Religion and American Slavery

Lesson IV. Black Antebellum Abolitionists Motivated by Their Religion: Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth

Step 4. Learn About Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822. She was raised by her parents to have a strong faith in God. She felt a close relationship to God and talked to him as one might a friend. After hearing she was to be sold to a plantation in the South, Tubman decided she had to escape. She communicated her intent to some of her family and friends by singing about leaving to the land of Canaan. Had she spoken to them directly, it might have put them all in danger. Tubman determined she had a right to freedom or death, and she was willing to struggle for freedom. She escaped slavery in 1849 but soon returned to rescue a niece.

“I had reasoned dis out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have de oder; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when de time came for me to go, de Lord would let dem take me.”

Quote from Harriet Tubman in Harriet, the Moses of Her People by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a primary text.

“I had crossed de line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but dere was no one to welcome me to de land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in de old cabin quarter, wid de ole folks, and my brudders and sisters. But to dis solemn resolution I came; I was free, and dey should be free also; I would make a home for dem in de North, and de Lord helping me, I would bring dem all dere. Oh, how I prayed den, lying all alone on de cold, damp ground; ‘Oh, dear Lord,’ I said, ‘I haint got no friend but you. Come to my help, Lord, for I’m in trouble!’”

Quote from Harriet Tubman in Harriet, the Moses of Her People by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a primary text.

For the next ten years, Tubman worked with the Underground Railroad to free other relatives and slaves. Tubman thought it was her duty to lead as many of her people as possible from slavery to freedom like Moses did for the Israelites from Egypt. The communities of slaves she came into contact with knew to ask for “Moses” to be a part of her journeys. On one of her journeys, Tubman believed God told her to stop and lead her band of fugitive slaves off the road. She was directed to follow a tricky path through the forest and over a river until the fugitives stumbled upon remote shelter with a Black family. The day after, Tubman learned the road they had been following led to a train station where advertisements for their arrest and reward had been plastered for all to see. Instances like these were common in Tubman’s account of her harrowing escapes.

“She piloted them North, traveling by night, hiding by day, scaling the mountains, fording the rivers, threading the forests, lying concealed as the pursuers passed them…So she went nineteen times, and so she brought away over three hundred pieces of living and breathing ‘property,’ with God given souls.”

Quote from Harriet, the Moses of Her People by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a primary text.

According to a biography written by Sarah Hopkins Bradford at the time, Tubman returned to the South 19 times, rescued an estimated 300 slaves, and had a bounty of $40,000 on her head. However, this primary text overestimated some details. Historians now know Tubman rescued about 70 slaves over the course of 13 trips. She also gave instructions to another 70 or so slaves who were able to escape on their own. There was never a bounty for Tubman while she was rescuing slaves because the slaveholders did not know it was her. Even without exaggeration, Tubman still had great accomplishments. Because of efforts like hers, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed to force free states to return escaped slaves. Tubman thereafter had to take slaves all the way to Canada to ensure their freedom. Later in her life, Tubman worked as a nurse and a spy in South Carolina during the Civil War. After the war, she took care of her elderly parents and spoke at women’s suffrage meetings in New York with figures like Susan B. Anthony. Tubman gave hope to her people and the tales of her deeds were spread far and wide. All in all, she had a tremendous impact on the abolition movement.

1850 - 1860

Harriet Tubman is Born

Tubman is born into slavery inDorchester, Maryland.

Tubman escapes slavery

Tubman returns for her first trip to rescue her niece

Tubman works with the Underground Railroad to rescue a large number of slaves

Tubman becomes a nurse in the Civil War

Tubman becomes a Union spy in the Civil War

Tubman goes back to New York to care for her elderly parents and speak on women’s rights

Tubman passes away

Lesson IV. Step 4 of 8


Learn more about how to promote the 3Rs — rights, responsibility, respect — in your school and community.