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Sojourner Truth

By November 21, 2015 5 Comments

As an escape from the terrorists–that is, from the obsessive coverage designed to keep us in fear, the media in cash, and the perpetrators in delight–I’m going to be using this spot today, and again from time to time, to air bits of my new research project in progress: a collective biography of religious pioneers in mid-nineteenth century America. I’ll muse about those of this company who intersected in some way with the Reformed tradition. First up is Sojourner Truth. She might seem a most unlikely candidate, given that her self-declared religious allegiance was to Methodism with a Spiritualist overlay. Plus she conducted herself as a (highly successful) itinerant revivalist, fixing on abolition and women’s rights instead of personal sin and conversion alone–hardly a common Calvinist occupation at the time.

But before she became Sojourner Truth, this woman was Isabella Van Wagenen. Her surname came from the antislavery Dutch Reformed family in the Hudson Valley who harbored her as a fugitive from the man who claimed her as a slave, John Dumont, then purchased her from him and set her free. It helped ease the deal that the Van Wagenens were fellow communicants with the Dumonts at Klyn Esopus (Dutch) Reformed Church, and that Bell was a favorite of John, and probably the mother of one of his children.

All but one of Isabella’s five successive owners were Dutch Reformed. Indeed, the first in line was among the first families of the denomination: the Hardenberghs, magnates of land and trade, connected by marriage to the great revivalist Theodore Frelinghuysen, and contributors of a key player in the acts that made the Reformed Church autonomous from Classis Amsterdam after the American Revolution and that founded Rutgers College. One of the Hardenbergh clans were the people who owned Isabella’s parents, James and Betsey; who sold off her ten siblings; and who abandoned the parents to penury and disease when they were too old to work anymore. Their status, and hers, was not uncommon. Slavery was long accepted (as well as opposed; see the Van Wagenens) among the Dutch in the Hudson Valley, and persisted in the state until July 4, 1827, although anyone who was a minor on that date was bound for twenty years more of indentured labor. “Apprenticeship,” it was called. You know, the training needed to prepare these folk for making their way in good society.

It was in these unpromising circumstances that Isabella began the spiritual pilgrimage that would make her into Sojourner Truth. She had no religious instruction, nor much worship time, at the Reformed Church where her owners attended. Her mother reared her on the concept of the traditional West African ‘high god,’ meldable with the Calvinist distant Father-Creator, who nonetheless would hear the cries of his children. Bell got more specifics, and inspiration, from the Methodist meetings that the Van Wagenens also attended. The two strains came together into the remarkable conversion she experienced at Pentecost 1827. Though safe at the Van Wagenens, she was also bored and lonely and so was planning to go back to the Dumonts for the revelry of Pinkster, the Afro-Dutch carnival day of role reversals, indulgence, and fleshly delights. Just as she got ready to depart, she recounts in her autobiography, she was confronted smack-on by the high God. He pierced her with a look of anger and judgment such as she had not received from this being before; up to now, he had been a distant power with whom one casually bargained or cajoled for favors. This new look was ferocious, and one more repetition of it—she was sure—would consume her in the fires of damnation. But then a “good friend” appeared in her vision, a person of indeterminate identity who created some space between her and divine wrath. After some reflection Isabella figured out that this was Jesus, standing there in the gap with the lustrous brilliance of love.

The standard commentaries parse this story in an obvious way. Isabella is saved from the angry Dutch Calvinist God by the sweet Methodist Jesus. More, under instruction from the radical perfectionistic Methodists she then hung out with in the neighborhood and upon moving to New York City, she learned to interpret that brilliant conversion light as the baptism of the Holy Spirit, bringing her entire sanctification just as the tongues of fire had purged the apostles on the original Pentecost Sunday. The story did not come to an entirely sweet conclusion, however, for in New York City Isabella came to be caught up in the delusional and exploitative cult of one Robert Matthews, aka the Prophet Matthias, come to inaugurate the reign of God on earth. We don’t have space here to detail the lurid sexual shenanigans and financial cons with which Matthias manipulated the faithful. Enough to say that when Isabella first met him, she was swept away by his physical resemblance to her picture of Jesus. She had always been, and would always remain, a religious visionary, and who was to say that this vision was wrong.

Isabella stayed with Matthias to the bitter end of his cultic commune, and still wanted to go West with him where he promised to make a new start at Kingdom building. But he sent her away, and proceeded on his own to northeast Ohio where he tried to persuade his functional twin, Joseph Smith, to take him on as an ancillary prophet. No dice.

Isabella learned from this bitter experience—learned to test the spirits and visions by their results. Eight years after the Matthias fiasco she turned into Sojourner Truth, and began her forty-year crusade for equal rights for blacks and women. She always regarded herself a Methodist but, by the radical company she kept, also became familiar with Spiritualist teachings and rituals. More visions, more voices, now supposedly from the dead. She was not above mocking the goings-on at séances, however, getting down on the floor to implore the spirits of the departed to speak up as they were confoundedly hard to hear. As a dedicated abolitionist she was also chary of the quietism that Spiritualism, for all its radical reputation, could generate. After all, if we’ll all united in a great harmony of love and fellowship, why all the wrangling over slavery? Why not accept everyone as they are and let the coming reign of bliss take its inevitable course?

Sojourner remained on task with her perennial message of judgment on the nation for its collective sin of slavery. True religion turned out to demand justice as well as visions; it entailed public as well as personal space; it had a thundering Ruler God of righteousness as well as a ravishing Holy Spirit. Maybe some of that Calvinism lived on in her after all.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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