Tubman, or as she became known Black Moses, returned for her sisters and brothers to bring them the means of deliverance in the same way that Mary brought good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples. Tubman illustrates what Isaiah says in chapter 52 verse 7,
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
Your God reigns!
I would recoil at anyone describing the feet of most pro slavery preachers of the antebellum South as, ‘beautiful‘. They did not proclaim peace, good tidings or salvation, and they certainly misrepresented the reign of Yahweh to slaves listening to their carefully crafted homilies. In contrast, Tubman represents the best of early America while her contemporaries represent a very questionable American church. This former slave articulated her beliefs by going into the blood thirsty antebellum South to set free those held in bondage all their lives. I must admit that most of what I’d heard about Harriet Tubman seemed like legend and often times, if I’m honest, it seemed mythical. What I came to realize is that within much of early American church history someone like Tubman was omitted because of how they operated as members of the church. American evangelicals enjoy church men who’ve spent much of their time behind a desk with quill, ink jar writing under faint candlelight. Tubman worked with a lamp, gun and passionate obedience to God the Holy Spirit.
Tubman’s ministry, yes ministry, occurred during the time of the Second Great Awakening. Her presence within this particular period of history adds an interesting layer to the already blistering contradiction of American Evangelical life. This Second Awakening packed American Baptist and Methodist churches but ignored, or was complicit with the oppressive system that enslaved black bodies. These giants come crashing down when their moral negligence becomes the topic of conversation. Men like Dabney and Thornwell produced the pedagogy of imperialism while Tubman protested through this subversive movement of freedom.
The risk that Tubman undertook every trip was equal to repeatedly running into a burning building to respond to the faint cries of victims. The sound of pain was unbearable and those with an empathetic heart could not ignore the plight of those in bondage. Some within church circles hush the noise of those on the margins by proof texting their negligence with a misapplication of, “…the poor you will have with you always.” (Matthew 26:11) The Underground Railroad was a theological statement if there ever was one. The theologs of the day wrote down and exchanged amongst themselves truths about God, humanity, sin and salvation. Tubman communicated what she knew about God by climbing through swamps, creeks and plantations. This silent railroad held great risk but offered eternal rewards.
On the surface Tubman may have appeared defenseless and compliant. ‘Yessum’, ‘Nosur’–this was the cloak worn by those preparing for an escape to the North. The appropriate use of code switching could mean life and death for those existing under oppression. The time honored tradition of reviewing Tubman’s work during black history month is nice. For many she in a novelty, but we do her a disservice if we neglect to considered her body of work against the backdrop of the brutality and injustice of chattel slavery.
Tubman’s life prompts some questions about our willingness to expose ourselves to danger, even the imminent possibility of death on behalf of others. She embodies what the Apostle Paul,
For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:7-8)
Her love for the enslaved does not allow her the pause of comfort. She is working for the liberation of others. Her life and love are Christ-like. If we could step away from the pulpit for just a minute and observe that in church history there was more happening outside of the pulpit than we might care to admit. God was at work freeing slaves through an old black woman named Harriet. Tubman resembled Caleb–she would not be denied.
An interesting question follows this Black History moment. How would one classify this work? Is this social justice work, kingdom work or how about church ministry? The neat categories formed in the seclusion and protection of a study may appear enlightening depending on your status in society. What Tubman experienced and observed engaged her theology. The sufferings of her brothers and sisters, the desire for freedom and an understanding that the God who freed Israel from Egypt was in itself a theological axiom for Tubman.
She risked everything to reach those who desired freedom but she couldn’t reach all. This well known quote from Tubman captures a struggle with some of those she worked with.
I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.
She articulated her understanding of God’s calling on her life. She lived missionally, as it were.
Twan’t me, ’twas de Lord! Jes’ so long as he wanted to use me, he would take keer of me, an’ when he didn’t want me no longer, I was ready to go; I always tole him, I’m gwine to hole stiddy on to you, an’ you’ve got to see me trou.
Tubman’s faith drove her to venture South nineteen times to bring back over sixty black slaves to freedom in the North as well as Canada. An astonishing and amazing feet. I bristle at the absence of black life within the volumes of church history, as if the only martyrs were of of fair complexion. The church has much to learn from those slaves and their descendants. Throughout most of her life she involved herself in the liberating work of Christ among the oppressed, marginalized and forgotten. Take notes, this is real prophetic Christianity.