Our church calendar is full of days dedicated to various saints and the important people of Christianity. Some are well known — like St. Patrick, who we remember on March 17. Others are Biblical figures — the disciples, Mary and Joseph, Mary Magdalene and Paul all have their days. Others are less well known, but have been faithful in difficult circumstances or made an impact on the Church. They make up what is known as the “lesser feasts and fasts” of the church.
Today we remember four powerful women — Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Amelia Bloomer. (One may wonder why four such powerful and faithful women are crammed into one day, but that’s another discussion.) The book Holy Women, Holy Men, which gives biographies of each day’s saints, calls them “liberators and prophets.”
All four of these women had fascinating lives and worked tirelessly, and at great risk to their own lives, to move the nation to embrace the equality of all God’s children, particularly women and African Americans. It is worth sharing a few paragraphs about each of them.
Sojourner Truth (1797-8 to 1881) was born into slavery, owned by a wealthy Dutchman in New York. For the first 28 years of her life, Isabella (her given name) was a slave, sold from household to household. Quaker friends helped her flee slavery. She first lived in Philadelphia, then New York. She became a street-corner evangelist in poverty-stricken areas of New York City, and helped start a homeless shelter for women.
When she was about 46, Belle believed she heard God say to her, “Go east,” so she set out for Connecticut. She stopped at a Quaker house for a drink of water. The woman there asked her name. “My name is Sojourner,” she said. Then the woman asked her last name. Belle thought of all her masters’ names she had carried through her life. Then the thought came “The only master I have now is God, and His name is Truth.”
Sojourner became a traveling preacher. She never learned to read or write, but could quote extensive Bible passages from memory. She became a well-known abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights. Her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” was delivered at a women’s rights convention in Ohio. It was in response to clergy who (mis) used the Bible to attack abolition and women’s rights.
To hear actress Kerry Washington deliver this three-minute speech click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ry_i8w2rdQY
Harriet Ross Tubman (1820-1913) Harriet Ross was born into slavery on a Maryland Chesapeake Bay plantation. She grew up strong and defiant, refusing to appear happy and smiling to her owners. She suffered beatings and a severe injury. To cope with the brutality and oppression, she turned to religion. Her favorite Bible story was Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery. Harriet and the other slaves prayed for a Moses of their own.
When she was about 24 she escaped to Canada, but could not forget her parents and other slaves she left behind, With the help of Quakers she made at least 19 trips back to Maryland between 1852-1861, bringing more than 300 people to freedom in Canada. A $40,000 bounty was offered for her capture.She believed her struggle against slavery had been commanded by God.
When the Civil War began, she joined the Union Army as a nurse and cook, and as a spy and scout. She led 300 Black troops on a raid which freed more than 750 slaves, making her the first American woman to lead troops into battle.
She moved to upstate New York, where she opened her home to African-American orphans, and founded schools for Black children. She also joined the fight for women’s rights with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was born into an affluent, strict Calvinist family in upstate New York, where she was taught to believe in the Presbyterian doctrines of predestination and human depravity. She became very depressed and resolved to dedicate her life to righting the wrongs perpetrated against women by the Church and society.
She and four other women organized the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, NY in July 1848. She held the Church accountable for oppressing women by using Scripture to enforce subordination of women in marriage and to prevent them from ordained ministry. She held society accountable for denying women equal access to professional jobs, property ownership, the vote, and equal pay.
As a dissenting prophet she preached hundreds of sermons throughout the nation. She was seen as a holy presence and a liberator. Shortly before she died, she said, “My only regret is that I have not been braver and bolder and truer in the honest conviction of my sou.”
Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894) was born in New York to a pious Presbyterian family. As a young woman she joined the temperance, anti-slavery, and women’s rights movements. She never intended to make dress reform a major platform in women’s struggle for justice. But the fashion of the day prescribed waist-cinching corsets, even for pregnant women, resulting in severe health problems.
Faith and fashion collided when a picture of her in loose fitting trousers was published, and she began wearing them publicly. Clergy took to the pulpit to attack women who wore them, citing Moses: “Women should not dress like men.” Amelia replied, “It matters not what Moses had to say to the men and women of his time about what they should wear. If clergy really cared about what Moses said about clothes, they would all put fringes and blue ribbons on their garments.”
Bloomer’s popularity soared as she engaged clergy in public debate. “The same Power that brought the slave out of bondage will, in His own good time and way, bring about the emancipation of woman, and make her the equal in power and dominion that she was in the beginning.”
Here is a prayer for these liberators and prophets:
O God, whose Spirit guides us into all truth and makes us free: Strengthen and sustain us as you did your servants Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner, and Harriet. Give us vision and courage to stand against oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which you call all your children; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen