Arguably three of the most influential African Americans of the 19th century are Harriet Tubman, the ‘Moses’ of her people; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and Sojourner Truth. They may in fact be three of the most influential Americans of any race of that era. Truth was an itinerant preacher, anti-slavery activist, and women’s rights activist. Born a slave she would develop into an acclaimed public speaker, achieving a stature that was matched by very few of any race. Luminaries of her era sought an audience with her, including Douglass, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, women suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and president Abraham Lincoln himself. More than a hundred years after her death her life remains a shining example of incredible courage, of an unshakable faith in God, and an uncanny ability to use that faith in deceptively simple but highly effective ways in the fight for justice, equality and respect among all peoples.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella in Ulster County, New York, in 1797 . Her masters were Dutch, which was the language she spoke as a child. Her father was James, and her mother, Betsey, who was called Mau-mau Bett. Isabella was the second youngest of her parents’ children—ten or twelve in all. All siblings older than she were sold before she could develop memories of them .
In her Narrative she recalls her earliest memories of her first owner’s house, which he had turned into a hotel. She and the other slaves slept in the cellar, a ‘dismal chamber, its only light consisting of a few panes of glass, through which she thinks the sun never shone…the space between the loose boards of the floor, and the uneven earth below, was often filled with mud and water, the uncomfortable splashing of which were as annoying as its noxious vapours must have been chilling and fatal to health’ .
At night after her work was done, Mau-mau Bett would sit with Isabella and her younger brother, Peter, ‘under the sparkling vault of heaven.’ She spoke to her other children, long taken away, of the only ‘Being that could effectually aid or protect them.’ She told them that God ‘hears and sees’ you, and, ask him to help you when you are ‘beaten or cruelly treated’ and ‘he will hear you’ .
Isabella would attend religious services conducted by her mother during the evenings. The services were a mixture of African ‘animism’ and Christianity .
When she was nine Isabella was sold at auction for $100 . She was resold twice more, the last time to John Dumont of Kingston, Ulster county, NY, and a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. Dumont purchased her for $175 .
John Dumont is described as ‘nursed in the very lap of slavery’ and ‘being naturally a man of kind feelings, treated his slaves with all the consideration he did his other animals, and more, perhaps. (her italics) . Dumont would sometimes ‘whip’ her, she says, sometimes ‘soundly’ but never cruelly . She sought to please her master, so much so that she was referred to as ‘the white folks’ nigger’, by other slaves .
She spent sixteen years on the Dumont estate, where she grew to almost six feet, and bore five children to the man she was forced to ‘marry’ .
While living at the Dumont estate, Isabelle prayed to God daily. She found refuge in a lonely place—a small island in the middle of a stream in the woods. Here she would speak loudly ‘under the open canopy of heaven’ where, she believed, God would hear her prayers .
Slow Road to Freedom
Starting in 1799 New York State passed a series of laws aimed at eventual emancipation for its bonded population. In 1817 a law was passed that would free all slaves born before 1799, by 1827 . In 1826 Dumont promised to release Isabella early, by July 1826, but soon reneged, claiming that she had not completed her service to him. Learning that she would not be set free early, Isabella, now in her late twenties, walked away from Dumont, taking her infant Sophia, with her. She was unable to take her older children  because New York law required slaves born between 1799 and 1827 serve a period of indentured servitude past 1827: males born in that period would not be free until the age of 28, females, 25 .
She eventually found refuge and employment with a couple, Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen (in her Narrative they are called the Van Wageners). The Van Wagenens lived not far from Dumont and were also members of the Dutch Reformed Church. When Dumont came to retrieve his property, Isabella and her daughter, the Van Wagenens, abolitionists, paid Dumont $25 for the value of the outstanding services he claimed she owed–$20 for Isabella and $5 for her daughter.
While at the Van Wagenens Isabella adopted their last name as her own.
Isabella soon learned that her only son, Peter, five years old, had been sold by Dumont, and through a series of transactions had eventually ended up in Alabama. It was illegal for New York slaves to be sold out of State. She returned to Dumont and complained about the removal of her son. Her former mistress replied: ‘”Ugh! A fine fuss to make about a little nigger! Why, haven’t you as many of ‘em left as you can see to and take care of? A pity ‘tis, the niggers are not all in Guinea!! Making such a halloo-balloo about the neighbourhood; and all for a paltry nigger!!!”’ .
With the help of an unnamed Quaker family, Isabella, who never learned to read or write, filed a complaint at the court house in Kingston, the Seat of Ulster County. She was given a writ which she served on Solomon Gedney, the man ultimately responsible for selling Peter out of state. Facing a fine of $1,000 and fourteen years in prison, Gedney promptly arranged for the boy’s return from Alabama. He kept the child however, as his property. Determined to have her son, Isabella sought the help of a lawyer and the Quakers, who eventually delivered the boy to his mother .
The summer of 1827 marked a watershed event in Isabella’s life. African-Dutch slaves celebrated Pinkster, a celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is celebrated among English-speaking Christians on Whitsuntide .
