Sojourner Truth

by Ray Berry | The Spiritual Athlete

WHEN the spirit of the divine chooses to manifest itself in a person, it does not take into account the position of that person in society. In the continual unfoldment of spiritual genius, men and women of enormous spiritual stature have risen from the most abject conditions, and they have gone on to inspire the lives of many. Let us take a look at one called Sojourner Truth, who overcame the cruelest and most unpleasant outward circumstances to live a life that was filled with spiritual experience and faith in God – an all-consuming faith, that, coupled with her overpowering personality, helped her carve out a remarkable life of service and leadership to all people in difficult and troubling times.

Isabella- her given name – was born into slavery on a Dutch estate in the Hudson Valley of New York around the year 1779. Her father was called Baumfree and her mother Mau Mau Bett. At the time of Isabella’s birth they were quartered in a dismal cellar beneath a hotel run by their master. This hovel, consisting of a few planks laid over a mud floor and two windows below ground level, they shared with other slave families. One can hardly imagine the poor food and ill-health they endured under these oppressive conditions.

But even living under such conditions Mau Mau was to instill in Isabella a belief in a God who would listen to her prayers. “My children there is a God who hears and sees you.”

“A God, Mau Mau! Where does he live?” asked the children.

“He lives in the sky,” she replied, “and when you are beaten, or cruelly treated, or fall into any trouble, you must ask help of him, and he will always hear and help you.”

Her ten or twelve brothers and sisters had been sold away from the family while they were very young. Isabella herself was sold at auction at the age of nine, and in order to sweeten the deal of a hundred dollars some sheep were thrown into the bargain. At this tender age her trials in life started. It was with this family that Isabella got her first taste of the rod. She received a particularly vicious beating over a trifle at the hands of her master, and she bore the scars of it for the rest of her days. Later in life, recalling the memory of this beating, she was to say, “And now when I hear them tell of whipping women on the bare flesh, it makes my flesh crawl, and the very hair rise on my head! Oh! My God! What a way is this of treating human beings?”

Yet in times of distress Isabella did not forget the instructions of her mother. She went to God in all her trials, telling Him all and asking Him if He thought it was right, and begging His protection from her persecutors. And later she said, “Though it seems curious, I do not remember ever asking for anything but what I got it. And I always received it as an answer to my prayers.”

The conditions under which she lived became so unbearable that she knew she must find a new master. She set about praying that her father would come to her. And he did come. He heard her story and saw her scars. Baumfree got the word out, “Isabella must be traded.”

It was not long before Isabella was traded to a good-tempered, hard-working family who were not concerned about differences between slaves and their masters. Isabella was overjoyed. This was the answer to her prayers.

She worked hard for the family for a year and a half. She grew tall and strong and self-confident. One day she caught the eye of John Dumont a near-by landowner. He offered three hundred dollars for her. The deal was accepted and Isabella now had a new master.

Dumont had many slaves, but Isabella endeared herself to him by her hard work. At the same time she alienated the other slaves who called her “white man’s pet”. Yet Isabella gloried in the fact that she was faithful and true to her master. “It made me true to my God,” she said. Life was not so easy here for her for many years. She was subject to occasional beatings, and she constantly incurred the displeasure of Mrs. Dumont. Isabella often wondered how she was to overcome her misfortunes and Mrs. Dumont’s evil designs. Her mother’s lessons on prayer came back to her, and she decided she must have a sanctuary. On the Dumont farm was a small island in a stream overgrown with willow and interwoven with hidden paths made by the grazing sheep. It was an ideal place for a retreat, and the roar of  a nearby waterfall would allow vocal prayer to her God.

It was to this refuge that Isabella would retire at least once a day to pray and to relate all her troubles and sufferings. And it was here she got into the habit of exchanging promises with God. “You help me out of this piece of trouble, God,” she would say, “and I will pay you back by being a good girl.” “Of course, God,” she would cajole, “you realize that as much as I would like to keep my part of the bargain, this is impossible under the circumstances; but if you will remedy this present difficulty, you will see whether I won’t do all that I have promised … But you must be sure to help me!”

Her part of the bargain would be promptly forgot­ ten, but her inclination to the mystical and religious life was developing, as a direct result of her prayers.

Isabella’s freedom was fast approaching. The emancipation of slaves was passed into law and her time was soon over. But Dumont went back on his word, even though she had done extra work to complete her part of the bargain. She longed for her freedom.

