Today, we continue our sermon series called In The Name of Jesus – we’re spending the season of Lent looking at 7 very different people who lived out their faith in very particular ways. Last week, we heard about Rev. Fred Rogers, and this week we’re jumping back a couple hundred years to take a look at the life and witness of Harriet Tubman.

But first, we’re going to go back even further to hear from the book of Jeremiah – one of the Old Testament prophets. The Scripture we’re about to hear is the conversation young Jeremiah had with God when God came calling, asking him to carry a message of repentance and change to the people of Israel. As we overhear this ancient conversation, I want us to pay special attention to what exactly God is asking Jeremiah to do.

Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,

‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;

for you shall go to all to whom I send you,

and you shall speak whatever I command you.

Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.

See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,

to pluck up and to pull down,

to destroy and to overthrow,

to build and to plant.’

Go. Speak. Do not be afraid. Pluck up, pull down, destroy and overthrow – then build, and plant.

Araminta Ross was born in Dorchester County, Maryland sometime between 1815 and 1822 – no one knows her exact birth date, and her birth certificate, her grave, and her biography all say something different. “Minty,” as they called her, was somewhere in the middle of around a dozen children born to Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross. Harriet was a slave on the Brodess plantation in Bucktown, and Benjamin was a slave on a different plantation – each had different owners throughout their lives, and they struggled to stay near one another as they raised their children.

Araminta’s oldest brothers and at least two older sisters were sold further south when she was still a child—she watched as they were taken away, struggling and weeping, which affected her deeply throughout her life.

Meanwhile, Araminta was hired out to neighbors and other families in town to work starting when she was around 5 years old. The first time, she was hired out as a household servant and nanny for an infant, whom she had no idea how to care for. That period of her life ended when she was sent back to the plantation, severely weakened and malnourished, with many physical and emotional scars. Her mother slowly nursed her back to health, only to have her sent away again as soon as she was well – this would become a pattern until she was a teenager, though she soon proved herself clever and resourceful, which would serve her well later in life.

As she grew and got physically stronger, her Christian faith grew and strengthened as well. She never learned how to read or write, and most slaves even in Maryland were not allowed to gather together to form churches, so she learned Bible stories and songs by heart from her parents and those she worked alongside.

But when she was a young teenager, one incident drastically changed her life. To make a long story very short, she walked into the middle of a dispute between a fellow slave and a plantation manager – the manager threw a lead weight meant for her friend, but it hit Araminta in the head instead. She wound up with a massive head injury, and from that point on, she lived with narcoleptic spells, where she would suddenly fall asleep and lose minutes or hours at a time. She also started having visions and mystical religious experiences around this time – which may have been related to her head injury, but also served to strengthen her faith and her resolve. When she recovered, she was sent to work for John Stewart, who ran a lumber business. She excelled at this work, despite the fact that she was only 5 feet tall, and she continued working outdoors, changing locations and owners at least once, until she was in her early twenties.

In 1844, Araminta married John Tubman, who was a free black man living in Maryland. This was not illegal, but it was dangerous in a different way – because black children inherited the status of their mother, any children they had would have been born slaves.

By the time she was in her late twenties, she was still praying for her owner to have a change of heart and free her family (particularly her mother, who was promised freedom at a certain age but never given it)—but when he died suddenly and her fate became even less stable, her faith took a drastic turn.

A biography by Catherine Clinton tells us: “…At this juncture her faith and her fate become powerfully entwined. The year 1849 became a turning point. To best fulfill her destiny, [she] realized, she must actively seek a role in God’s plan, rather than letting others dictate her path. For Araminta, this was an important step forward, a significant leap of faith, especially faith in herself. … Araminta knew by 1849 that she could no longer be a supplicant and trust in prayer for deliverance. She needed to combine faith with action. By escaping to the North, she felt, she would be doing God’s will.”[1]

And so she did – with the help of freed blacks and a few radical abolitionists along the way, she made her way to Pennsylvania. Often, when they crossed into free territory, runaway slaves would take on a new name. This served not only to hide their identities from slave catchers, but it also signified a new life and a new way of life – one that they chose for themselves. And that’s how Araminta became Harriet, though she kept the last name ‘Tubman.’

Harriet settled in Philadelphia, where there was a burgeoning black community made up of free blacks and many refugees from slave states. She found work and a place to stay, and started making herself at home. But her newfound sense of security didn’t last long, because in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act became law – which both allowed bounty hunters and slave catchers to operate anywhere in the country, not just in slave states, and required law enforcement agencies in free states to assist them.

Clinton’s biography says: “She had just begun to enjoy the fruits of freedom when the realities of a country divided over slavery became clear. Tubman’s growing realization that all people of color—slave, fugitive, or free, in both North and South—were imperiled by the very existence of racial bondage made 1850 a critical turning point in her life, as her own personal journey to freedom expanded to include the aspirations of all slaves.”[2]

Though she continued to make a life in Philadelphia, growing friendships with white abolitionists while she strengthened her connections with the Underground Railroad, she still missed her family intensely – including her husband, her parents, her siblings, and her nieces and nephews. So when she received word that her niece, Keziah, was going to be put up for sale in December 1850 and taken from her family, she knew exactly what she was going to do: she was going to get her.

