woman to sue a white man and win in American history—regaining custody of her son.
Where did Sojourner Truth get her name?
After being freed, she received visions from God inspiring her to share her testimony and speak against slavery. Truth became a Methodist, a street preacher, and a modern prophet, speaking on abolition, women’s rights, and the gospel. She renamed herself Sojourner Truth, inspired by the Spirit’s guidance, and 1 Chronicles 29:15: “For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were.”
Her preaching was backed by action. She gained recruits for the Union in the Civil War, helped freed slaves get work, and advocated for states to set aside property for freedmen after the war. Because of her renown, she eventually met Abraham Lincoln. She used time with him to try to convince him of the latter policy.
One historian says of her, “She was a powerful speaker with a low, booming voice and a stage presence that towered authoritatively over her audience.”
Even later in her life, she continued activism. In 1875, she attempted to cast a vote, though women would not gain that right for another forty-five years. She continued to travel and speak into her eighties and eventually died at the age of about eighty-six nearly entirely blind and deaf.
Sojourner Truth on women’s rights
Truth became known for her sharp wit, beautiful singing, inspiring presence, and incredible determination.
Historians generally agree that in her most notable speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?,” she never used that famous rhetorical question. Nonetheless, she did deliver a speech for women’s rights at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, and it greatly moved the audience.
In that speech, she said, “But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them.”
“I am a woman’s rights. 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.”
In other speeches, she said “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”
Her life was dedicated to ending discrimination of all kinds, not only slavery. She once said, “Now, if you want me to get out of the world, you had better get the women votin’ soon. I shan’t go till I can do that.”
When Sojourner Truth saw Jesus in a dream
Truth’s entire life’s work was tied closely to her faith. In her words, “The Spirit calls me there, and I must go.”
She had a very simple understanding of God in her young life, believing, for example, that God could only hear her if she spoke aloud. But, even in that time, her faith was genuine.
After she was freed from slavery, Jesus appeared to her in a dream. At the time, she had barely heard the name Jesus and had heard hardly any Scripture. In the vision, she was overwhelmed by bright holiness and heard God’s voice. Truth recognized a transcendent, tender love but didn’t “know” the person’s name. She was afraid of the majesty but then drawn in by the affection. The being then revealed himself as Jesus.
From that point on, she relied on the Lord for strength, praying for miracles, provisions, and protection. She considered Jesus her friend, and friend to her he certainly was.
Her courage is astounding, especially since she sometimes spoke to hostile crowds in the South. She once recounted: “My friends advised me to take a sword or pistol. I replied, ‘I carry no weapon; the Lord will [p]reserve me without weapons. I feel safe in the midst of my enemies; for the truth is powerful and will prevail.”
She was certainly a prayer warrior and some of her conversations with God were beautiful. As an example, she prayed for her son Peter saying, “O Lord, give my son into my hands, and that speedily! Let not the spoilers have him any longer.”
The truth that Truth proclaimed
Instead of capitulating to the evils of her day, she shouldered her convictions. Though she was imperfect, as all people are, God used her integrity and voice to spread the message of his love and truth in profound ways.
She once said, “And what is that religion that sanctions, even by its silence, all that is embraced in the ‘Peculiar Institution’ [of slavery]? If there can be any thing more diametrically opposed to the religion of Jesus, than the working of this soul-killing system—which is as truly sanctioned by the religion of America as are her ministers and churches—we wish to be shown where it can be found.”
Later in her life, she powerfully condemned racism with particular eloquence: “Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine Black? Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is Black? . . . Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other?”
She fought the evil of her time with conviction, listened attentively to the Spirit, and spoke the “truth in love” as best she could (Ephesians 4:15).
Her tombstone reads, “Is God dead?,” asking us a powerful rhetorical question.
If he is alive, then we must live according to the Spirit.
And he is alive indeed: “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20).