This is our yearly All Saint’s Day biography sermon. This year it is an honor to speak about Harriet Tubman.
NOTE: THE NOTES BELOW ARE NOT PROPERLY FOOTNOTED. I HAVE QUOTED FROM, ALLUDED TO, AND SUMMARIZED INFORMATION FROM THE SOURCES LISTED BELOW. SOME OF THE CONTENT IS MY SUMMATION, BUT THE INFORMATION IS TAKEN FROM ANN PETRY, CATHERINE CLINTON, AND SARAH HOPKINS BRADFORD.
Harriet Tubman: Freedom or die! (See story on page 91).
“Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground RailRoad” – Ann Petry
“Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom” – Catherine Clinton
“Harriet Tubman” – Sarah Hopkins Bradford (contemporary of HT and friend)
Born into bondage
Born: Circa 1820 in Maryland as a slave near Bucktown in Dorchester County. This date is not exact because it was not recorded in her owner’s ledger.
Parents: Benjamin Ross and Harriet “Rit” Green.
Name: Araminta Ross (Would be called “Minty” when a child”.)
When she was older she’d take on her Mother’s name as her first name, and her husband’s last name, Harriet Tubman. As she gained a reputation as an “abductor” or conductor on the UGRR, she would come to be known as Moses.
Died: March 10, 1913, 93 years old.
During HT’s time, Maryland was the base for exporting it’s number one money maker: Slaves.
The children of slaves quickly became a vital commodity and a source of income for the farmers of the Chesapeake area, and this market became significant to the prosperity of the lower south as well.
God’s grace in spite of man’s sin
Britain outlawed the international slave trade in 1807 (Wilberforce), and the USA outlawed the international trade of slaves in 1808 leading to the end of the import of slaves from Africa.
At this time the enslaved population in America was just under 2 million.
Less than 50 years lafter, with the outbreak of the Civil War, slaves in the American South numbered nearly 3.5 million, and this is amazing growth in light of the high mortality rate among slaves, especially infant mortality (Catherin Clinton, p. 9).
Christianity grew among slaves in spite of their exposure to the faith from their owners!
This fact smells an awful lot like Exodus for Israel.
Growth of faith in Jesus among slaves
Slaves were allowed to have Sunday off to rest and attend worship services, and most of these were gatherings of slave owners because the owners didn’t trust slaves to meet alone in worship because they might coordinate and plan things contrary to staying enslaved.
Some learned “their letters” and could read. They had access to bibles, and they read, believed, and turned to Jesus by faith.
Many heard the bible stories and believed in Jesus.
It is astounding that slave populations embraced Christianity from their owners. It is a testament to the power of the gospel.
Sickness from mistreatment leading to growth in faith for little Araminta
1825 – Young Araminta was hired out to other households.
Her first outside job was as a nursemaid called “Mrs. Susan”.
Araminta was violently and frequently beaten when she let the baby cry. She was eventually sent back to her owner and her family as her health declined.
(She had to eat little, work late, sleep little, sleep in the kitchen and put her feet in the ash of the fireplace to keep them warm in the winter nights.)
She was then hired to set muskrat traps. Because of the nature of the job she fell ill and was sent back to the Brodess Plantation, her owner.
Growing from a girl into a young woman, Araminta experienced an intensification of her Christian faith, a deep and abiding spiritual foundation that remained with her throughout her life.
Little Araminta had been somewhat sickly due to the situations surrounding being hired out, and spent much time recovering.
“Minty’s” mother spent much time nursing her back to health, praying over her, and recounting bible stories to fill their time with encouraging truths. “God sent Moses to free his people from Egypt, we trust him to send us someone.”
Little Araminta was not taught to read or write, and her parents were illiterate, so the bible stories were passed on orally.
There is no story of her miraculous conversion, but from all accounts, her parents walked with the Lord, obeyed God’s word, and they taught Araminta to know and follow Jesus.
NOTE: Benjamin was so convicted about not lying and disappointing the Lord, that when HT would lead her three brothers north, they waited outside in the barn on Christmas day…when he came outside she got his attention…he provided food, but would not look at his sons so he could deny he had seen them when the slave catchers came looking for them. That was his faith in Jesus put into practice, and this was his reputation all Araminta’s life.
At some point, her heart was transformed by the gospel, she believed and followed Jesus, and she walked with the Lord personally and powerfully the rest of her days.
Not what we would call a spectacular conversion, as though any of them are unspectacular.
Genesis 50:20 lived out
1833 – Araminta was severely injured in the head with a heavy metal weight aimed at a runaway slave.