Harriet joined Keziah’s husband John, a free black man, in plotting her escape: she and their children were delivered to an auction house, and family legend says that when the auctioneer went out to dinner, John snuck them out of the building and into a boat, where he delivered them safely to Harriet in Baltimore. Harriet hid them with friends in Baltimore until she could safely move them, and then she took all of them, together, all the way to Canada.

Emboldened by this unqualified success, her second trip to Maryland came in the spring of 1851, when she rescued one of her brothers and two other men. That fall, Harriet went back again, determined to bring her husband this time—only to find out that not only did he not want to leave, he had married someone else and didn’t want anything to do with her. Devastated, she had to reimagine her future, and so she made her first formal commitment to the Underground Railroad.

Her biography records this conversation with a friend: “She had great fears about her future course, and confided, “The Lord told me to do this. I said, ‘Oh Lord, I can’t—don’t ask me—take somebody else.’” But Tubman also reported that God spoke directly to her: “It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman.”[3]

Sound familiar?

Rather than give way to rage or grief, Harriet collected a group of eleven fugitives, including another one of her brothers, and brought them all safely to freedom in Canada—and for the first time, this group included some who were perfect strangers to her.

And so she became an “abductor” on the Underground Railroad – the name given to those who went into slave states to ferry fugitives to freedom – and she developed her own rhythm and pattern for her travels. She used the code name ‘Moses,’ and she would go at least once a year, sometimes twice, and gather a group of around 10 willing to risk the trip. Then, they would stick to the backroads and travel only at night. She mostly made her trips in the winter, when the nights were longer and most folks were staying indoors.

Her fearlessness was legendary, and as Thomas Garrett (a radical white abolitionist and antislavery leader) 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.”

By the time Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, she had ferried hundreds of fugitive slaves to permanent residences and freedom in Canada, and purchased a home in upstate New York – she split her time between the two, working for charities to help new arrivals set up a home in Canada, and making money to fund her trips south. By this point she had rescued most of her surviving family members from slavery, and although her father had been freed and then purchased his wife’s freedom as well, she brought them to live with her in New York. She was only ~35 years old.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Harriet went as a volunteer to Virginia, where she worked as a nurse, a teacher, and an organizer in the camps set up for runaway slaves.  Soon, though, as those who knew about her exploits as Moses gained powerful roles in the military ranks, she was asked to put her very particular set of skills to use as a spy for the Union army, based in South Carolina. She excelled in this role, and earned the respect and admiration of white military leaders and black soldiers alike.

When the war ended, she was back in Virginia tending to wounded soldiers at the only military hospital for black veterans. She cheered the passage of the 13th amendment, and grieved Lincoln’s assassination there.

Soon after, she returned home to New York on a permanent basis, and traded all of her travels and exploits for the comforts of the home she had worked for and longed for. But she didn’t retire—not by any means. Harriet continued to work, speak, recruit, fundraise and organize for the good of the black community there. She opened her home to anyone who needed a place, and her friends remembered later that she never had fewer than 6 or 8 perfect strangers under her roof, who had nowhere else to go. She became a faithful member of the AME church, where she could be seen dancing in the aisles every Sunday, she worked alongside Susan B. Anthony on feminist causes and women’s rights, and she remarried a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis.

And despite all of her good work, she struggled financially—partially because any money she made, she immediately put to work for the good of others. She was so reluctant to take any help for herself that her friends put together a scheme in which they would take turns leaving baskets of food on her front porch in the middle of the night for her to find in the morning.

Eventually, though, after raising quite a ruckus for several years, she received the military pension she was due and she saved and fundraised enough to buy the property next door to her home – which contained a large house. Her final dream was to create a care home for black elders, a cause that her church and her community rallied around without hesitation. Finally, in June 1908, the entire town gathered for the opening celebration of the Harriet Tubman Home.

As she said to the gathered crowd that day: “I did not take up this work for my own benefit, but for those of my race who need help. The work is now well started and I know God will raise up others to take care of the future.”

From the day she decided to set out for freedom in 1849, all the way through to that very moment, Harriet Tubman demonstrated her unrelenting spirit, her fierce belief in the humanity and rights of people kept as slaves, her persistence and fearlessness, and her unwavering faith that God had brought her down this path, and God would see her home.

In March 1913, she joined her Savior in the song of eternal freedom and praise.

Like Jeremiah, Harriet Tubman was called to go and speak and not be afraid. She had no problem with plucking up and pulling down the system that kept her family in bondage, and she was never sorry for helping to destroy and overthrow it. Then, when the time came to put down the weapons of war and pick up the tools of community building, she was right there, ready to go.

Harriet Tubman was called by God and went, because she knew in her bones this truth: no one is truly free until everyone is free. 

[1] Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

[2] Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

[3] Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman . Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.