"I will not allow my life's light to be determined by the darkness around me." –Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)
Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) was a powerful woman: an evangelist, abolitionist, and human rights activist. Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), remarked that she had never “been conversant with anyone who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence than this woman.” At one point Truth even traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House.
How did this African-American woman, born into slavery, uneducated and illiterate, make such a powerful impact on a culture that tried to keep her powerless? Perhaps the best answer is found in her own words: "The Lord has made me a sign unto this nation, an' I go round a'testifyin' an' showin' on 'em their sins agin my people." God had put something special into this woman, a grit and passion for justice that drove her to persevere beyond obstacles and overcome against all odds. This is the same kind of grit and passion that propels us into big Kingdom-focused visions, like seeing gospel movements transform entire nations.
So to honor those who’ve gone before us, here’s a bit of Truth’s story.
Isabella (Truth) was born into slavery in New York State around 1797. She was very familiar with the sufferings of slavery: She was sold and separated from her family at the age of nine, and resold to multiple owners, some of them cruel. Around age 18 she fell in love with an enslaved man named Robert on a neighboring farm. Robert was severely beaten after their relationship was discovered, and Isabella never saw him again. She later married, and endured at least one of her children being sold into slavery away from her.
In her late twenties Isabella escaped to the home of a Quaker couple. While living with this couple, who purchased her freedom, Isabella had a powerful spiritual experience. In her autobiography she shared, "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 committed herself to God.
About fifteen years after her initial conversion to Christianity (years marked by some spiritual wanderings), Isabella had another powerful experience with God. Christianity Today writes about this “second decision experience”:
Wanting to make a fresh start, Isabella asked God for a new name. Again she had a vision—God renamed her Sojourner "because I was to travel up an' down the land, showin' the people their sins, an' bein' a sign unto them." She soon asked God for a second name, "'cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people."
Even before this, Truth had been a “street evangelist,” preaching about God. After this second commitment to God, she dedicated her life to speaking truth. She began traveling and speaking, attending prayer meetings and calling meetings of her own, as well as working with others advocating to end the slave trade.
During this time, a book of memoirs describing Truth’s life as a slave was published (The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave). The book brought her into the spotlight in new ways, and also opened the door to more confrontations. It was challenging for anyone to speak out against slavery and advocate for equal rights for women at that time of history, and much more for a former slave who was a woman! But Truth was relentless. She spoke to dozens and perhaps hundreds of audiences.
Truth’s courage to speak out and confront culture in the face of great personal risk is a marvel. At one point she calmed angry rioters threatening to burn down the tent at a “camp meeting” by singing gospel songs, preaching, and urging them to disband. At another speaking engagement she was beaten so severely she had to walk with a cane for the rest of her life. Truth would frequently use stories from the Bible to strengthen her points about the equality of all people. Even after the abolition of slavery, she continued to advocate for the needs of African Americans, urging that they be given land and taught to read so that they could make good lives for themselves. Truth’s conviction and faith gave her great strength; where others pulled back, she would lean in, even in the face of real danger.
Truth’s “yes” to God’s plan for her life and her willingness to respond to God’s call boldly and courageously, fueled the fire of cultural transformation. Truth, an illiterate, uneducated, powerful woman, is now recognized as one of the leading figures in the abolitionist movement. She is still receiving honors today for her contributions to human rights in the US.