She decided to plead before the highest judge, “Oh, God, I been a-askin’ you, an’ askin’ you, an askin’ you, for all this long time to make my massa an’ missis better, an’ you don’t do it; an what can be the reason? Why- maybe you can’t! Well, I shouldn’t wonder if you couldn’t. Well, now, I tell you, I’ll make a bargain with you. If you’ll help me to get away from my massa an’ missus, I’ll agree to be good; but if you don’t help me, I really don’t think I can be.”

“Now,” she continues, “I want to get away; but the trouble’s just been, if I try to get away in the night, I can’t see; an’ if I try to get away in the daytime, they’ll see me an’ be after me.”

Her appeals got results. A little while later she thought she heard the Lord suggest to her, “Get up two or three hours before daylight, and start off.”

Happily she replied, “Thank you, Lord, that’s a good idea.”

She did not wait long to put her plan into action. With some apprehension and the joy of the promise of freedom she walked off, a bundle in one hand, her infant daughter in the other. After walking some distance, she sat down to feed her baby. Then she knelt down to pray once more for guidance. “Well, Lord,” she called out in her intimate way, “you started me out; now please show me where to go.”

She came upon a friendly man who suggested the home of the Van Wagener’s some miles off. It took her all day to reach this house, recognizing it from a dream that she had had recently. “That’s the place for me,” she said. “I’ll stop here.”

The Van Wageners immediately took her in, offered her employment, and made her feel like a member of the household. They fed her and showed her to her room which contained a huge white bed. Isabella took one look at that bed and crept underneath it to sleep on the floor. In the morning Mrs. Van Wagener saw the untouched bed and said, “Isabella, you haven’t slept in the bed.”

And Isabella answered in surprise, “Lord, ma’am, you didn’t think of such a thing as me sleeping in that there bed, did you? I never heard of such a thing in my life!”

Isabella knew that Dumont would come looking for her, and, indeed, he showed up a few days later expecting to take her back. “Well, Belle,” he said, “so you’ve run away from me.”

“No”, she replied, “I did not run away. I walked away by daylight. You promised me a year of my time if I did all my work.”

“You must go back with me” he said.

But Isabella firmly replied, “No, I won’t go back with you.”

“Well, then,” Dumont countered, “I shall take the child. It belongs to me.”

“You shall not,” Isabella blazed back.

At this moment Van Wagener intervened. He proposed to buy Isabella’s freedom, and the matter was settled.

Freedom did not sit easily with Isabella. Life at the Van Wageners was all peace and quiet, and after some months she became bored and restless, anxious to return to her former master and her own people on the plantation.

One day she abruptly announced to the Van Wageners, “My master, Dumont, is coming for me today, and I shall return with him.”

“And how did you come by such information?” they asked.

“No one told me,” she replied. “I just feel that he will come.”

Wonder of wonders, Dumont showed up at the house that very day, and Isabella informed him that she would like to return home with him. “Not on your life,” he countered, “I shall not take you back again. You ran away from me.”

But Isabella paid no attention to his rebuff. She took her child in her arms and started towards his carriage. Then a most unexpected experience overtook her. With the suddenness and power of a bolt of lightening, God revealed Himself to her. She recalled, “In the twinkling of an eye God was over everything . . . there was no place where God was not.”

She was consumed by the gaze of the Being with whom she had been so familiar all her life. She was terrified and wished to hide herself where she could not be seen or found, but she realized that there was no place to hide. There really was no place where God was not.

Greatly relieved when she returned to a somewhat more normal state, she exclaimed, “Oh God, I did not know You were so big!”

By this time Dumont had left in his carriage, and Isabella returned to the house and went to her room. Here she tried to talk to God, but her previous double-dealing attitude and broken promises put her off. She was scared and said, “What! Shall I lie again to God? I have told Him nothing but lies; and shall I speak again and tell another lie to God?”

This first impersonal experience of God led to a second more personal experience. She wished for some­ one, a friend, to stand between herself and the God she thought she had offended. Someone to temper this great power she was experiencing. Then she had a vision, and a friend appeared. “Who are you?” She called out to this person radiant with the beauty of holiness and warm with love. “I know you, and I don’t know you. You seem perfectly familiar. I feel that you not only love me, but that you always have loved me- yet I know you not- I cannot call you by name.” “Who are you?” she cried, and she became deeply absorbed in prayer.

About to lose consciousness she heard a voice distinctly say, “It is Jesus.”

“Yes,” she responded, “it is Jesus.”

How great a blessing He conferred, in that He should stand between her and God! And God was no longer a terror and a dread to her.

Now there could be no doubt. Her years of prayer and trust culminated in this experience. As it ripened, she could only surrender herself more and more into the hands of God and trust to Him for guidance in all her actions.

She said about prayer, “Let others say what they will of the efficacy of prayer, I believe in it, and I shall pray. Thank God! Yes, I shall always pray!”

