She championed both abolition and women’s rights. And she wasn’t afraid to challenge advocates of either cause.
In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, historian Clint Smith examines the life of an escaped slave named Josiah Henson. He asks, “Why weren’t American students being taught about Henson when they learned about [Harriet] Tubman, or assigned his autobiography alongside Frederick Douglass?”
The answer, according to Smith, is the moral complexity of Henson, a former plantation overseer turned abolitionist. “Not every enslaved person was Frederick Douglass,” he writes. “Not every enslaved person was Harriet Tubman. And even those two individuals, as celebrated as they are, were not the morally unadulterated characters that we sometimes make them out to be. Which is to say, they were human.”
I had a similar thought as I read Nancy Koester’s We Will Be Free: The Life and Faith of Sojourner Truth, a religious biography of a woman sometimes overshadowed by Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the pantheon of escaped slaves who helped free others from bondage. Truth’s story does not fit the conventional mold of a runaway slave. (In fact, she claimed she did not “run” away from her enslaver—she walked.) Nor did she always agree with Tubman and Douglass on issues of moral reform. Nor was she immune to some of the extreme religious views (and cults) that arose in her unique New York context.
Yet Truth was one of the most extraordinary Americans to ever live. Her complexity is precisely why she has so much to offer us today.
Salvation and reform
As we might expect from someone who renamed herself Sojourner Truth (she was born Isabella Baumfree), her life was a journey. As Koester explains, “For the rest of her life” after becoming a Christian, “Sojourner …