Pinkster that year was on June 4th, exactly one month before New York State’s emancipation for Isabella and others born prior to 1799 . Isabella experienced a profound spiritual awakening, which has been compared to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus . In a vision she experienced God’s greatness and her own worthlessness.
‘God revealed himself to her, with all the suddenness of a flash of lightning, showing her, “in the twinkling of an eye, that he was all over”—that he pervaded the universe—“and that there was no place where God was not.” She became instantly conscious of her great sin in forgetting her almighty Friend and “ever-present help in time of trouble.” All her unfulfilled promises arose before her, like a vexed sea whose waves run mountains high, and her soul, which seemed but one mass of lies, shrunk back aghast from the “awful look” of him whom she had formerly talked to, as if he had been a being like herself; and she would now fain have hid herself in the bowels of the earth, to have escaped his dread presence” . She desired to talk to God, but her vileness utterly forbade it, and she was not able to prefer a petition .
‘Then a space seemed opening between herself and an insulted Deity…But who was this friend?
‘”Who are you?” she exclaimed, as the vision brightened into a form distinct, beaming with the beauty of holiness, and radiant with love. She then said, audibly addressing the mysterious visitant—“I know you, and I don’t know you.” Meaning, “You seem perfectly familiar, I feel that you not only love me, but that you always have loved me–yet I know you not—I cannot call you by name…Who are you?” was the cry of her heart, and her whole soul was in one deep prayer that this heavenly personage might be revealed to her, and remain with her. At length, after bending both soul and body with the intensity of this desire, till breath and strength seemed failing, and she could maintain her position no longer, an answer came to her, saying distinctly, “It is Jesus.” “Yes,” she responded, “it is Jesus” .
New York City
A year after freedom Isabella moved to New York City with her son,  and two ‘traveling companions,’ Mr. and Miss Grear . In New York City the Grears introduced her to a wealthy businessman, James Latourette, his wife, and a circle of Methodist friends. Isabella had by now become a Methodist and initially joined a Methodist church, but soon moved to an African Methodist Zion church .
James Latourette had parted ways with the mainstream Methodist church because of its ‘falling away’ from the teachings of its founder, John Wesley. He conducted prayer meetings at his home and his group became known as ‘Perfectionists’. His contemporaries included wealthy businessman, Elijah Pierson, who would soon play a pivotal role in Isabella’s life, and Arthur Tappan, a leading abolitionist of the 1830s .
While living with the Latourettes Isabella preached at camp meetings, and established herself as a ‘powerful and moving’ preacher .
James Latourette’s perfectionists had its roots in a prayer group of wealthy married women, called the Retrenchment Society,  to which Mrs. Latourette belonged. The Society was founded by one Frances Folger . Members of the Society not only held prayer meetings at their homes but ventured into the streets of New York doing the work of ‘missionaries.’ Isabella would accompany these ladies into the most ‘wretched abodes of vice and misery’ . Not least of these areas was the notorious Five Points neighbourhood of lower Manhattan where they would pray with prostitutes, criminals and the homeless .
During this period Isabella also preached at ‘camp meetings,’ sometimes appearing with John Newland Maffit, himself a gifted speaker, who would later become chaplain of the U.S. Congress . In the early 1930s however when he appeared with Isabella, he was part of a revivalist movement sweeping the country called the Second Great Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening and Revivalism
The revivalist tide referred to as The Second Great Awakening would have a life-changing effect on Isabella and have a profound effect on the person she would eventually become. As its name implies the Second Great Awakening was the second of two great revivalist waves that swept through the American States.
Services were held at camp meetings that sometimes lasted several days. The meetings had their genesis in Kentucky in the early years of the eighteenth century. They promoted an interest in things spiritual, of being reborn as a Christian, a rebirth of the spirit. Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist preachers participated. Some attracted as many as 25,000 people, sometimes from as far as 100 miles away. This was at a time when Lexington, then the largest town in Kentucky, had 1,800 citizens .
Maffit was part of this movement, the leaders of which included clergyman Timothy Dwight, instrumental in the earliest years of the movement and who became a president of Yale College,  and the evangelist, Charles Grandison Finney. Charles Finney made a significant impression upon the religious life of 19th century America, and his influence is still evident today. Called the “father of modern revivalism” by some historians, he paved the way for later revivalists like Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham .
While staying with the Latourettes, preaching and visiting the needy, Isabella worked for different families as a domestic. Elijah Pierson was a wealthy businessman with whom she worked, and his wife, Sarah, had been a member of the Retrenchment Society .
One day in May 1832, Isabella was alone at the Pierson home where she lived and worked since the previous autumn. There was a knock on the door. She opened it and ‘beheld Mathias, and her early impression of seeing Jesus in the flesh rushed into her mind.’ She allowed the bearded stranger in and after speaking with him felt that ‘God had sent him to set up his kingdom’ . Mathias soon ingratiated himself with the devoutly religious and recently widowed Elijah Pierson, convincing him of a joint destiny, like John the Baptist and Jesus, with Mathias being the ‘Father’, God upon the earth, and Pierson to go before him and prepare the way for him .
