Harriet Tubman is arguably the best known conductor of the United States’s 19th century Underground Railroad. A larger-than-life woman of strength and determination, Harriet Tubman conducted more than 60 people out of slavery to freedom between 1849 and 1860. Harriet crafts the decades of Tubman’s life into a remarkable and thoughtful two-hour peek into the life of the great conductor during her active years on the Underground Railroad. This month, Eve and I take a closer look at Harriet and take a critical look at what the story tells us about life, freedom, and the words of God.
Harriet is directed by Kasi Lemmons and stars Cynthia Erivo in the titular role as the Underground Railroad conductor. It focuses almost exclusively on her work as a conductor from 1849 to 1860, with a satisfying bookend that very briefly touches her work in the American Civil War and later life. The music is by Terence Blanchard and is comprised of a satisfying mix of smooth atmospheric music and well done period and cultural spirituals. The movie is historically accurate, and because of that, the language used—particularly by the various slave owners and their employees—is uncomfortably harsh. We recommend checking out the full breakdown of both the positive and negative elements one PluggedIn’s movie review.
The content of Harriet was modified to tell the spirit of Harriet Tubman’s efforts on the Underground Railroad. In the retelling, the creative team composited characters and merged events in order to depict events as emotionally accurate as possible rather than staying faithful to a specific timeline. It is really based on true events. Even still, it can be excellent material for students, providing plenty of discussion topics and really getting students thinking about the plight of the American slave in general and the efforts of Harriet Tubman specifically.
We both liked Harriet. It was a well done movie with strong production values. I particularly liked Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Harriet. Personally, though, I was a bit uncomfortable as a middle-aged white protestant male watching the film. As I watched, I felt as if a good portion of society were actively holding me and others in my social class personally responsible for the reprehensible actions of these long-deceased American slaveholders. The feeling wasn’t really anything other than the general content of the movie combined with the increasingly passionate protests of liberal groups over the last decade or so. In fact, the movie included quite a few northern abolitionists, and portrayed them in a refreshingly positive light.
Harriet appears to be a movie that you either like and appreciate, or you actively do not. The reviews don’t seem to have much of a middle ground. It’s easy to imagine that there are racist undertones to the negative reviews, but we didn’t get that sense. Eve’s friend specifically felt like there was a social agenda in the movie, but neither of us saw it as anything much other than a historical biopic. Even so, there are lots of other well done options, including this short CBS Sunday Morning piece on YouTube or They Called Her Moses available on Amazon Prime (as of this writing).
There were some anachronisms in the film that bugged me a little bit, though most of them it was very easy to understand why they did it. For example, the timing of the Fugitive Slave Act was changed to help the pacing of the movie and to build tension, and that is understandable. The only thing they completely departed from reality was the second to last scene in the movie, where it depicted Tubman’s participation in the Combahee River Raid, showing her leading dozens of men standing in rowboats, backed up by three ironside ships. The problems with the scene were numerous, but the most glaring problem for me was that the three ships were all the CSS Virginia (a.k.a. The Merrimack), a single ship that was destroyed more than a year before the raid took place. I am probably a bit more sensitive to it, though, since I have actually recently been to visit the remains on display at the outstanding Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
My last “first impression” is a concern that bugged me more than Eve—Harriet took Tubman’s reports of seizures and visions, and admittedly significant anecdotal evidence and presented them in the movie as divinely inspired, elevating her to the level of her prophetic namesake, Moses. As Eve points out, this presentation is completely in line with the historical record, MY misgivings, though, are more conservatively theological. All miracles, great and small, serve the purpose of bringing glory to God and furthering His will on earth. I felt like the presentation of Tubman’s faith in Harriet subverted the miracles to bring Harriet Tubman glory and to oppose slavery. While neither is inherently bad, I was uncomfortable with how Tubman’s faith took a front seat over God’s glory; even though Harriet Tubman gave God the glory, I don’t feel like the movie did. It’s very hard for me to explain, and it might even be a toothless concern, but it bugged me nonetheless.
Freedom Worth Dying For: Liberty or Death
The slogan and concept of “Liberty or Death” was repeated multiple times through Harriet. Originating from the Patrick Henry quote from the beginning of the American Revolution, “Give me liberty or give me death!” The use in the movie brings new dimensions to the declaration. The men and women escaping slavery through the underground railroad were putting the words in action. They risked a fate worse than death by running to the north.
