Harriet Tubman and wondering who our next Moses will be

Harriet Tubman and wondering who our next Moses will be
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The release of the new film Harriet is a watershed in American movie history: it is the first time an entire film has been devoted to a seminal figure of the abolitionist movement: Harriet Tubman.

The story of Tubman’s heroic exploits has captured the imagination of Americans for generations. She was, without doubt, the greatest “conductor” on the “Underground Railroad.” 

So, what drove this remarkable woman to accomplish such feats? It was, in fact, a deep and profound religious faith.

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One of the names by which Tubman would become known was “The Moses of Her People.” Such was the title of her first biography, written by Sarah Bradford, who, in order to help her financially, offered the illiterate Tubman the opportunity to tell her story 

“Her name deserves to be handed down to posterity, side by side with the names of Jeanne D’Arc [Joan of Arc], Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale,” Bradford wrote. “[N]ot one of these women, noble and brave as they were, has shown more courage, and power of endurance, in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than this poor black woman, whose story I am endeavoring in a most imperfect way to give you.” 

Harriet had been raised by her parents to have a deep faith in God, and, according to Bradford, “had never known the time, I imagine, when she did not trust Him, and cling to Him, with an all-abiding confidence.” Bradford observed that Tubman seemingly sensed the Divine Presence was always near her. Harriet recalled, “I prayed all de time about my work. I was always talking to de Lord.”

In her rescue operations, she experienced many close calls, and her immediate and instinctual reaction was to reach out to God in prayer: “Oh, dear Lord, I ain’t got no friend but you. Come to my help, Lord, for I’m in trouble!”

From this deep faith, Harriet formulated her life’s purpose: “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.”

She would often sing hymns and spiritual songs as she led trains of weary slaves toward freedom. Many of them incorporated biblical themes from the book of Exodus about the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. One of her favorites went as follows:

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Oh, go down, Moses,

Way down into Egypt’s land,

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go.

One is forced to ponder many questions when confronted by the heroic life of Harriet Tubman: What injustices in our society require a bravery that matches hers?

Who is today’s “Moses,” who are the “Hebrews” they should be liberating, and from which “Egypt”? Do we even believe in the God who so inspired and permeated the life of Harriet Tubman? If so, what claims does that God have on our society, if any?

And in a day so accustomed to believing that one needs credentials for everything in order to do anything, we are confronted with a woman who was not only poor and oppressed, but illiterate and (formally) uneducated. Her grit was her diploma; her courage was her credential.

Such a woman seems to transcend the categories of the contemporary American mind. And that is perhaps the point. We moderns tend to forget that we stand on the shoulders of giants — giants who made possible all that we take for granted. 

We habitually look at them and their times as things to be outgrown. From thence proceeds our self-assured blindness by which we spitefully deny ourselves the wisdom they could teach us.

We are often so convinced of the superiority of our own time and outlook that we forget that they laid the groundwork, sweat the sweat, and bled the blood that made possible all we consider our own in the first place.

So long as that is our view, then like the Egyptians of old, we will not only fail to recognize, but be blindsided by the next “Moses.” Like Moses of old, and Harriet of yesteryear, he or she will emerge from the wilderness, thunder at the Pharaohs of our time, and arouse us from our stupor with the plagues and horrors we have all the while been earning for ourselves. 

That is perhaps the biggest takeaway from the life of Harriet Tubman — that if we refuse to humble ourselves and amend our ways, the designs of Providence will again raise up another “Moses” who will compel us to do so, and we will not see it coming.

Joshua Charles is a historian, speaker and a New York Times bestselling author of several books on topics from the Founding Fathers, to Israel, to the impact of the Bible on human history. He has spoken around the country on topics such as history, politics, faith and worldview. He is an affiliated scholar of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia. Joshua holds an M.A. in government and a law degree.