Pierson rented a house for Mathias in October of 1832. Isabella had not only become Mathias’ domestic but had given him some of her savings . By spring of the following year Mathias had added Ann Folger, sister-in-law of Retrenchment society founder Frances, and Ann’s husband Benjamin, to his nascent ‘kingdom.’ The Folgers too were deeply religious and wealthy abolitionists. With the Folger’s joining Mathias’ ‘kingdom’, the entire sect moved on to the couple’s 29-acre estate on the banks of the Hudson River in Westchester County, thirty miles north of New York City. By this time Mathias’ group consisted of Pierson, the Folgers, Isabella and a few others.
Mathias took firm control of his followers. Isabella’s preaching came to an end when he forbade women from preaching. Eating ‘swine’ was dismissed as being of the devil. Those joining the group were to hand over their material possessions. The Folger’s estate was placed in Mathias’ name.
As the ‘Father’ Mathias declared Ann Folger his ‘match spirit’ and ‘Mother’, namely his wife. A ‘working class’ woman of the group, Catherine, was initially assigned to Benjamin Folger as a sexual partner. Mathias then forced his eighteen-year-old daughter, also named Isabella, who was already married, to be Folger’s ‘match spirit.’
Mathias’ ‘kingdom’ disintegrated in the late summer of 1834. Elijah Pierson was in ill health, having suffered a series of seizures . On the evening of July 28, 1834, Elijah Pierson ate two ‘dessert sized’ plates of blackberries. The blackberries had been picked by Mathias and prepared with sugar by Isabella .
The following afternoon Elijah became violently ill. Matthias forbade any doctors or medical aid for Pierson. Pierson agreed, saying only prayer would save him. He was left alone, ‘purging and puking’. By the evening of Tuesday, July 29th Elijah Pierson was dead . Soon thereafter the prophet Mathias was charged with murdering Elijah Pierson by poisoning. The sensational trial, gathered much coverage in the local newspapers, with reports of sexual misconduct among the members. Three books were written about the kingdom, one being, Fanaticism, by Gilbert Vale . Through it all Isabella remained loyal to Mathias.
Mathias, whose real name was Robert Matthews, was acquitted of the murder but was convicted and sentenced to four months in prison for beating his daughter, ostensibly to force her to become Benjamin Folger’s ‘match spirit’ .
Benjamin and Ann Folger reconciled, then accused Isabella of attempting to poison them. Isabella sued them for slander, obtaining twelve character references to bolster her case. Her former master, John Dumont, and friend Isaac Van Wagenen, were among those providing character references:
This is to certify, that I am well acquainted with Isabella, this coloured woman; I have been acquainted with her from her infancy, she has been in my employ for one year, and she was a faithful servant, honest, and industrious; and have always known her to be in good report by all who employed her.
ISAAC S. VAN WAGENEN.
Oct. 13th, 1834.
This is to certify, that Isabella, this coloured woman, lived with me since the year 1810, and that she has always been a good and faithful servant, and the eighteen years that she was with me, I always found her to be perfectly honest; at the time she came here she was between 12 and 14 years of age, and we have never heard any thing disparaging against her since she left here, until I heard this; on the contrary, I have always heard her well spoken of by every one that has employed her.
JOHN J. DUMONT.
New Paltz, Ulster County.
Kingston, Oct. 14th, 1834.
Isabella won her case and was awarded damages of $125 .
After his release from prison Mathias wandered west. At one point he met Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church. According to the Joseph Smith Papers, Mathias dined with Smith in early November 1835. They spoke of prophecy, and Smith allowed him to speak to his congregation. Afterwards Mathias claimed to be a direct descendent of Mathias, the disciple who replaced Judas after he killed himself. Smith, on hearing this and having learned of Mathias’ recent past–the sensational scandal and trial in New York– informed Mathias that he, Mathias, was of the devil and must leave. Mathias complied .
There is little in Sojourner Truth’s Narrative after the dissolution of Mathias’ kingdom in 1834, and the start of her ministry for which she would become famous nearly a decade later, save for letters from her son, Peter, who repeatedly fell in and out of trouble.
The Call of the Spirit
By 1843 Isabella eventually became disillusioned with her adopted city of New York, which she had come to call, the ‘Second Sodom.’
‘She…inquired within herself, why it was that for all her unwearied labors, she had nothing to show; why it was that others, with much less care and labor, could hoard up treasures for themselves and children? She became more and more convinced…that everything she had undertaken in the city of New York had finally proved a failure; and where her hopes had been raised the highest, there she felt the failure had been greatest, and disappointment most severe .
She felt the ‘call of the spirit’ to leave, to travel east and lecture . So on the morning of June 1st, 1843, she packed a few articles of clothing in a pillow case. She informed the woman with whom she was staying that her name was no longer Isabella, but Sojourner, and she was leaving, traveling east. When asked why, she replied, ‘The Spirit calls me there, and I must go’ . She headed east, and, unlike Lot’s wife, did not look back.
© Weldon Turner 2017 All Rights Reserved
Next month, Sojourner Truth, Part 2
Portrait of Sojourner Truth
Credit: Hulton Archive/ Staff
Collection: Hulton Archive
Date created: 01 January, 1860
Getty license type: Editorial
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