Sunday19 August 2018
Commemoration of Harriet Tubman
This week as part of our Summer of Saints, we are reflecting on the life of Harriet Tubman. Some of you may be asking, Is she even a saint? What that question usually means is, Has she been approved as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church? No, she hasn’t. But, she is in the list of commemorations for both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The United Methodist Church. Saints, as we have been using the term this summer, are people whose faith is worthy of study and emulation. Does studying this person’s life and faith contribute to my journey of faith? If so, we can call them a saint. So is Harriet Tubman a saint? Absolutely!
She was born Araminta Ross in Madison, Maryland. Both of her parents were slaves, owned by different masters, and she was born a slave. As with most slaves, there was no official record of her birth, and her year of birth is listed variously as anywhere between 1815 and 1825, though most likely it was between 1820 and 1822. Despite being slaves, her parents, Rit Green and Ben Ross were married. They had nine children together. Three were sold away south and never heard from again. When her master came to the home with another slaveowner, with the intention of selling her son, Rit threatened to kill the next man who came through the door. It worked. No more of her children were sold out of the area.
Harriet grew up with the same sense of defiance. She refused to appear cheerful in the presence of her masters and taskmasters. She even ran away once as a child. She hid among the pigs for five days, competing with them for food, until she finally returned.
When she was about thirteen years old, Harriet was trying to help a runaway slave. His master threw a metal weight at him, but it hit Harriet in the head instead. She would never be the same. After that, she suffered headaches, seizures, and sleeping fits.
She also started having visions and dreams, which she attributed to God. ‘In one, Harriet was flying over fields. Some beautiful white women were holding their arms out to her, but she couldn’t reach them.’
When she was about 22, she was married to a freedman named John Tubman. It was about this time that she changed her first name from Araminta to Harriet.
Harriet had been promised that she would never be sold south, but when her master died, his widow was left with debts. Harriet discerned that it was time to leave. She wanted her husband, John, to go with her, but he didn’t want to go. One night, she walked out the gate and kept going. A nearby house was one of the stations of the Underground Railroad, and they helped her travel to safety in Pennsylvania. She later described the feeling: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
The Underground Railroad wasn’t a real railroad, like I thought as a child, and it wasn’t underground. It was a network of people who worked to smuggle runaway slaves to safety in the north. Stations were places where slaves could hide and get directions. Conductors would lead slaves from one place to another. Passengers, or freight, were the people who were being led to freedom.
Once Harriet had made her way to freedom, it wasn’t long before she felt God calling her to lead others. Since she had escaped, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which greatly increased the penalty for those helping slaves to escape. It also meant that the North of the United States was no longer a safe refuge for escaped slaves, and many fled to true freedom in Canada, where slavery had already been abolished.
Nevertheless, Harriet went back into Maryland in late 1850 to help her niece escape. She returned a few months later and freed her brother, Moses, and to other men. With each trip back into slave territory, she gained confidence and became more bold. She went back again in late 1851 to get her husband John. He had already remarried and didn’t want to go with her. Instead of leaving empty-handed, she found other slaves who wanted to escape and guided them to Philadelphia.
For eleven years, Harriet continued her trips into Maryland to liberate enslaved black folk, risking her life every time. She usually worked in the winter when longer nights and cold weather meant better cover for their escapes. She would take a group on Saturday night, because newspapers would not print runaway slave notices until Monday morning. She would sometimes do her work in disguise. Once she bought live chickens and released them as a distraction when a former owner approached her. Another time when she spotted a former owner, she picked up a newspaper and pretended to read. Since Harriet was known to be illiterate, the former master didn’t notice her. Harriet sometimes carried sedatives with her to quiet crying babies who might give her group away. She was also known to carry a revolver. She used it for protection, but also to threaten any of her passengers who got cold feet and wanted to return to slavery, as they would endanger the rest of her passengers. She later said of this time in her life: “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
Harriet was empowered for this brave work by her faith. She had a vital prayer life. She continued to see visions and have premonitions from God. She used spirituals as part of her work. Songs like “Steal Away to Jesus,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Wade in the Water,” had spiritual meaning, but they also contained coded messages she could use to warn other travelers. She had a deep sense that God was leading her and would keep her safe. Thomas Garret said of her, “I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.”
One of her visions led her to John Brown, a white abolitionist who advocated violent resistance to slavery. She helped him plan for an attack on a weapons depot in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and helped him recruit free black men to fight. Brown referred to Harriet as “General Tubman.” The attack failed, and John Brown was captured and hanged. He was thought of by many as a martyr of the abolitionist cause.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet was recruited to work on the Union side. She served as a cook and as a nurse. Later, she became a spy. She recruited a network of liberated slaves who went behind enemy lines and reported on conditions to the Union Army.