After the injury she started having “sleeping spells” which affected her for the rest of her life.
She would have visions and dreams, she said that God communicated with her in those dreams.
She would simply fall asleep, and she could be out for a minute up to 20 minutes.
During her UGRR days: During these sleeping “spells” she might see cabins, rivers, people that provided direction and warning.
Background leading to Araminta’s escape
1840 – Her father, Ben Ross, was manumitted when he turned 45 years old.
Araminta found out that her mother’s owner’s (Brodess family) will stipulated that she and her children were to be manumitted when they reached 45 years old as well.
Edward Brodess refused to honor his mother’s will.
1844 – Araminta married a free black man, John Tubman.
John was free, and when HT would speak about escape, he would have none of it, and threatened to tell on her if she did run away.
A mixed home of free and slave was a hard situation to navigate.
1849 – In 1849 Araminta’s owner, Edward Brodess, needed to sell slaves in order to cover his debts.
Araminta heard rumors that she and her brothers were going to be sold. Three of her sisters, Linah, Soph and Mariah Ritty, had already been sold.
Word would pass from the house to the “quarters” where most slaves lived and slept.
According to Sarah Hopkins Bradford’s biography of Harriet Tubman, Araminta began praying that the Lord would change her owner’s mind “I prayed all night long for my master till the first of March”.
When her prayers did not work she changed her prayer to: “Oh Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way”.
A week later, Edward Brodess died.
Araminta felt guilty.
The death of her owner brought more uncertainty over her and her brothers’ futures.
They had already seen three of their sisters being sold and she was not going to let that happen to them.
Araminta resolved that trying to escape, even if they were caught, was a better option than being sold to the south.
The chain gangs were to be feared. Slave owners would send buyers to Maryland to purchase slaves, and they would be bought, chained together, and marched south…separating families and creating all manner of havoc. Some would die on the way. Some would try to escape and be shot.
Araminta was such a good worker, being taught the outdoors by her father, and becoming tough through her field work, that she was allowed to “hire herself out” for odd jobs in which she could keep a portion of her earnings, but she’d have to give the rest to her owner.
Araminta was ready. She had saved enough money by hiring her labor out and she knew people who conducted the Underground Railroad, although she didn’t know what the UGRR was or that these people were official members of such an organization.
The woman in the white bonnet
As Araminta worked in the fields, she would be periodically and mysteriously approached by a woman with a white bonnet as she passed by in her buggy.
This woman would stop and have conversations with her that were short and somewhat strange. But she would always end with, “if you ever need anything, you see me. The white house with green shutters.”
Little did Araminta know that this woman was a station master in the UGRR. This woman was setting Araminta up for when the time was found to be right she could trust this woman for help.
How this woman knew to say these things to Araminta, I could never find out. Must have been the Lord Jesus witnessing between souls that they were daughters of God!
Araminta and the others knew the story of Tice Davids, who I’ll tell you about in a minute, and had heard that there was an underground rail way that could get slaves north to freedom, but she didn’t know that it was not a literal underground train, but rather a network of abolitionists who risked everything to get as many slaves to freedom as they could.
Araminta strongly believed that God would guide her. In preparation for her escape she changed her name to Harriet, after her mother, and adopted her husband’s last name, Tubman. Thus she became Harriet Tubman.
Changing their given and last names was a common occurrence among fugitive slaves. Changing their names allowed them another level of separation from their slave past.
Araminta reasoned that if she didn’t get moving she would die in slavery in the deep south.
Escape via the UGRR
The term “Underground Railroad” is said to have arisen from an incident that took place in 1831.
Legend has it that a Kentucky runaway slave by the name of Tice Davids swam across the Ohio River with slave catchers, including his old master, close on his back side.
After they reached the other side near the town of Ripley, Ohio (a busy “station” on the Underground Railroad) Tice eluded capture. He was probably aided by abolitionists.
The angry slave owner was heard to say, “He must have gone off on an underground railroad.”
NOTE: William Still, called “the father of the underground railroad” helped over 800 slaves escape. He kept careful records, etc. and was a great help for HT. He wrote a book about it.
September 17 – Harriet and her brothers, Ben and Henry, made their escape from the Poplar Neck Plantation.
Ben and Henry had second thoughts and returned to the plantation.
The newspaper, The Cambridge Democrat, published a $300 reward for the return of HT.
Harriet travelled 90 miles to Pennsylvania, a free state, using the Underground Railroad.
How did she do it?
