July 20: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1902; Amelia Bloomer, 1894; Sojourner Truth, 1883; and Harriet Ross Tubman, 1913, Liberators and Prophets
July 20, 2010 18 Comments
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About these commemorations
Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815–1902
Born into an affluent, strict Calvinist family in upstate New York, Elizabeth, as a young woman, took seriously the Presbyterian doctrines of predestination and human depravity. She became very depressed, but resolved her mental crises through action. She dedicated her life to righting the wrongs perpetrated upon women by the Church and society.
She and four other women organized the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, July 19–20, 1848. The event set her political and religious agenda for the next 50 years. She held the Church accountable for oppressing women by using Scripture to enforce subordination of women in marriage and to prohibit them from ordained ministry. She held society
accountable for denying women equal access to professional jobs, property ownership, the vote, and for granting less pay for the same work.
In 1881, the Revised Version of the Bible was published by a committee which included no women scholars. Elizabeth founded her own committee of women to write a commentary on Scripture, and applying the Greek she learned as a child from her minister, focused on passages used to oppress and discriminate against women.
Although Elizabeth blamed male clergy for women’s oppression, she attended Trinity Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls, with her friend Amelia Bloomer. As a dissenting prophet, Elizabeth preached hundreds of homilies and political speeches in pulpits throughout the nation. Wherever she visited, she was experienced as a holy presence and a liberator. She never lost her sense of humor despite years of contending with opposition, even from friends. In a note to Susan B. Anthony, she said: “Do not feel depressed, my dear friend, what is good in us is immortal, and if the sore trials we have endured are sifting out pride and selfishness, we shall not have suffered in vain.” 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 soul.”
Amelia Jenks Bloomer 1818–1894
Amelia Jenks, the youngest of six children, born in New York to a pious Presbyterian family, early on demonstrated a kindness of heart and strict regard for truth and right. As a young woman, she joined in the temperance, anti-slavery and women’s rights movements.
Amelia Jenks Bloomer never intended to make dress reform a major platform in women’s struggle for justice. But, women’s fashion of the day prescribed waist-cinching corsets, even for pregnant women, resulting in severe health problems. Faith and fashion collided explosively when she published in her newspaper, The Lily, a picture of herself in loose-fitting Turkish trousers, and began wearing them publicly. Clergy, from their pulpits, attacked women who wore them, citing Moses: “Women should not dress like men.” Amelia fired back: “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.” Her popularity soared as she engaged clergy in public debate.
She insisted that “certain passages in the Scriptures relating to women had been given a strained and unnatural meaning.” And, of St. Paul she said: “Could he have looked into the future and foreseen all the sorrow and strife, the cruel exactions and oppression on the one hand and the blind submission and cringing fear on the other, that his words have sanctioned and caused, he would never have uttered them.” And of women’s right to freedom, “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.”
Later in life, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a frontier town, she worked to establish churches, libraries, and school houses. She provided hospitality for traveling clergy of all denominations, and for temperance lecturers and reformers. Trinity Episcopal Church, Seneca Falls, New York, where she was baptized, records her as a “faithful Christian missionary all her life.”
Sojourner Truth, “Miriam of the Later Exodus” 1797–8 to 1883
Isabella (Sojourner Truth) was the next-to-youngest child of several born to James and Elizabeth, slaves owned by a wealthy Dutchman in New York. For the first 28 years of her life she was a slave, sold from household to household. She fled slavery with the help of Quaker friends, first living in Philadelphia, then New York, where she joined the Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church when African-Americans were being denied the right to worship with white members of St. George’s Church in Philadelphia. Belle (as Isabella was called) became a street-corner evangelist in poverty-stricken areas of New York City, but quickly realized people needed food, housing and warm clothing. She focused her work on a homeless shelter for women.
When she was about 46, Belle believed she heard God say to her, “Go east.” So, she set out east for Long Island and Connecticut. Stopping at a Quaker farm for a drink of water, she was asked her name. “My name is Sojourner,” Belle said. “What is your last name?” the woman asked. Belle thought of all her masters’ names she had carried through life. Then the thought came: “The only master I have now is God, and His name is Truth.”
Sojourner became a traveling preacher, approaching white religious meetings and campgrounds and asking to speak. Fascinated by her charismatic presence, her wit, wisdom, and imposing six-foot height, they found her hard to refuse. She never learned to read or write, but quoted extensive Bible passages from memory in her sermons. She ended by singing a “home-made” hymn and addressing the crowd on the evils of slavery. Her reputation grew and she became part of the abolitionist and women’s rights speakers’ network.
During a women’s rights convention in Ohio, Sojourner gave the speech for which she is best remembered: “Ain’t I a Woman.” She had listened for hours to clergy attack women’s rights and abolition, using the Bible to support their oppressive logic: God had created women to be weak and blacks to be a subservient race.
Harriet Ross Tubman, “Moses of her People” 1820–1913
Slave births were recorded under property, not as persons with names; but we know that Harriet Ross, sometime during 1820 on a Maryland Chesapeake Bay plantation, was the sixth of eleven children born to Ben Ross and Harriet Green. Although her parents were loving and they enjoyed a cheerful family life inside their cabin, they lived in fear of the children being sold off at any time.
Harriet suffered beatings and a severe injury, but grew up strong and defiant, refusing to appear happy and smiling to her owners. To cope with brutality and oppression, she turned to religion. Her favorite Bible story was about Moses who led the Israelites out of slavery. The slaves prayed for a Moses of their own.
When she was about 24, Harriet escaped to Canada, but could not forget her parents and other slaves she left behind. Working with the Quakers, she made at least 19 trips back to Maryland between 1851 and 1861, freeing over 300 people by leading them into Canada. She was so successful, $40,000 was offered for her capture.
Guided by God through omens, dreams, warnings, she claimed her struggle against slavery had been commanded by God. She foresaw the Civil War in a vision. When it began, she quickly joined the Union Army, serving as cook and nurse, caring for both Confederate and Union soldiers. She served as a spy and scout. She led 300 black troops on a raid which freed over 750 slaves, making her the first American woman to lead troops into military action.
In 1858–9, she moved to upstate New York where she opened her home to African-American orphans and to helpless old people. Although she was illiterate, she founded schools for African-American children. She joined the fight for women’s rights, working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but supported African-American women in their efforts to found their own organizations to address equality, work and education.
I O God, whose Spirit guideth us into all truth and maketh
us free: Strengthen and sustain us as thou didst thy
servants Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner, and Harriet. Give
us vision and courage to stand against oppression and
injustice and all that worketh against the glorious liberty
to which thou callest all thy children; through Jesus Christ
our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
II 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 Savior, who
lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for
ever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 4:10–11
Preface of Baptism
Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.
We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?
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