Sojourner Truth: Itinerant Truth-Teller

By Wortham, Anne | The World and I, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Sojourner Truth: Itinerant Truth-Teller


Wortham, Anne, The World and I


Anne Wortham is associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University.

"Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear

unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears:

for I am a stranger with thee,

and a sojourner, as all my fathers were."

--Psalm 39:12

"When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide

you into all truth."

--John 16:13

"Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

--John 8:32

"If the truth shall have made thee free, thou shall not care for the vain words of men."

--Thomas a Kempis:Imitation of Christ, Bk III, Ch 4

"I stand on principle, always in one place, so everybody knows where to find Sojourner."

--Sojourner Truth

Alexis de Tocqueville, the remarkably prescient French observer of early nineteenth-century American habits and ideas, wrote that "the political activity that pervades the United States must be seen in order to be understood. No sooner do you set foot upon American ground than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a thousand simultaneous voices demand the satisfaction of their social wants."1 One of the thousand voices was that of Sojourner Truth, ex-slave, itinerant preacher, spiritualist, orator, abolitionist, feminist, and namesake for the first robotic rover to explore the surface of Mars in 1997 as part of NASA's Mars Pathfinder Project.

Sojourner Truth is one of the two most famous black women of nineteenth-century America. The other, Harriet Tubman, called the "Moses" of her people, also came out of slavery. They are often confused--they did have much in common--but the geographical location of their experiences of bondage and their activity as former slaves made for significant differences between them.

Born about 1797 in rural New York, Truth was a generation older than Tubman, who was born around 1821 on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Both had been hardworking farmers as enslaved girls, and both had earned their living as household workers. However, despite her early years on the farm, Truth was every inch a northern urbanite, while the mark of southern fields was indelible on Tubman.2

If Tubman was the Moses who led her people out of the Egypt of southern slavery, then Truth embodied Pentecostalism's Paraclete, the Holy Spirit as conceived in the Gospel of John, who, sent by God the Father and Jesus the Son, comes to convince people of sin and judgment.3 From camp meetings to lecture halls she wandered the land, preaching, teaching, lecturing, and singing Methodist hymns and songs of her own creation--telling the truth as revealed to her by the Holy Spirit. Yet, despite all her wandering she could always be found in one place, as she put it: "I stand on principle, always in one place, so everybody knows where to find Sojourner."4

As an adult the very dark-skinned Sojourner Truth stood close to six feet tall. Her dress was often Quaker-like, and she always wore a turban. Tall, thin, and angular, she stood on platforms across the country emphasizing her points by gestures with her long, bony arms, stabbing the air with her long fingers while admonishing audiences for their indifference toward, or opposition to, her causes. But she ultimately won them over with quick-witted humor, sarcasm, and repartee in penetrating one-line comments that captured the heart of moral, social, political, and religious issues.

Both Harriet Beecher Stowe and abolitionist Wendell Phillips compared Truth's power over an audience with that of the renowned French classical tragedienne Mademoiselle Rachel (1820--1858), who was regarded as the greatest actress of the early nineteenth century.5 Acclaimed for her domination of the stage with her regal bearing, fiery glances, intense concentration, and the feverish excitement she brought to climatic scenes, she was said to be the idol of Sarah Bernhardt.

Sojourner Truth was illiterate all her life, but she hardly allowed it to exclude her from the moral and political discourse of her time. …

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