Born a slave, Sojourner Truth escaped to freedom in 1826, and from then on worked fiercely for both the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Her activism was deeply intertwined with her faith.
Excerpt: from The Narrative of Sojourner Truth
ANOTHER CAMP MEETING.
When Sojourner had been at Northampton a few months, she attended another camp-meeting, at which she performed a very important part.
A party of wild young men, with no motive but that of entertaining themselves by annoying and injuring the feelings of others, had assembled at the meeting, hooting and yelling, and in various ways interrupting the services, and causing much disturbance. Those who had the charge of the meeting, having tried their persuasive powers in vain, grew impatient and tried threatening.
The young men, considering themselves insulted, collected their friends, to the number of a hundred or more, dispersed themselves through the grounds, making the most frightful noises, and threatening to fire the tents. It was said the authorities of the meeting sat in grave consultation, decided to have the ring-leaders arrested, and sent for the constable, to the great displeasure of some of the company, who were opposed to such an appeal to force and arms. Be that as it may, Sojourner, seeing great consternation depicted in every countenance, caught the contagion, and, ere she was aware, found herself quaking with fear.
Under the impulse of this sudden emotion, she fled to the most retired corner of a tent, and secreted herself behind a trunk. saying to herself, ‘I am the only colored person here, and on me, probably, their wicked mischief will fall first, and perhaps fatally.’ But feeling how great was her insecurity even there, as the very tent began to shake from its foundations, she began to soliloquise as follows:-
‘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 and protect me.
‘Oh,’ said she, ‘I felt as if I had three hearts! and that they were so large, my body could hardly hold them!’
She now came forth from her hiding-place, and invited several to go with her and see what they could do to still the raging of the moral elements. They declined, and considered her wild to think of it.
The meeting was in the open fields-the full moon shed its saddened light over all-and the woman who was that evening to address them was trembling on the preachers’ stand. The noise and confusion were now terrific. Sojourner left the tent alone and unaided, and walking some thirty rods to the top of a small rise of ground, commenced to sing, in her most fervid manner, with all the strength of her most powerful voice, the hymn on the resurrection of Christ-
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.’
All who have ever heard her sing this hymn will probably remember it as long as they remember her. The hymn, the tune, the style, are each too closely associated with to be easily separated from herself, and when sung in one of her most animated moods, in the open air, with the utmost strength of her most powerful voice, must have been truly thrilling.
As she commenced to sing, the young men made a rush towards her, and she was immediately encircled by a dense body of the rioters, many of them armed with sticks or clubs as their weapons of defence, if not of attack. As the circle narrowed around her, she ceased singing, and after a short pause, inquired, in a gentle but firm tone, ‘Why do you come about me with clubs and sticks? I am not doing harm to any one.’ ‘We ar’n’t a going to hurt you, old woman; we came to hear you sing,’ cried many voices, simultaneously. ‘Sing to us, old woman,’ cries one. ‘Talk to us, old woman,’ says another. ‘Pray, old woman,’ says a third. ‘Tell us your experience,’ says a fourth. ‘You stand and smoke so near me, I cannot sing or talk,’ she answered.
‘Stand back,’ said several authoritative voices, with not the most gentle or courteous accompaniments, raising their rude weapons in the air. The crowd suddenly gave back, the circle became larger, as many voices again called for singing, talking, or praying, backed by assurances that no one should be allowed to hurt her-the speakers declaring with an oath, that they would ‘knock down ‘ any person who should offer her the least indignity.
