Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Feast of Saints Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubmann, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Amelia Jenks Bloomer

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.

I prefer talking about the saints of the first five or six centuries, but there was no way I could ignore these four women. I borrowed freely from the biographical information in Lesser Feasts and Fasts when I first put this together for a sermon a couple years ago.

Today we celebrate four women of the nineteenth century who were dedicated to bringing about the Reign of God by fighting against oppression and injustice. Their stands against sexism and racism helped change our world. Yes, racism and sexism still exist, but all the actions of all four women have made us all aware of the importance of standing up for the rights of all people.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born into an affluent, strict Calvinist family in upstate New York in the year 1815. She was serious about her faith and the Presbyterian doctrines of predestination and human depravity depressed her. She decided that by righting the wrongs which the Church and Western Society had inflicted upon women she could deal with the emotional and spiritual crises she was experiencing. She organized the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in July of 1848, with four other women, setting her religious and political agenda for the next fifty years. She spoke truth to power and was vocal about holding Christianity accountable for oppressing women by using scripture to as a means of subordinating women in marriage and prohibiting them from ordained ministry. She was also determined in holding society accountable for denying women equal access to professional jobs, property ownership, the vote, and for granting less pay for the same work. When the Revised Version of the Bible was published in 1881, she was angry that the Translation Committee had no women scholars as members, so she formed a committee and helped write a Scripture Commentary using the Greek she had learned as child from her minister. The Commentary focused on passages which had been used to oppress and discriminate against women. Even though she blamed male clergy for women’s oppression (and quite correctly, in my opinion), she attended Trinity Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls, New York with her friend Amelia Bloomer. She was a dissenting prophet and was invited to speak in pulpits all over the United States and was seen as a liberator and holy presence. Shortly before she died (in 1902), she said: “My only regret is that I have not been braver and bolder and truer in the honest conviction of my soul.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton's friend Amelia Jenks Bloomer was the youngest of six children, and she, too, was born into a New York Presbyterian family. She was known even as a child as one with a kind heart and a strict regard for truth and right. Even as a young woman she was active in the Temperance, anti-slavery, and women’s rights movements. In those days the fashion for women living in the Western world was that of the corset, which really squeezed a woman's waist. Even pregnant women were expected to have tiny, wasp-like waists, and these corsets were causing serious health problems for women. Amelia Bloomer published a newspaper named The Lily, and she printed a picture of herself in loose-fitting Turkish trousers. She began to wear them publicly and caused quite a scandal as the fashion caught on with some women. Clergy began denouncing the women who wore such trousers, citing Moses as saying: “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 debates with clergy caused her popularity to grow rapidly. She had a very modern understanding of Holy Scripture, and she said that if St. Paul had been able to look into the future and "see 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 never would have uttered them." She later moved to the frontier and worked to establish churches, libraries and schools. Her home parish of Trinity Episcopal Church, Seneca Falls, New York, records her as a “faithful Christian missionary all her life.” She understood that by working for the liberation of slaves, she would help pave the way for the liberation of women. She died in 1894.

Isabella, later known as Sojourner Truth, was the next-to youngest child born to James and Elizabeth, in 1797. The family lived in New York, slaves of a wealthy Dutchman. Isabella spent the first 28 years of her life as a slave, sold from household to household. Some Quaker friends helped her flee her owner, and she lived in Philadelphia for a while, later returning to New York, where she joined Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal church. She was known as Belle, and served as a street-corner evangelist in the poorest areas of New York city. Her street ministry helped her to realize that people needed food, housing and warm clothing more than preaching, and she focused her work on a homeless shelter for women. When she was forty-six years of age, she believed that God told her to “Go East,” so she headed for Long Island and Connecticut. She stopped at a Quaker farm for a drink of water, and when asked her name, she said, “My name is Sojourner.” When asked for her last name, she thought of all her masters’ names she had carried through her life and the thought came: “The only master I have now is God, and His name is Truth.” Sojourner Truth became a traveling preacher, speaking at both black and white camp meetings, speaking against slavery. She never learned to read or write but had committed most of the Bible to memory. She was attending a women’s rights convention in Ohio, listening for hours to clergy attack women’s rights and abolition, using the Bible to support their oppressive logic that God had created women to be weak and blacks to be a subservient race. She stood up and delivered the speech for which she is best remembered, “Ain’t I a Woman” with the line I love: “Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.” She died in the year 1883.

Harriet Ross was born to Ben Ross and Harriet Green in 1820 on a Maryland Chesapeake Bay plantation. She was the middle child of eleven children. She suffered beatings and was seriously injured several times, but she grew up strong and defiant, refusing to appear happy and smiling to her masters. She turned to religion as a means of dealing with the brutality and oppression of the world in which she lived, joining the slaves in praying for a Moses to lead them. When she was about 24 years of age she escaped to Canada. While she was happy to be free, she couldn't forget those she had left behind in slavery. She began working with Quakers, the Christian group which worked hardest against slavery, and started running people across the border; she returned to Maryland about 19 times between 1851 and 1861, freeing over 300 people by leading them to Canada. She was so successful that a bounty of $40,000.00 was on her head! She believed her fight against slavery was ordered by God, and she was guided by God through dreams, omens, and warnings. When the Civil War broke out (which she had seen in a vision), she enlisted with the Union Army, serving as a cook and nurse, caring for both Confederate and Union soldiers. She also served as a spy and scout, and led 300 black troops on a raid which freed over 750 slaves, making her the first woman in U.S. history to lead troops into military action. In 1858 she moved to upstate New York and helped found schools for African American children. She also worked for women’s rights with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Harriet Tubman died in 1913.

These four women are models of the prophetic ministry of liberation and speaking truth to power. They overcame the restrictions society and the Church had placed upon them because of their gender and their race, and they stood up and worked against sexism, racism, and the oppression of all people. They are powerful examples of Christians who took their baptismal covenant seriously. And that is why we honor them today as part of that Great Cloud of Witnesses which is the Communion of Saints.

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