Becoming Sojourner Truth: The Northampton Years

Jody Owens

On June 1, 1843, a tall, black woman named Isabella left New York heading east. Isabella had been a slave woman until she walked out of her master's home in the fall of 1826, nine months before she was legally set free by the state of New York. She had also been an evangelist and a member of a radical religious community that had dissolved in scandal and litigation. Now, Isabella was about to begin her third life, that of abolitionist, feminist, and activist; it was this life that would make her famous. Isabella carried little of material value with her from the old life to the new, a few articles of clothing in an old pillowcase, a couple of shillings. But she did have an unshakable belief in God, strong moral principles, and a new name, Sojourner Truth. God-given, or self chosen, the name could not have been more appropriate; truth was her constant impetus, both morally and religiously, and a sojourner she would always be, traveling to speak, sing, pray, and work, staying for only a short while before moving on again.

The journey she began that June in 1843 was one of the most important ones she would ever take. Eventually, after months of preaching, it would take her to Northampton, Massachusetts, where she would once again experiment with community living. This time, though, instead of fanatics and humiliation she would find "accomplished, literary and refined persons living in a plain and simple manner". It was this community, and the ideals and influence of the people involved, that would help refine the ex-slave woman Isabella into one of the most renowned reformists of her era.

The Northampton Association for Education and Industry was a utopian community difficult to characterize. It was "religious in purpose, but secular in organization, nonsectarian, not dependent on a single leader and lacking prophets, seers, or mystics who wanted to make it a vehicle for their beliefs." It was located in a rural area, but depended on manufacturing for most of its income. The NAEI used a joint-stock structure, in which financial control was retained by members who were stockholders, while the day-to-day operations were under the control of all resident members, stockholders or not. The principles of the community were set in three arguments.

"First, radical social change was necessary in order to overcome social ills: "when existing institutions are found inadequate to promote the further progress of society," communitarian groups could lead the way forward to fulfill God's designs for humanity, and bring about equality and cooperation. Second, human beings should be brought into harmony with one another and with nature, to promote "progressive culture and the high development of all the powers and faculties of our nature." Communities would do this by combining work, domestic life, and education, to make a "union of spiritual, intellectual and practical attainments." Third, life in community would be superior to the "separate and conflicting action" of existing society, where social ranks, based on "invidious distinctions," divided "culture, skill and labor" from one another, separating intellect from action and making it barren, dividing labor form "speculative pursuits" and turning it into degrading drudgery. Work . . . would become a source of "health, education and happiness."

Truth "did not fall in love at first sight" with the four-story brick building that doubled as a silk factory and dormitory. In fact, the place looked so uninviting that she agreed to stay for only one night. But, after having met some of the members, she gave the community a second look, and decided to stay. Sojourner gradually became attached to the place and the people. She found that African Americans had already been accepted as members and that all members were paid an equal wage for their work. There was no leader to interpret the word of God or give direction to the group, but instead members practiced freedom of religion, thought, and speech. The prevailing sentiment was antislavery; members took women's equality as a given and supported temperance, vegetarianism, and peace. Truth discovered the Association to be a "Community composed of some of the choicest spirits of the age, where all was characterized by an equality of feeling, a liberty of thought and speech, and a largeness of soul" that she had not encountered in her earlier life.

How did this group provide a framework for the evolving Sojourner Truth? By giving her an avenue for her unorthodox religious views, by acquainting her with some of the most progressive minds of the time, and by providing a forum where she could witness and participate in rhetorical and religious speaking.

Religion was only a small part of the Association's ideology; many members were critical of orthodox religion and a paid ministry. As nonresistant abolitionists many members of the Northampton community were "come-outers", they sought to make churches free of the taint of slaveholding and saw withdrawal from churches as "the start of a movement that might unite all Christian reformers in a nondenominational fellowship and abandon the authority of churches and ministers altogether."

This approach would have appealed to Sojourner who had been through a variety of religious changes during her life. As a slave she had begun a direct communication with God, often calling on him in times of distress as she had been taught by her mother. The young Isabella believed that God was unaware of her thoughts and prayers unless she spoke to him aloud, so she developed the habit of finding a place in the woods where she could loudly communicate her needs to him. She was also convinced in the literal intervention of God; Isabella would ask for exactly what she needed and had faith that God would provide. Early in 1827 she experienced a Pentecostal rebirth, when "God revealed himself to her with all the suddenness of a flash of lightning, showing her, ... that he pervaded the universe..." She then felt her own wickedness, and the need for someone who could speak to God for her. In this way, Isabella said she came to know Jesus. While in New York City, Isabella had tried being a missionary to prostitutes, took part in revival meetings, joined churches of various denominations, tried fasting, and became involved with a self-professed prophet who called himself a Jew. When she left New York, she was an evangelist with more traditional Christian beliefs and an anticipation of the Day of Judgment.

Worship in the Northampton community was nondenominational and free of creed or formal leadership. There were no religious services, but weekly Sunday meetings were held, at which religious matters were discussed and the community's principles were celebrated. These "free" meetings could combine elements of Quaker meetings, evangelical "concerts" for prayer and singing, lecture and debates. Summer meetings were held outdoors, symbolizing a closeness between God and nature and a rejection of artificial institutions. Participation was open to all, visitors and members alike. While a member of the Association, Sojourner participated in the meetings, spoke, prayed or sang at the simple weddings, funerals and other occasions, and continued to take part in revival meetings. The Northampton community provided Sojourner with an open place of worship where her individual, eclectic beliefs could be practiced without fear of the censure she had experienced as a black woman in New York City.

