The faith of Harriet Tubman - The Moses for her people
Millions of people voted in an online poll in 2015 to have the face of Harriet Tubman on the US$20 bill. But many like me did not know the story of her life until watching the movie, “Harriet” which chronicles her life story. I recently watched the film "Harriet" based on the true story of Harriet Tubman and was inspired and, having since researched her, Harriet has now become one of my Christian heroes.
“Harriet” isn’t a “Christian” movie, but that doesn’t mean this biopic about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad isn’t a movie full of Christian themes and content. It seems odd to say a movie about slavery is inspiring, but it’s true. If you have not seen this inspiring and uplifting movie, make sure you see it, as it is well worth it.
In short, the movie “Harriet” shows us that Tubman possessed a faith so strong she was willing to live out the parable of the shepherd leaving 99 sheep to find a lost one. In a world where all of us are prone to take the freedoms that someone like Harriet Tubman helped ensure for granted, “Harriet” is well-worth seeing.
Now to go to her real life story, Harriet Tubman worked as a slave, spy and eventually as an abolitionist. What I find most fascinating, as a historian of American slavery, is how belief in God helped Tubman remain fearless, even when she came face to face with many challenges.
Tubman was born Araminta Ross in 1822 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. When interviewed later in life, Tubman said she started working when she was five as a house maid. She recalled that she endured whippings, starvation and hard work even before she got to her teenage years.
She laboured in Maryland’s tobacco fields, but things started to change when farmers switched their main crop to wheat. Grain required less labour, so slave owners began to sell their enslaved people to plantation owners in the Deep South.
Two of Tubman’s sisters were sold to a slave trader. One had to leave her child behind. Tubman too lived in fear of being sold.
When she was 22, Tubman married a free black man named John Tubman. For reasons that are unclear, she changed her name, taking her mother’s first name and her husband’s last name. Her marriage did not change her status as an enslaved person.
Five years later, rumours circulated in the slave community that slave traders were once again prowling through the Eastern Shore. Tubman decided to seize her freedom rather than face the terror of being chained with other slaves to be carried away, often referred to as the “chain gang.”
Tubman stole into the woods and, with the help of some members of the Underground Railroad, walked the 90 miles to Philadelphia where slavery was illegal. The Underground Railroad was a loose network of African Americans and whites who helped fugitive slaves escape to a free state or to Canada. Tubman began working with William Still, an African American clerk from Philadelphia, who helped slaves find freedom.
Tubman led about a dozen rescue missions that freed about 60 to 80 people. She normally rescued people in the winter, when the long dark nights provided cover, and she often adopted some type of disguise. Even though she was the only “conductor” on rescue missions, she depended on a few houses connected with the Underground Railroad for shelter. She never lost a person escaping with her and won the nickname of Moses for leading so many people to “the promised land,” or freedom.
After the Civil War began, Tubman volunteered to serve as a spy and scout for the Union Army. She ended up in South Carolina, where she helped lead a military mission up the Combahee River. Located about halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, the river was lined with a number of valuable plantations that the Union Army wanted to destroy.
Tubman helped guide three Union steamboats around Confederate mines and then helped about 750 enslaved people escape with the Federal troops.
She was the only woman to lead men into combat during the Civil War. After the war, she moved to New York and was active in campaigning for equal rights for women. She passed away at the age of 90.
Tubman's friends and fellow abolitionists claimed that the source of her strength came from her faith in God as deliverer and protector of the weak. "I always tole God," she said, "'I'm gwine [going] to hole stiddy on you, an' you've got to see me through.'"
Though infuriated slaveholders posted a $40,000 reward for her capture, she was never apprehended. "I can't die but once" became her motto, and with that philosophy she went about her mission of deliverance.
A woman of deep Christian faith, she followed God’s voice and pursued the visions He planted in her heart to achieve true greatness.
Raised on a plantation in Maryland, her mother – a cook in the “big house” – taught her Bible stories. She came to faith in Jesus as her Saviour and Lord at her mother’s apron strings.
While Tubman never learned to read, she had a phenomenal memory and memorised long passages of Scripture that informed her captivating oratory later in life.
Tubman’s faith was a major resource on these dangerous missions. She often spoke of “consulting with God,” and trusted that He would keep her safe, according to Catherine Clinton’s account in On the Road To Harriet Tubman.
Tubman said she would listen carefully to the voice of God as she led slaves north, and she would only go where she felt God was leading her.
Abolitionist Quaker Thomas Garrett, who worked with her said, “I never met with any person of any colour who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.” Her faith in God seemed to always bring immediate assistance. She used spiritual songs as coded messages, warning escaping slaves of danger or directing them toward a safe path.
Tubman also carried a gun and was not afraid to use it. She felt her gun offered some protection from slave catchers and their dogs. She also threatened to shoot any escaped slave who wanted to turn back on the journey since that would threaten the safety of the remaining group.
Asked if she would actually kill a reluctant escapee, she said, “Yes, if he was weak enough to give out, he’d be weak enough to betray us all and all who had helped us, and do you think I’d let so many die just for one coward man?”
Many times she narrowly escaped danger. She felt God protected and hid her during the times she had to lie in a wet swamp or bury herself in a potato field. When God provided safe passage she always gave Him the glory.
Her life is a mighty example of a woman who trusted God moment-by-moment.
Harriet Tubman was a woman who found herself at the heart of monumental issues. Despite being ill-equipped in almost every way, she leaned on God and was able to serve with remarkable success. We face very different battles than Harriet did, but we serve the same God. Let’s hear God’s voice like Harriet did and do his will with wisdom, patience and courage.