She looked about her, and with her usual discrimination, said inwardly-‘Here must be many young men in all this assemblage, bearing within them hearts susceptible of good impressions. I will speak to them.’ She did speak; they silently heard, and civilly asked her many questions. It seemed to her to be given her at the time to answer them with truth and wisdom beyond herself. Her speech had operated on the roused passions of the mob like oil on agitated waters; they were, as a whole, entirely subdued, and only clamored when she ceased to speak or sing. Those who stood in the back ground, after the circle was enlarged, cried out, ‘Sing aloud, old woman, we can’t hear.’ Those who held the sceptre of power among them requested that she should make a pulpit of a neighboring wagon. She said, ‘If I do, they’ll overthrow it.’ ‘No, they sha’n’t-he who dares hurt you, we’ll knock him down instantly, d-n him,’ cried the chiefs. ‘No we won’t, no we won’t, nobody shall hurt you,’ answered the many voices of the mob. They kindly assisted her to mount the wagon, from which she spoke and sung to them about an hour. Of all she said to them on the occasion, she remembers only the following:-
‘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 exordium produced great laughter. When she became wearied with talking, she began to cast about her to contrive some way to induce them to disperse. While she paused, they loudly clamored for ‘more,’ ‘more,’-‘sing,’ ‘sing more.’ She motioned them to be quiet, and called out to them: ‘Children, I have talked and sung to you, as you asked me; and now I have a request to make of you; will you grant it?’ ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ resounded from every quarter. ‘Well, it is this,’ she answered; ‘if I will sing one more hymn for you, will you then go away, and leave us this night in peace?’ ‘Yes, yes,’ came faintly, feebly from a few. ‘I repeat it,’ says Sojourner, ‘and I want an answer from you all, as of one accord. If I will sing you one more, will you go away, and leave us this night in peace?’ ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ shouted many voices, with hearty emphasis. ‘I repeat my request once more,’ said she, ‘and I want you all to answer.’ And she reiterated the words again. This time a long, loud ‘Yes-yes-yes,’ came up, as from the multitudinous mouth of the entire mob. ‘AMEN! it is SEALED,’ repeated Sojourner, in the deepest and most solemn tones of her powerful and sonorous voice. Its effect ran through the multitude, like an electric shock; and the most of them considered themselves bound by their promise, as they might have failed to do under less imposing circumstances. Some of them began instantly to leave; others said, ‘Are we not to have one more hymn?’ ‘Yes,’ answered their entertainer, and she commenced to sing:
‘I bless the Lord I’ve got my seal-to-day and to-day- To slay Goliath in the field-to-day and to-day; The good old way is a righteous way, I mean to take the kingdom in the good old way.’
While singing, she heard some enforcing obedience to their promise, while a few seemed refusing to abide by it. But before she had quite concluded, she saw them turn from her, and in the course of a few minutes, they were running as fast as they well could in a solid body; and she says she can compare them to nothing but a swarm of bees, so dense was their phalanx, so straight their course, so hurried their march. As they passed with a rush very near the stand of the other preachers, the hearts of the people were smitten with fear, thinking that their entertainer had failed to enchain them longer with her spell, and that they were coming upon them with redoubled and remorseless fury. But they found they were mistaken, and that their fears were groundless; for, before they could well recover from their surprise, every rioter was gone, and not one was left on the grounds, or seen there again during the meeting. Sojourner was informed that as her audience reached the main road, some distance from the tents, a few of the rebellious spirits refused to go on, and proposed returning; but their leaders said, ‘No-we have promised to leave-all promised, and we must go, all go, and you shall none of you return again.’
She did not fall in love at first sight with the Northampton Association, for she arrived there at a time when appearances did not correspond with the ideas of associationists, as they had been spread out in their writings; for their phalanx was a factory, and they were wanting in means to carry out their ideas of beauty and elegance, as they would have done in different circumstances. But she thought she would make an effort to tarry with them one night, though that seemed to her no desirable affair. But as soon as she saw that accomplished, literary, and refined persons were living in that plain and simple manner, and submitting to the labors and privations incident to such an infant institution, she said, ‘Well, if these can live here, I can.’ Afterwards, she gradually became pleased with, and attached to, the place and the people, as well she might; for it must have been no small thing to have found a home in a ‘Community composed of some of the choicest spirits of the age,’ where all was characterized by an equality of feeling, a liberty of thought and speech, and a largeness of soul, she could not have before met with, to the same extent, in any of her wanderings.