Certainly, this profound spiritual experience, this direct knowledge of both the impersonal and personal aspects of God was to change Isabella’s life in every way. Now she knew what life was all about. Now she could see her trials and sufferings in a new light.

From this time so much love flowed through her heart that she was concerned with only one reason for living: to let the love of God work miracles in the hearts

  • Of men – her friends, her enemies, her ex-masters, and white folk in general – so that men and women every­ where, of every race, would be united and free.

Isabella was now to embark on the rest of her journey through life with a new confidence and self-assurance that came from complete reliance on and trust in God.

MANY challenging incidents presented themselves to Isabella. When she left Dumont’s, she had left behind a five-year-old son Peter, who had been sold to a slave­ holder in Georgia just a year before his emancipation. This was clearly against the law. Isabella surmounted overwhelming odds to win back her son through legal means. When she was re-united with Peter, she saw his terrible scars and bruises. “Heavens! what is all this?” she cried.

He answered, “It is where Fowler whipped, kicked, and beat me.”

“Oh, Lord Jesus, look! See my poor child!” she exclaimed. And in her anguish, she cursed them, “Oh Lord, ‘render unto them double’ for all this!”

God heard this curse and took His vengeance. Shortly after this, Fowler brutally murdered his wife Eliza Gedney. Eliza’s mother, who had scoffed at Isabella’s distraction at the sale of Peter, went completely insane, walking about deliriously and crying out constantly, “Eliza, Eliza!”

Isabella recalled her vindictive petition. But now that she had her son back, she had no stomach for such retribution. She called out, “Oh my God, that’s too much. I did not mean quite so much, God!” But this was God’s business. She had better let Him settle this matter as He saw fit.

The year was 1828. Slavery in New York had ended. Isabella and her children were free. She left the New York countryside to settle in New York City. Here were many more lessons to be learned and a new life to be started. But now she had the most tangible knowledge of God and the faith that accompanies it to take with her as she travelled through life.

Many years passed, and Isabella was dissatisfied and restless with her life in New York City. She said, “Here in New York, the rich rob the poor, and the poor rob one another.” Although no longer a slave, she was still doing work for white folk. One day the thought came to her, “These worldly things, are they to be my concern forever? Money? Food? Clothing? Drudgery? No! Never! I am no longer Isabella. The Spirit calls me, and I must go. My new name will be Sojourner Truth. The Lord will provide for and protect me.”

She was strong with the faith that her true work was to testify to the hope she held in her heart. The Lord was her director.

A few notable incidents show how Sojourner’s life bore wonderful fruit, and how her words and actions were evidence of her strength of character and independence of thought.

Near Hartford, Connecticut she attended a Seventh Day Adventist meeting. The camp was engulfed in an emotional frenzy. When she was asked about her thoughts on the Seventh Day Adventist principles, she replied, “It has not been revealed to me what to think. Perhaps, if I could read, I might see it clearly.”

“Don’t you believe that the Lord is coming?” another asked pointedly.

She replied, “I believe the Lord is as near as He can be, and not be it.”

Sojourner wandered through the agitated crowd and in the midst of it she climbed up on a stump and called out, “Hear, hear!” The people gathered around her. Her bearing commanded respect. She spoke in quiet tones, “Children, why do you make such a to-do? Are you not commanded to watch and pray? But you are neither watching or praying. Now go to your tents. Watch and pray without so much noise and tumult. The Lord will not come to such a scene of confusion. He comes still and quiet.”

She changed her tone and called out to them, “Here you are, talking about being changed in the twinkling of an eye. If the Lord should come, He’d change you to nothing, for there is nothing in you. You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere, and when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back to walk in triumph over their ashes – this is to be your New Jerusalem! Now I can’t see anything so very nice in that, coming back to such a mess as that will be, a world covered with the ashes of the wicked! Besides, if the Lord comes and bums – as you say He will – I am not going away; I am going to stay here and stand the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! And Jesus will walk with me through the fire, and keep me from harm. No, I shall remain. Do you tell me that God’s children can’t stand fire? It is absurd to think so!”

With confrontations like this Sojourner’s reputation preceded her. It was becoming increasingly easier for her to speak at meetings. Note this letter of recommendation:

Sister, I send you this living messenger, as I believe her to be one that God loves . . . You can see by this sister, that God does by His Spirit alone teach His own children things to come. Please receive her, and she will tell you some new things. Let her tell her story without interrupting her, and give close attention, and you will see she has got the lever of truth, that God helps her to pry where but few can. She cannot read or write, but the law is in her heart.

