Harriet Tubman was a devout Christian and often experienced visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions and revelations from God.
Harriet Tubman (c.1820-March 10, 1913) was a former slave who repeatedly risked her life to free over 300 slaves from Southern Democrat slave plantation. The trails she took became known as the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, she helped set up schools for freed slaves.
She earned the nickname of ‘Moses’ because she led so many of her people from bondage in the house of slavery to the promised land of freedom along the Underground Railroad.
In her youth, Tubman was injured when an overseer threw a 2-pound weight that hit her in the head. For the rest of her life, Tubman experienced seizures, severe headaches and narcoleptic episodes. The injury also caused dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia, which occurred throughout her life. She would seemingly fall unconscious, although she claimed to be aware of her surroundings while appearing to be asleep. These episodes were alarming to her family, who were unable to wake her when she fell asleep suddenly and without warning. This condition remained with her for the rest of her life.
In 1849, when Tubman was in her late twenties, she felt she heard the Lord’s voice urging her to flee northward. After an initial attempt with her two brothers that failed, she set out again by herself, hiding during daylight hours and traveling by night, fixing her eyes on the North Star for direction.
She was a devout Christian and often experienced visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions and revelations from God. She rejected the teachings of the New Testament that urged slaves to be obedient and found guidance in the Old Testament tales of deliverance. This religious perspective informed her actions throughout her life.
Tubman’s faith was a major resource on these dangerous missions. She often spoke of “consulting with God,” and trusted that He would keep her safe, according to Catherine Clinton’s account in On the Road To Harriet Tubman. Tubman said she would listen carefully to the voice of God as she led slaves north, and she would only go where she felt God was leading her. Abolitionist Quaker Thomas Garrett, who worked with her said, “I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.” Her faith in God seemed to always bring immediate assistance. She used spiritual songs as coded messages, warning escaping slaves of danger or directing them toward a safe path.
In one instance God warned her she must turn aside from the path she was on and cross a rushing river immediately. Not knowing the depth, the men with her hesitated. Harriet stepped boldly into the current, and found it never rose above her chin, according to an account. When the men saw she was safely across, they followed her. Later Harriet learned that a group of desperate men had been waiting on the path they were traveling and planned to seize them. If she had not responded to God’s ‘still small voice,’ they would have been captured.
Once God warned her that her parents were in danger. God directed her to go to a certain house and ask for 20 dollars. “The owner of the house told her that the Lord had sent her to the wrong place. Harriet would not budge, but drifted asleep, waking only long enough to insist that she wasn’t leaving until she got the money. Visitors passing through the busy house spread her story and collected $60 for her. Her father, it turned out, was facing criminal charges for helping runaway slaves, and the money was needed to whisk him to Canada,” Graves noted. “Sudden deliverance never seemed to strike her as at all mysterious,” biographer Sarah Bradford wrote. “Her prayer was the prayer of faith and she expected an answer . . . . When surprise was expressed at her courage and daring, or at her unexpected deliverance, she would always reply, ‘Don’t, I tell you, Missus. It wasn’t me. It was the Lord!
Harriet Tubman stated:
“I always told God: I’m gwine to hole stiddy on to you, and you got to see me trou … Jes so long as He wants to use me, He’ll tak ker of me, and when He don’t want me any longer, I’m ready to go.”
To her biographer, Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet Tubman related in 1868:
“‘Twant me, ’twas the Lord. I always told him, “I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me,” and he always did.”
As Tubman aged, the seizures, headaches, and suffering from her childhood head trauma continued to plague her. At some point in the late 1890s, she underwent brain surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. Unable to sleep because of pains and “buzzing” in her head, she asked a doctor if he could operate. He agreed and, in her words, “sawed open my skull, and raised it up, and now it feels more comfortable” She had received no anesthesia for the procedure and reportedly chose instead to bite down on a bullet, as she had seen Civil War soldiers do when their limbs were amputated.
By 1911, her body was so frail that she had to be admitted into the rest home named in her honor. A New York newspaper described her as “ill and penniless”, prompting supporters to offer a new round of donations. Surrounded by friends and family members, Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913. Just before she died, she told those in the room: “I go to prepare a place for you.”