A Feature Review of
We Will Be Free: The Life and Faith of Sojourner Truth
Reviewed by Ope Bukola
Sojourner Truth is the type of historical figure that we often idolize and, in doing so, subtly dehumanize. Like Dr. King, Gandhi and others, these people hold a place in our collective imaginations akin to saints. We ignore the particulars of their stories and cling to saintliness. We count them differently than mere mortals.
Before reading Nancy Koester’s wonderful biography of Truth’s life, my own knowledge of her was relatively thin. I knew she was a formerly enslaved woman and abolitionist who gave the “Ain’t I A Woman” speech at the women’s convention. I had a sense she was tall, regal, and wore a white turban.
Koester’s biography is a deep look into Truth’s life, and in particular her faith. As I read each successive chapter, I wondered: who was Sojourner Truth and how did she become the mythical figure?
The biography starts with young Isabella, who was born into slavery in New York, and like many enslaved people, experienced the horrors of having her family torn apart. Her story, though heartbreaking, is not extraordinary until she has a radical encounter with Jesus. After experiencing freedom, she was tempted to return to the place where she had been enslaved for a festival celebration. Like the Isrealites grumbling in the desert, she realized that Egypt was calling her back. As she considered returning, she had a vision so strong and so striking that it literally knocked her off her feet. She believed the vision was Jesus. From that point on, Isabella became Sojourner Truth and her faith and life was marked by outrageous courage.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
The rest of Truth’s life would be characterized by living freely, even in moments of great personal discomfort. Truth’s life paints a picture of what it means to live freely.
First, living freely means trusting beyond a shadow of doubt that God will meet our needs. Truth often refused payment for work, and gave away much of her meager income. She would embark on long preaching trips without a plan for where to lodge. For a black woman in pre-Civil war America, this was extremely dangerous, perhaps even foolish. Free people were not safe and between the Fugitive Slave Act and rampant racism, traveling could mean loss of freedom or life. But Truth went where she felt called and needed, and never seemed lonely because Jesus was on her side.
Additionally, living freely means resisting attempts to put you in spiritual or intellectual bondage. Truth had a deeply personal relationship with the divine. As she describes: “I talk to God and God talks to me.” In her search for an authentic community, she sometimes became part of groups (communes, cults) that seemed Christian but attempted to hold her down, restricting her ability to preach, teach, or live. Each time, Truth found her way out. She grew in stature and reputation. She became an electric speaker, holding crowds under rapt with her wit and wisdom, in spite of not being able to read or write. She was a gifted orator who preferred to memorize the Bible. Truth preferred to have children read the Bible to her because they didn’t embellish.
The reformed Dutch Methodist tradition was largely the context of Truth’s initial faith formation, but some of her expressions might be called charismatic today. At the same time, she had a deep focus on personal simplicity and making do with little. She had a Holy Spirit filled, direct experience that might be called Pentecostal, but also dabbled in new-age-y things. Ultimately, these categories didn’t exist in Sojourner’s time and if they had, she would likely have rejected them anyway. She rejected – or perhaps was freed from – attempts to hold her body or her mind in bondage.
Finally, living freely means working, in a spirit of love, to free others. After the end of the Civil War, Truth dedicated a great deal of effort to helping the freedmen. Just as she had done with abolition, she directed her physical labor – and her oratory skills – to the cause of Reconstruction. What propelled her to do this work was not just her desire for justice and social reform; Truth was working out of love. Galatians 5 begins with Apostle Paul’s famous verse: “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” and describes how Christians should approach the law. Paul goes on in verse 6 (my personal favorite), “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
Near the end of her life, Sojourner Truth faced numerous obstacles while trying to advocate for land for freedpeople. She persists in bringing the case of the freedmen to white audiences and describes this work as an expression of love. She describes her prophetic speeches as purposely designed to agitate her white audience, and says, “work belongs with agitating.” She viewed her work as not only helping the freedmen, but freeing the minds and souls of her white audience.
In the end, Truth’s biography still paints a picture of someone that is larger than life. But her “otherworldliness” is less unattainable. She was freed by Jesus and lived that way. In that way, perhaps Truth has more to teach us as a spiritual leader than an activist. Koester quotes scholar Judith Castlberry who says: “When African American women’s religious work is viewed through the lens of civic and political work, the nuances of spiritual labor and spiritual authority can be obscured.” Koester adds: “It was Sojourner Truth’s quest for holiness that propelled her work for human rights.”
Sojourner Truth was a truth teller, preacher and teacher with vast spiritual authority. Her life and faith has much to teach us modern people about what it means to live with the courage and boldness of people who have been set free.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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