HT went to the white house with green shutters in the night, knocked softly, replied to the request for who was there, and the lady who had stopped and spoke with her all those times appeared. She would give HT some supplies, and let her know where the next station was. In this manner she followed the north star and directions to the next home. She got to Philadelphia this way.
HT started working with Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett (Quaker, abolitionist and helped some 2,700 slaves as a station master on the UGRR) and Frederick Douglass.
Harriet would become known as “The Moses of her people”
Between 1850 and 1860, HT made 19 trips from the South to the North following the UGRR.
She guided more than 300 people, including her parents and several siblings, from slavery to freedom, earning the nickname “Moses” for her leadership.
The Lord did what for her and her people what he did for Moses and his people! All those stories as a child the Lord proved himself faithful in.
December 1850 – Using her connections in the Underground Railroad, Harriet took her first trip to guide her niece, Kessiah, her husband, John Bowley, and their two children to freedom.
1851 – HT returned for her husband but he refused to leave. He stayed in Dorchester County with his new wife Caroline.
Between 1850 and 1860, Tubman made 19 trips from the South to the North following the network known as the Underground Railroad. She guided more than 300 people to freedom.
Harriet Tubman’s Rescues
HT would work in a beach resort town (Port Maine, NJ) during the late spring and summer in order to stash away money to use for smuggling slaves north to Canada in the fall and winter.
HT would begin to get either messages from slaves who were ready to be freed, or she would send messages to folks she heard about in order to set up their escape.
Messages literally traveled from mouth to ear so that correspondence would not be intercepted and people found out. (for illiterate and literate)
The winter was always the target time for escape because the nights were long, when they would travel, and the days short (when they would be easier to find).
Traveling in the winter made the journey hard for slaves who had very little, and they would be dependent on the supplies at stations along the way to either get some shoes, some new ones, and clothes that would suit for winter travel.
They would used hymns that signaled to the slave where to meet up with their “conductor”. Words of the hymns had double meaning in many instances.
HT’s father taught her the woods, how to be quiet, how to hide, how to mimic the sounds of animals. HT would often use these sounds to signal the escapees where she was. (numbers meant locations: 4 hoots may mean at the ferry landing)
Escapes typically happened Saturday nights because it gave them Sunday to get a day head start since Sunday was their off day and the owners would not be out looking for them.
Often when trying to evade captors, they would have to play roles as slave servants of white women operatives in the UGRR so they could take trains.
They often traveled in wagons with fake bottoms that would allow slaves to hide in compartments, while piles of whatever was being carried would be staked above them.
The goal would be to get runaway slaves to northern cities where they would be safe, get a new identity, and begin to make something of life and even dare to earn enough money to get family members out.
The fugitive slave act (part of the compromise of 1850) made travel to freedom longer
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made HT’s work harder.
Now slave catchers had legal help to enter free states and capture runaway slaves, and it make it illegal for abolitionists to assist runaways.
This meant that HT would have to begin taking slaves out of the USA to Canada.
For the next six years in Canada, her base of operation was on North Street, St. Catherines, Ontario, near the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
Freedom or die
On one of HT’s trips, she had a group of 11 slaves, and the trip was unusually hard this time due to one of the stations being suspected by the authorities, and the workers being watched carefully, so HT had to move on and spend the night in the swamps.
When they finally made it to Thomas Garrett’s place, they were fed, clothed and rested. After leaving Garrett’s place, the runaways struggled. The comfort of warmth, clothing and food dampened their resolve a bit. Fear of getting caught set in.
HT told stories of escapes she had worked, and how the Lord would see them through, and one man in the evening froze, and said he was going back. They had come so far. He reasoned that going back would buy him some favor rather than getting caught and whipped more severely. Returning would not only endanger that man, he would be tortured to give up the rest of the people and their location, their route and homes that took care of them.
HT took out her pistol, and leveled it at the man and said to him, “freedom or die.” The man soldiered on, and the entire group of 11 made it to Canada.
“Her fearlessness was legendary, and Thomas Garrett confided to a friend: ‘Harriet seems to have a special angel to guard her on her journey of mercy…and confidence that God will preserve her from harm in all her perilous journeys….I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul…She could elude patrols and pursuers with as much ease and un-concern as an eagle would soar through the heavens. She had faith in God; always asked him what to do, and direct her, which, she said, he always did. She would talk about “consulting with God,” or “asking of him,” just as one would consult a friend upon matters of business; and she said that he never deceived her.” (Catherine Clinton, p. 91)
HT was said to have the gift of prophecy. She once visited Garrett’s store and told him she was there because, “God tells me you have money for me.” Garrett was taken aback and asked how much she wanted. HT explained that she needed about $23.
