*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 10th of March 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
There is no shortage of historical characters with very recognizable names but suffer from simple (and sometimes lazy) caricatures. American history- at least as was taught when I was younger- becomes a list of names you are supposed to know- to then put on the timeline next to the war they lived during.
For me, this was the fate of Harriet Tubman. We have the one famous picture of her; we know she worked on the “Underground Railroad,” and she might be the first woman on American paper currency.
In this flattened version of the story, her faith is rarely mentioned- and when it is, it is sometimes with a bemusement concerning her claims to talk with God. Today, on the anniversary of her death OTD in 1913, let’s look at her life with attention paid, especially to her faith.
She was born into slavery in Maryland around 1820. Born to Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green, she was named Araminta Ross. She would become ‘Harriet Tubman” when she married John Tubman and decided to take his last name and her mother’s first name.
Her mother was supposed to be freed at 45 and her children, but the old master’s grandson refused the agreement. The elder Harriet and her children would all stay enslaved, perhaps sold off to a worse fate.
When Harriet learned that she was going to be sold into slavery like her lost siblings, she prayed to God- “If you ain’t going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.”
Her slave master soon died. Unfortunately, his wife also decided to ignore the old deal and planned to sell Harriet.
She planned to escape and made it through the Maryland nights into Pennsylvania using the network of homes and allies we call the “Underground Railroad.” She would make 13 more trips, saving about 70 slaves. The bounty on her head reached 40,000 dollars. She was referred to as the Moses of her people.
When the Civil War broke out, the Union Army used her reconnaissance skills and knowledge of the border plantations to raid those plantations and free some 700 slaves successfully. While Harriet was not paid for her service, some 30 years later, Congress passed a bill that would give her a monthly pension of $20 (bringing a little bit of irony that she would be on the new 20).
What fascinates me about Harriet, besides the obvious heroics, is her understanding of faith. She often talked to God as if he was physically present. Some have suggested that this resulted from a head injury when she was younger. Ok. And maybe she prayed out loud. She told her biographer, “I always told God, I’m going to hold steady to you, and you’ve got to see me through.”
She also stated that her faith was more rooted in the Old Testament than the New. I think that’s interesting- it certainly explains her prayer to God to change the heart of her slave master or kill him. That’s some imprecatory language, right out of the Psalms.
She saw the New Testament as commands and the Old Testament as promises. And you say- “what, that seems backward- like bizarro Marcion!” But this is what can happen when the Bible isn’t readily available in the vernacular for a literate people (and this has been the case for most of the history of the church)
Harriet’s deep faith came despite being illiterate and having access to limited scripture (Slave owners who allowed their slaves to worship would give them a “slave” Bible- all the Exodus stuff was taken out).
Her faith carried her through her life as a slave, emancipator, abolitionist, and spy. When she made her way up to Auburn, New York, after the civil war, she became active in the African Methodist Episcopal church; she became an ardent suffragette and opened a home for elderly black and poor people.
Born around 1820, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia OTD in 1913- she was approximately 90 years old.
The Last word for today comes from Revelation 15. This is the Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb.
2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!
4 Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 10th of March 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517. org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite undergrounds include the Railroad, the 1995 Ben Folds song, and the book from the Left Behind Kids series is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who just learned that there is a Left Behind series of books for kids. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.