Our first knowledge of her was derived from a friend who had resided for a time in the ‘Community,’ and who, after describing her, and singing one of her hymns, wished that we might see her. But we little thought, at that time, that we should ever pen these ‘simple annals’ of this child of nature.
When we first saw her, she was working with a hearty good will; saying she would not be induced to take regular wages, believing, as once before, that now Providence had provided her with a never-failing fount, from which her every want might be perpetually supplied through her mortal life. In this, she had calculated too fast. For the Associationists found, that, taking every thing into consideration, they would find it most expedient to act individually; and again, the subject of this sketch found her dreams unreal, and herself flung back upon her own resources for the supply of her needs. This she might have found more inconvenient at her time of life-for labor, exposure, and hardship had made sad inroads upon her iron constitution, by inducing chronic disease and premature old age-had she not remained under the shadow of one,* who never wearies in doing good, giving to the needy, and supplying the wants of the destitute. She has now set her heart upon having a little home of her own, even at this late hour of life, where she may feel a greater freedom than she can in the house of another, and where she can repose a little, after her day of action has passed by. And for such a ‘home’ she is now dependant on the charities of the benevolent, and to them we appeal with confidence.
Through all the scenes of her eventful life may be traced the energy of a naturally powerful mind-the fearlessness and child-like simplicity of one untrammelled by education or conventional customs-purity of character-an unflinching adherence to principle-and a native enthusiasm, which, under different circumstances, might easily have produced another Joan of Arc. With all her fervor, and enthusiasm, and speculation, her religion is not tinctured in the least with gloom. No doubt, no hesitation, no despondency, spreads a cloud over her soul; but all is bright, clear, positive, and at times ecstatic. Her trust is in God, and from him she looks for good, and not evil. She feels that ‘perfect love casteth out fear.’
Having more than once found herself awaking from a mortifying delusion,-as in the case of the Sing-Sing kingdom,-and resolving not to be thus deluded again, she has set suspicion to guard the door of her heart, and allows it perhaps to be aroused by too slight causes, on certain subjects-her vivid imagination assisting to magnify the phantoms of her fears into gigantic proportions, much beyond their real size; instead of resolutely adhering to the rule we all like best, when it is to be applied to ourselves-that of placing every thing we see to the account of the best possible motive, until time and circumstance prove that we were wrong. Where no good motive can be assigned, it may become our duty to suspend our judgment till evidence can be had.
In the application of this rule, it is an undoubted duty to exercise a commendable prudence, by refusing to repose any important trust to the keeping of persons who may be strangers to us, and whose trustworthiness we have never seen tried. But no possible good, but incalculable evil may and does arise from the too common practice of placing all conduct, the source of which we do not fully understand, to the worst of intentions. How often is the gentle, timid soul discouraged, and driven perhaps to despondency, by finding its ‘good evil spoken of;’ and a well-meant but mistaken action loaded with an evil design!
If the world would but sedulously set about reforming itself on this one point, who can calculate the change it would produce-the evil it would annihilate, and the happiness it would confer! None but an all-seeing eye could at once embrace so vast a result. A result, how desirable! and one that can be brought about only by the most simple process-that of every individual seeing to it that he commit not this sin himself. For why should we allow in ourselves, the very fault we most dislike, when committed against us? Shall we not at least aim at consistency?
Had she possessed less generous self-sacrifice, more knowledge of the world and of business matters in general, and had she failed to take it for granted that others were like herself, and would, when her turn came to need, do as she had done, and find it ‘more blessed to give than to receive,’ she might have laid by something for the future. For few, perhaps, have ever possessed the power and inclination, in the same degree, at one and the same time, to labor as she has done, both day and night, for so long a period of time. And had these energies been well-directed, and the proceeds well husbanded, since she has been her own mistress, they would have given her an independence during her natural life. But her constitutional biases, and her early training, or rather want of training, prevented this result; and it is too late now to remedy the great mistake. Shall she then be left to want? Who will not answer. ‘No!’