Shortly before, a letter from Eliza Wigham, secretary of the Anit-Slavery Society of Edinburgh, had arrived at Garrett’s store. A scottish gentleman, moved by tales of HT’s heroics, donated the sum of 5 pounds to her cause and asked that it be conveyed directly to her. Garrett had the 5 pounds in hand, which worked out to be about $24.
Often on their journeys HT would change course due to her “intuition” that something was not right, and they would discover that there was an ambush waiting for them. Psalm 32:8 was something she literally believed the Lord would do.
Psalms 32:8 (ESV) I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
HT would have one of her “sleeping spells”, and be out 10 minutes and see streams or houses.
When she came to, some circumstances would get them off course, and they would turn north, and find that stream in her vision was crossable, and the house she saw that often belonged to free black folks or abolitionists.
Rescuing more family
HT freed three of her brothers in 1854, bringing them to St. Catherines.
NOTE: Tell story of how they waited for their father to give them food on Christmas day, blind fold him so he could truly say when asked if he had seen them).
In 1857, HT brought her parents to freedom.
HT had to “borrow” the owner’s horse and carriage, but she was able to travel at night on less traveled roads and get them to Thomas Garrett’s place.
They couldn’t take Canada’s climate, so she settled them on land she bought in Auburn, NY from NY Senator William H. Seward in 1859. He also assisted her financially to help her get the property from him.
A quick rundown of notable activity
1858 – HT met John Brown. She helped recruit supporters for the Harper’s Ferry attack. Brown called her “General Tubman”. She had a dream about him. She believed in his mission but not his means.
It was almost like MLK and Malcolm X 1858 style.
1859 – Harper’s Ferry Raid. John Brown was executed in December.
1859 – Abolitionist and US Senator, William H Seward, sold Tubman a piece of land on the outskirts of Auburn, New York for $1,200. It became her home for the rest of her life.
1860 – She took her last mission to rescue her sister. When she arrived she found out that she had died. Instead she took the Ennals family.
1861 – At the beginning of the Civil War HT worked as a cook and nurse in South Carolina and Florida. She would serve as a spy and lead combat missions.
HT helped General David Hunter recruit former slaves for a regiment of African American soldiers. She served as a spy and scout under the command of Col. James Montgomery.
1863 – HT became the first woman to lead an assault during the Civil War in the Combahee River Raid where 700 slaves were set free (South Carolina).
1865 – End of the Civil War. HT returned home to Auburn, New York.
1869 – HT married Nelson Davis, 22 years younger than her. They were married in the Presbyterian Church.
1874 – The couple adopted a baby girl named Gertie.
1880 – HT’s house in Auburn was destroyed by fire.
1898 – Tubman became involved in women’s suffrage giving speeches in Boston, New York and Washington.
1898 – Unable to sleep, HT underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. She refused anesthesia and instead chewed on a bullet just like she had seen soldiers do when they had a leg amputated.
1903 – HT donated her property to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn to be converted into a home for the “aged and indigent colored people”.
1908 – HT Home for the aged celebrated its opening.
March 10, 1913 – Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia, she was 93. She was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.
HT never believed she had done anything worth noticing. It was only right what she did.
Her humility looked like that of the Jesus that changed her heart as little girl, and made her a lion of a woman.
- No evil done by evil people can stop the work of Jesus Christ. Genesis 50:20
- The wounding she received trying to stop a runaway from being pursued led to her seeing visions of the Lord instructing her on what to do, to pauses in action while getting on trains that kept people who could catch them from investigating just so they could move she and her passengers on.
- Only the Lord can weave that together.
- The gospel knows no bounds.
- How slave populations were evangelized from the broken faith of their owners escapes my ability to understand …except: the gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.
- The stories of Moses and Israel led slaves to see and hear hope, and that longing for hope led them to Jesus who is the one Moses forshadowed, and the truth of the gospel overpowered the lies of slavery propagated by people who said they beleived the gospel.
- Courage and boldness is found in complete and total belief in the work.
- The belief that all men are created equal by Jesus and should be free and not bound to mankind as slaves and that Jesus made it so, led to HT and multitudes of others to face the emotional and mental scars of slavery to embrace the probability of recapture or death.
- We find our courage to do kingdom work as we are completely sold out to Jesus mission and his ways in God’s word.
- The overt miraculous work of the Lord is often preserved for those who hear and obey the Lord’s call while being willing to pay the price of obedience.
- No oppression of humans from womb to tomb on this earth is acceptable to God, and will never align with a Christian worldview.