Belief  /  Book Excerpt

How a Young Harriet Tubman Found Solace in Syncretic Religion

Childhood trauma led Minty Ross (Harriet Tubman) to seek divine intervention.

Childhood trauma led Minty Ross (Harriet Tubman) to seek divine intervention. This was an experience, and a reaction, that she shared with other unfree girls. Black women who published spiritual memoirs in the nineteenth century spoke of early separations from parents, states of captivity as slaves or servants, and appeals to the God of their belief that echoed Minty’s.

The girl who would become the traveling preacher known as Old Elizabeth recited a memoir that accords most closely with Harriet Tubman’s early years. Born in Maryland to enslaved parents in 1766, Elizabeth told her story at age ninety-seven to an unnamed person who wrote it down (we must assume with a degree of editorial license). Elizabeth’s family lived together when she was a young child, presumably on the grounds of the person who enslaved them.

Her parents were practicing Methodists. Her father was literate and read the Bible aloud to his family each Sunday morning. “When I was but five years old, I often felt the overshadowing of the Lord’s Spirit,” Elizabeth narrated, “and these incomes and influences co[n]tinued to attend me until I was eleven years old.” But Elizabeth’s domestic stability cratered when, like Minty, Elizabeth was leased out by the man who owned her family. At the age of eleven, Elizabeth was taken. “My master sent me to another farm, several miles from my parents, brothers, and sisters which was a great trouble to me. At last I grew so lonely and sad I thought I should die, if I did not see my mother,” she later wrote.

Desolate, Elizabeth escaped to find her mother, wandering twenty miles before she was successful. She remained with her mother for several days until she was sent back to her new placement of bondage, which “renewed [her] sorrows.” Elizabeth’s mother had one parting gift for her child, the stark advice that Elizabeth had “‘nobody in the wide world to look to but God.’” Elizabeth repeated these words to herself like a mantra— “none but God in the wide world”— as she trod back to the farm where the overseer stood waiting to tie her up and beat her. Elizabeth remembered her mother’s words, clung to them like a lifeboat, and tried to look to God over the following difficult weeks and months. “I betook myself to prayer, and in every lonely place I found an altar. I mourned sore like a dove and chattered forth my sorrow, moaning in the corners of the field, and under the fences.” She seemed to feel that God alone could understand her pain, bearing out the truth of her mother’s adage.