One fact bears mentioning here. During her travels whenever Sojourner studied the scriptures, she preferred to hear them without comment. If adults read to her, they would invariably slip in their own commentaries. This tried her feelings. Whenever possible she asked children to read the Bible to her, because they would read and reread the same sentence as often as she wished, without comment. In that way she was able to see what her own mind could make out of the record, not what others  thought it meant. She wished to compare these truths of the Bible with her own inner experience, another proof of her strength of character and independence of thought.

At Northhampton, Massachusetts, Sojourner attend­ ed another camp meeting with remarkable results. A large group of local ruffians was harassing the gathering, interrupting the services and causing a great disturbance.

The organizers tried to persuade the boisterous crowd to desist, but to no avail.

When the decision was made to call the sheriff, the group of toughs became enraged and general mayhem was part of their agenda. They threatened to set fire to the tents and to beat the congregants.

Sojourner realized the seriousness of the situation. Caught up in the contagious atmosphere, she found herself shaking with fear. She hid herself in a far comer of one of the huge tents, saying to herself, “I am the only colored person here, and on me their wicked mischief will probably fall first, and perhaps fatally.”

She understood how insecure her position was, and she thought, “Shall I run away and hide from the Devil? Me, a servant of the living God? Have I not faith enough to go out and quell that mob, when I know it is written, ‘One shall chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight!’ I know there are not a thousand here, and I know I am a servant of the living God. I’ll go to the rescue, and the Lord shall go with me and protect me.

“Oh, I felt as if I had three hearts, and that they were so large my body could hardly contain them!”

By now the noise and confusion were terrific. Disaster was imminent. Yet Sojourner left her hiding place and walked to the top of a small rise of ground and commenced to sing with all the strength of her most powerful voice this hymn of Christ’s resurrection:

It was early in the morning, It was early in the morning, Just at the break of day.

When he rose, when he rose, when he rose, And went to heaven on a cloud.

As she sang, the boisterous young men, many armed with clubs, rushed towards her, and she was soon surrounded. As the circle closed around her, she stopped singing and inquired in a gentle but firm voice, “Why do you come about me with clubs and sticks. I am not going to harm anyone.”

“We aren’t going to hurt you, old woman; we came to hear you sing,” they cried. “Sing to us. Talk to us. Pray, old woman. Tell us your experiences,” they called out one after another.

“You stand and smoke so near me, I cannot sing or talk,” she rejoined.

“Stand back, stand back!” shouted the leaders. The crowd gave way amid calls for more singing and talking, and the leaders called out that they would knock down any fool who insulted her in the smallest way.

She saw this unexpected display of respect and said to herself, “Here must be many young men in all this assemblage, bearing with them hearts susceptible of good impressions. I will speak to them.”

She spoke and they listened. But it was not just her words that charmed the unruly mob. It was her presence, her inner strength of three hearts that won them over.

Those in the back of the crowd called out, “Sing aloud, old woman, we can’t hear.” The ringleaders requested that she use a nearby wagon for a pulpit.

But Sojourner objected, “If I do they’ll overthrow it”.

“No we won’t, nobody shall harm you,” answered the mob. She mounted the wagon and started to talk to them: “Well, there are two congregations on this ground. It is written that there shall be a separation, and the sheep shall be separated from the goats. The other preachers have the sheep, I have the goats. And I have a few sheep among my goats but they are very ragged.” This thrust produced a peal of laughter. She knew she had them in the palm of her hand. She went on talking, singing, and praying for over an hour. When she grew tired she paused, but they clamored for more.

She motioned them to be quiet and called out to them, “Children, I have talked and sung to you as you asked; and now I have a request to make of you. Will you grant it?”

“Yes, yes,” they called out.

“Well, if I sing one more hymn for you, will you then go away and leave us this night in peace?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” shouted many hearty voices.

“I repeat my request once more,” said she, “and I want you all to answer.”

This time a long loud Yesss! came up from the mob. “AMEN! IT IS SEALED,” answered Sojourner in

her powerful voice, and then she began to sing:

I bless the Lord I’ve got my seal-today and today; To slay Goliath in the field- today and today;

The good old way is a righteous way,

I mean to take the kingdom in the good old way.

While singing she heard the leaders start to enforce the exodus of the mob. Some refused to go, but before she was finished, she saw the group tum and run as fast as they could in such a solid mass of bodies that they looked like a swarm of bees, so dense was their phalanx, so straight and determined their course. And well before the awed members of the meeting could recover from their surprise, the rioters were gone. A few rebellious spirits wanted to return, but the leaders said, “No – we have promised to leave- all promised, and we must go, all go, and you shall none of you return again.”