The woman who left New York in 1843 was strong of body and sharp of mind. She was tall, almost 6 feet, and had spent years working as a domestic and a field hand. She had, remarkably, brought two suits to trial, and won them both. The first was to regain custody of her son, who had illegally been sold out of state, and the second was a slander suit against Benjamin and Ann Folger, two members of the New York commune that implicated Isabella in the death of another member, Elijah Pierson.

But she was also illiterate and unworldly. Her experience as a young woman had been limited to that of a slave; she was born, raised, lived and worked in the same county in upstate New York until she was in her thirties. While in New York she was often under the protection of the families she worked for, and while she did feel "despised" as an "ignorant" black who could not even "speak English very well" her determination to "go among the white people and learn all she could" seems to have been limited to learning to become an evangelist.

Her gullibility and naiveté are apparent during this part of her life in her relationships with her masters and with her involvement in the Kingdom of Matthias. Despite the hardships she had suffered under slavery, when Isabella left her last master, John Dumont, after he had broken a promise to free her a year before the legal date, she "thought it was mean to run away, but I could walk away". She also left some her children with the Dumonts when she moved New York City thinking to be reunited with them later when she could make a home for them. As a member of the Matthias community, Isabella played a submissive role, performing heavy kitchen and farm duties, and taking on the subservient female roles expected in a male-dominated sect. In her years before Northampton, Sojourner seemed to have an inordinate trust in authoritarian figures, perhaps due to a combination of her ignorance and her experience as a slave dependent on the care of her master.

In Northampton, Sojourner met men like George W. Benson, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Samuel L. Hill, all of whom were leading abolitionists of the time. She met reformists such as David Mack, Erasmus Darwin Hudson, and William Adam. She also met strong black leaders like David Ruggles, once a key figure in New York City's Underground Railroad, and Frederick Douglass, one of the many passengers Ruggles had helped to freedom. This was Sojourner's first association with supporters of nonviolence, women's rights, and antislavery. It was in Northampton among people that Douglass described as the most democratic he had ever met, that she made friendships and connections that would follow her throughout her life.

While Truth remained illiterate throughout her life, her interactions in the Northampton Association gave her an education not found in books. In her later years, Sojourner was a shrewd woman who learned to use her illiteracy to her advantage as a speaker. Douglass himself had been advised to do the same by Garrison and Parker Pillsbury, to make him seem more believable. When speaking in public she used a unique accent that had elements of guttural Dutch, broken white English, and black dialect (but not Southern black dialect) and standard English. However, in private conversation her language had been described by a Chicago journalist as being "grammatically correct, and she can say what she means as well as the most learned college professor."

Douglass' description of Sojourner as he knew her in Northampton gives us some insight into who she was and who she was to become:

"I met here for the first time that strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flint-like common sense, who seemed to feel it her duty to trip me up in my speeches and to ridicule my efforts to speak and act like a person of cultivation and refinement. I allude to Sojourner Truth. She was a genuine specimen of the uncultured Negro. She cared very little for elegance of speech or refinement of manners. She seemed to please herself and others best when she put her ideas in the oddest forms. She was much respected at Florence, for she was honest, industrious, and amiable. Her quaint speeches easily gave her an audience, and she was one of the most useful members of the Community in its day of small things."

Even though he seems to have felt uncomfortable with Sojourner's choosing to play the role of the ignorant, Douglass recognized her down-to-earth qualities and natural intelligence, and when she died commented that she was "remarkable" for her "independence and courageous self-assertion". An exchange between the two antislavery activists, as reported by Oliver Johnson, further illustrates the very different approaches used by Douglass and Truth. In August 1852, in a Friends meeting house in Salem, Ohio, Douglass gave a speech that expressed his "apprehension that slavery could only be destroyed by bloodshed". Truth used her wit and wisdom to thrust at Douglass a single Nietzsche type question that shows not only her great intelligence, but captures the essence of the nonviolent abolitionism learned in Northampton:

When his argument on this point had reached its climax, and the audience had been wrought to a high pitch of excitement by his rhetoric and in answer to his exclamation, "What is the use of Moral Suasion to a people thus trampled in the dust?" was heard the voice of Sojourner Truth, who asked, with startling effect, "Is God gone?" Mr. Douglass stood for a moment in silence, and seemed fully conscious of the force of the question; and when he replied he could only affirm that God was present in the mind of the oppressed to stimulate them to violence! Sojourner's arrow, however, was sped by more than human power, and it pierced with deadly effect the Atheism which teaches that the Sword is mightier than the Truth. It was indeed sublime to see the plausible sophistry of Mr. Douglass rendered powerless by a simple question from the mouth of an illiterate woman.

The Northampton Association dissolved into a "neighborhood community" in November of 1846. New houses built on community property, along with the Association's reputation for equality and religious tolerance, attracted new settlers, among them Olive Gilbert, Sojourner's amanuensis. Sojourner herself, with the help of Samuel Hill, bought her first house in Northampton in 1850 and soon afterwards took to the road speaking and selling her new narrative. Sojourner spent more and more time away from Northampton, eventually buying a second home in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her time in Northampton amounted to six or seven years total, but the value of the time increased over the years as Sojourner continued her remarkable transformation from naive, illiterate ex-slave into one of the most respected and renown women activists of her time.

This page was last modified on Friday, April 12, 2002.