Were they wrong, though? Is death a righteous alternative to a life of slavery, even one so horrific as many of the 18th and 19th century American slaves faced? What about the slaves of the 21st century? To this day there are a disheartening number of slaves in America: sex workers and victims of human trafficking, among others. One hundred and fifty years ago, men may have believed that tribal peoples from Africa were little more than hairless apes, a misconception reinforced by theories springing from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The men and women who traffic in human beings today have no such moral crutch. Few would argue that slave traders of the pre-Civil War era were evil, but modern human traffickers take this evil practice to a different level.
The Ben Shaprio speech that Eve mentions can be viewed here.
There are many worthy missions fighting human sex traffic that deserve attention, and we cannot list them all here. Some are dedicated only to that specific fight, others have teams who combat it. Here are a few to get you looking, though:
- The Ministries of Heaven’s Families
- Compassion International
- Mission to the World
- Samaritan’s Purse
Back to the question, though…
Both the historic Tubman and the Harriet Tubman made it clear that she would be willing to kill in order to protect the people under her care. She would take one life to protect the many she was trying to save. Was she right to do that?
These questions get into some heavy theology and philosophical waters. There are no easy answers. In the case of Harriet Tubman, we can’t know all the factors she dealt with, so we would probably be doing a disservice by second guessing—particularly something she never seems to have done. Luckily, as Christians, we need not face these questions alone. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and informed by God’s word in each unique situation we face. The answer may not always be clear, but even if you make an effort, through prayer and reading your Bible, to determine God’s will in your situation, that is pleasing to him.
If you believe scripture to be the Word of God, then you know that freedom is an illusion. We are either slaves to sin or bond-servants of Christ. There are no other options. Both require the unquestioning obedience to an irresistible master. Sin is a master you do not know you serve, while Christ is a master that we want to serve, and learn to serve with a glad heart. Our position as slaves should not be forgotten:
“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” (Ephesians 6:5-9)
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:16-18)
You position as human slave or master certainly can have a huge impact on your life, but doesn’t really impact your salvation:
“Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 7:21-22)
“There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all given one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)
If you have never read it, take a minute or two now to read the single-chapter book of Philemon. Paul encourages Philemon to take back his slave Onesimus, and to treat him as he would a brother. Even still, regardless of if we labor as a slave or as a free man, we are called to do our work for God, and only God, not for man or money:
“Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24)
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
Finally, we are called to be content with where we are in life and with the people who are placed in authority over us.
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” (1 Peter 2:13-20)
Hearing God’s Voice
There is no question that Harriet Tubman believed that God spoke to her through visions. She was extremely sensitive to the leading of the Spirit even though, as an illiterate slave, she’d never read a single word of the Bible. Further, she was never one to take the glory for herself, rather she pointed to God and gave him the glory. Whether or not you think Harriet reflects that adequately is up to you.
There are many figures, both in history and in modern day, who claim to hear the voice of God. Some, like me, were raised to believe that Miracles (with a capital “M”) ceased when the Word of God was completed, and will not resume until the return of Christ. According to Wayne Grudem’s, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, “[Miracles] give evidence that God is truly at work and so serve to advance the gospel” and “to bear witness to the fact that the kingdom of God has come and has begun to expand its beneficial results into people’s lives.” But, “There is nothing inappropriate in seeking miracles for the proper purposes for which they are given by God: to confirm the truthfulness of the gospel message, to bring help to those in need, to remove hindrances to people’s ministries, and to bring glory to God.”
So coming into the story of Harriet Tubman, I tend towards skepticism, more wary of a Joseph Smith type of prophecy. Smith lead millions away from God with a false gospel. How do we know that Harriet Tubman was not practicing the same level of deceit? We can rest in the effects of her words and deeds. Joseph Smith misled millions and degenerated God, but Harriet Tubman only ever gave God the glory.
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9)
If a brother or sister believes they are feeling the leading of the Spirit, or even hearing the voice of God, so long as that leading is not contrary to the expressed Word of God, we build each other up. If the tested spirit is true to scripture, we are to encourage it.
“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22) [Emphasis added]
The story of Phillip and the Eunuch can be found in Acts 8:26-40.
Trust or Not
Whether or not you believe that Harriet Tubman heard the voice of God, there is no doubt that she was one hardcore American hero. She risked more than life and limb following the leading of the Spirit to rescue more than 60 men, women, and children from a life of slavery in the 19th century American South. She was a powerful woman who became a bastion of encouragement for abolitionists and a boogeyman to slave owners. Of all our heroes of history, she is among the most overlooked, and Harriet does an excellent job highlighting what really is just a small portion of her accomplishments. The movie may not give the glory to God that Harriet Tubman did, but it does provide a creatively accurate picture of Harriet Tubman’s time as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. It reminds us that she was a strong, God-fearing woman who was not afraid to walk with God with every step.
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