Oh, Sojourner Truth, you have the heart of a lion.

Sojourner now widened her travels from the East to the Mid-West. She lectured against slavery and became involved in the Women’s Rights issue. She attended a Women’s Rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1852. Clergymen of different denominations were the principal speakers, because few women in those days dared to speak in meeting.

Many of the women were afraid to let Sojourner Truth say anything. Her reputation for outspokenness had preceded her, and they were worried this meeting would turn into an abolitionist affair.

Slowly, ever so slowly, with great determination Sojourner rose from her seat and proceeded to the podium, amid the jeers and hisses of the unsympathetic crowd. The chairwoman announced, “Sojourner Truth,” and pleaded with the audience to remain silent. At her first words there was a profound hush. Here are her words, recorded as closely as possible to her strange dialect, by the chairwoman:

‘”Well, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be something out o’ kilter. I tink dat ‘twixt de niggers of de Souf and de women at de Norf all a talkin’ ’bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all dis here talkin’ ’bout? Dat man ober dar say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to have de best place every whar. Nobody eber help me into carriages, or ober mud puddles, or gives me any best place, and ar’n’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 ar’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well – and ar’n ‘t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern and seen ’em mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard- and ar’n’t I a woman? Den dey talks ’bout dis ting in de head – what dis dey call it?’ ‘Intellect,’ whispered some one near. ‘Dat’s it honey. What’s dat got to do with women’s rights or niggers’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint and yourn holds a quart, wouldn’t ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?’ And she pointed her significant finger and sent a keen glance at the minister who had made the argument. The cheering was long and loud.

‘”Den dat little man in black dar, he say women

can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ warn ‘t a woman. Whar did your Christ come from?’ Rolling thunder could not have stilled that crowd as did those deep, wonderful tones, as she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. Raising her voice still louder, she repeated, ‘Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.’ Oh! what a rebuke she gave the little man. “Turning again to another objector, she took up the defense of mother Eve. I cannot follow her through it all. It was pointed, and witty, and solemn, eliciting at almost every sentence deafening applause; and she ended by asserting that ‘Ef de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to tum the world upside down, all ‘lone, dese togedder [and she glanced her eye over us], ought to be able to tum it back and get it right side up again, and now dey is asking to do it, de men better let em.’ Prolonged cheering. ‘Bleeged to ye for hearing on me, and now ole Sojourner ha’n’t got nothing more to say.’

“Amid roars of applause, she turned to her comer, leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes and hearts beating with gratitude.”

Yet these same women, who were now applauding Sojourner Truth for her penetrating wisdom and support in the fight for their rights, were not spared her steadfastness to the truth regarding their own weaknesses. She addressed them at another meeting with these cutting remarks:

“Women, you forget that you are the mothers of creation; you forget your sons were cut off like grass by the war, and the land was covered with their blood. You rig yourselves up in panniers and Grecian bend-backs and flummeries; yes, and mothers and gray-haired grandmothers wear high-heeled shoes and humps on their heads, and put them on their babies, and stuff them out so that they keel over when the wind blows. 0 mothers, I’m ashamed of you! What will such lives as you live do for humanity? When I saw the women on the stage at the Woman’s Suffrage Convention, the other day, I thought, ‘What kind of reformers are you, with goose-wings on your heads, as if you were going to fly, and dressed in such ridiculous fashion, talking about reform and women’s rights?’ It appears to me; you had better reform yourselves first. But Sojourner is an old body, and will soon get out of this world into another and wants to say when she gets there, ‘Lord, I have done my duty, I have told the whole truth and kept nothing back!”‘

This was Sojourner Truth – battling injustice and ignorance and man’s inequity to his fellow man. She battled from the fort of God-experience and was surrounded with God’s love. She was always positive, clear, and bright. Her trust was in God, and she knew he was good.

She never feared death, saying confidently, “When we are done with these old bodies, their aches and pains, we shall be Gods.” She compared death to stepping out of one room into another, from darkness into light. “Oh,” she cried, “won’t that be glorious!”

Sojourner Truth died at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan at three o’clock in the morning, November 26, 1883.

It was early in the morning, It was early in the morning, Just at the break of day,

When he rose, when he rose, when he rose And went to heaven in a cloud.

Sojourner Truth – God’s Sojourner – God’s Truth.


God is from everlasting to everlasting.

There was no beginning till sin came.

All that had a beginning will have an end.

Truth burns up error.

God is the great house that will hold all His children.

We dwell in him as the fishes in the sea.

Of the fashionable so-called religious world she says “It is empty as the barren fig-tree, possessing nothing but leaves.”

I think of the great things of God, not the little things.



Ray Berry

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