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Freedom and forgiveness

BOOKS | How a slave named Isabella became Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth in 1863 with a photograph of her grandson on her lap Library of Congress

Freedom and forgiveness
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She was an impressive figure, tall and plainly dressed, her head wrapped in a white cloth, striding to the speaker’s platform with confident steps. Whether or not they wanted to listen, her audience would hear: “I have a voice like a ­trumpet.” And she had much to say.

At birth she was named Isabella, the property of Col. Johannes Hardenbergh in the township of Hurley, N.Y. Her first language was Dutch, and she spoke English with a peculiar accent. Her mother had seen several children sold away, and throughout her early life Isabella herself suffered a series of owners, some less harsh than others. But none had any regard for her feelings or her ­family, and her back bore the scars of severe beatings.

Emancipation came to New York in 1827, but Isabella’s last owner broke his promise to free her a year early. Taking matters into her own hands, she walked away (reasoning it would be a sin to run away) and took refuge with a devout Christian couple, the Van Wagenens. “Do not call me Master,” Mr. Van Wagenen told her, “for there is but one master, and he who is your master is my master.”

The words made a deep impression, but Isabella’s knowledge of the one Master was scant. She knew there was a God in heaven who would hear her prayers, yet as months passed, she became discontented and restless and even considered returning to slavery—until a shattering experience transformed her. In her Narrative, published in 1850, she recalled a vision of an overwhelming Presence who searched out her sins and weaknesses. When she could no longer bear the intense ­scrutiny, a “friend” appeared, stepping between her and judgment. To her repeated pleas of “Who are you?” the answer finally came: “It is Jesus.”

The revelation led to a calling, realized on Pentecost Sunday, June 1843. “The Spirit calls me and I must go,” she told her employer. She would no longer be Isabella but Sojourner, “because I was to travel up and down the land, showing the people their sins and being a sign unto them.” She credited God with bestowing both her given name and her surname: Truth.

We Will Be Free: The Life and Faith of Sojourner Truth (William B. Eerdmans Publishing 2023) by Nancy Koester is the latest in Eerdmans’ Library of Religious Biographies. Its spiritual focus reveals some little-­known corners, such as Isabella’s experience with a perfectionist cult before she became Sojourner. As she never learned to read, her Bible knowledge developed slowly, and she never wholly outgrew her perfectionist tendencies. Still, her testimony was heartfelt and profound—as was the impact of her powerful voice, natural wit, and imposing physical presence on the antebellum abolitionist movement.

Whatever the cause, Sojourner’s faith was her driving force and inspiration.

As her fame grew, she took on other social causes, particularly women’s rights, the subject of her most famous speech (“Ain’t I a Woman?” reproduced in this volume). Whatever the cause, Sojourner’s faith was her driving force and inspiration. “Christ Jesus lighted up my mind, and my soul filled with love,” allowing her to forgive even those who beat her and separated her from her children. After freedom came for her people, she turned to exhorting them to take more responsibility for their lives: “You have freedom; you must now have regulation, or you are undone.”

The author judges her subject as far too optimistic when it came to reconciliation and genuine equality between blacks and whites, but fully acknowledges the root of that optimism: “Truth’s faith often gets ‘obscured’ when her life is seen only through the lens of social reform. And yet it was Sojourner Truth’s quest for holiness that propelled her work for human rights.” Fittingly, the subject of this moving biography gets the last word: “God is no respecter of persons, and we will all be as one.”

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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