In June 1863, Harriet and her team scouted out an attack on the Combahee River plantations in South Carolina. She worked with Col. James Montgomery to plan the raid. She even led 300 soldiers from a volunteer black regiment during the battle, becoming the first woman to lead US troops in battle. The assault destroyed Confederate supplies and freed 750 slaves, most of whom joined the Union Army. Newspaper hailed her service. Harriet continued to work and fight for the Union Army until after the war was over. Despite her service and courage, she was never paid for her efforts. It was not until 1899 that she was finally granted a pension for her military service.
On the train ride back home after the war, she was traveling on a veteran’s ticket. The conductor insisted that she give up her seat and move to the smoking car. When she tried to explain her service, he enlisted other white passengers to forcibly remove her. They broke her arm in the process. Other white passengers jeered.
Harriet settled down in Auburn, New York, along with many in her family whom she had freed. She married Nelson Davis, a veteran of the 8th United States Colored Infantry. They adopted a baby girl named Gertie. Nelson died eight years later.
Harriet lived in poverty nearly all of the rest of her life, but she continued to care for the sick and people in need. She opened her home to the elderly and orphans. She founded schools for black children, though she was illiterate. She worked with Susan B. Anthony and others for the cause of women’s suffrage. She became involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion and donated land to the church for the care of “aged and indigent colored people.” The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged was opened there in 1908. In declining health, she moved in three years later. She died two years two years after that of pneumonia. Her last words were “I go to prepare a place for you.” She was buried with military honors.
Harriet Tubman described her own call experience this way. She said, “Long ago, when the Lord told me to go free my people I said, ‘No, Lord! I can’t go. Don’t ask me.” But He came another time, and I said again, “Lord, go away. Get some better educated person. Get a person with more culture than I have.” But He came back a third time, and spoke to me just as He did to Moses. He said, “Harriet, I want you.” And I knew then I must do what He bid me to do.”
Is Harriet Tubman a saint? If she isn’t then no one is. She is a mystic who receives visions from God. She comes from a humble background but answers God’s call to become a great leader. She works tirelessly for the liberation of enslaved people. She puts her own life on the line repeatedly for her faith and for the welfare of others. She gives what meager resources she has to benefit those who have even less. She inspires people with her commitment to God’s justice. Of course she is a saint.
What surprises me most about her story is that we don’t know it better. By rights, she should be honored as a national hero—she did so much in the cause of freedom and justice, did so much to help America live up to its highest ideals. But in her own time, she was widely thought of as a nuisance, an agitator, and in our time she is largely forgotten.
Which reminds me of our gospel lesson today. Everyone remembers the last part of it. “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.” And that all sounds very magnanimous. It sounds very peaceful. It sounds like it would bring no conflict at all. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Ask God for something and you will get it.
What we too often forget is that there are people who don’t want to open that door. There are people who are already inside who don’t want to be bothered with opening the door. There are people who are already inside who don’t want to give up their privileged position on the inside. There are people who are already inside who don’t want to open the door for someone who is asking for a handout.
We forget the first part of that gospel story. We forget about the person who needs some help in the middle of the night and goes knocking on the door of their neighbor. We forget about that neighbor who does not want to be bothered to open the door. Is it really important that the door be opened for you right now? Can’t you just be patient and wait until morning to have the door opened? Do you really deserve to have the door opened for you anyway?
What does Jesus say? I assure you, even if he won’t get up and open the door on account of friendship, he will give him whatever he needs on account of brashness and persistence.
Knocking on the door isn’t always a polite thing to do. Sometimes knocking on the door is brash. Sometimes it’s pushy; sometimes it’s audacious; sometimes it puts people out; sometimes it offends. Sometimes asking for justice is met with annoyance, or ridicule, or even violent opposition. Why are you creating such a fuss? Can’t you wait your turn, work within the system? Can’t you show a little more respect?
Knocking on the door for justice is often perceived as ungrateful, disrespectful, or unpatriotic by those who are already on the inside. But Jesus suggests, keep on knocking. Maybe the door won’t be opened because of the goodwill of the people inside, but it will eventually be opened because of persistence, brashness. Knock and the door will be opened. Seek and you will find.
Harriet Tubman is a reminder to us of that persistent knock on the door, a knock that was unwelcome in its time and glossed over in retrospect. But her faithful life of defiance of laws and rules in the name of freedom and justice, it should be a lesson for us today. Which doors do we need to be knocking on, persistently, brashly? But maybe more important, who is persistently knocking on our doors. Who is it that is brashly, annoyingly knocking, demanding justice? And how long will we stay in bed before we get up and open the door?