(RNS) — “God don’t mean people to own people.”
That simple statement, uttered by Cynthia Erivo in the title role of “Harriet,” a new movie about Harriet Tubman, reveals a truth long known by scholars of the woman dubbed “Moses.”
Tubman’s lived religion has been well recorded and used to explain how in 1849 a Maryland 20-something slave (her exact birthdate is not known) set out for the North to freedom, then over the next 10 years helped dozens of others gain liberty from enslavement. She embraced faith instead of fear, said Kate Clifford Larson, a historical consultant for the movie.
“It gave her confidence to do the things that she did,” said Larson.
“She felt so guided and protected by her God, her faith, her everything spiritual that that’s what enabled her to act even when she was afraid, even when the obstacles seemed insurmountable. Her faith gave her that strength to keep moving even though she was afraid.”
“Harriet,” which opens Friday (Nov. 1), details how her heroism was wedded to her lifelong religious beliefs.
“When the movie opens, we’re in church,” said Vanessa Bell Calloway, who portrayed Rit Ross, Tubman’s mother, in the film. “When we are introducing Harriet, she is a spiritual person because that’s the way she was raised.”
The character of Tubman’s faith is not entirely clear. At the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, in Church Creek, Maryland, an exhibit notes that “Tubman’s spirituality drew from both African and Christian customs.”
What is not in doubt is the strength of her faith, which she seems to have inherited from her deeply religious parents, who are known to have fasted on Fridays.
In the movie, Tubman’s father, portrayed by Clarke Peters, is so committed to speaking the truth that he wears a blindfold when his daughter briefly returns home, depriving himself of seeing his daughter so he can honestly say he has not seen her.
“He did do that,” confirmed Larson, author of “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,” of the real-life Ben Ross. “That was reported in interviews way back.”
As the nation has marked the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being forcibly brought to Virginia, “Harriet,” which was filmed entirely in Virginia, shows the religious practice of slaves forced to work on Maryland plantations was as restricted as other aspects of their lives.
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“They were only able to see each other once a week on Sunday,” said Karen Hill, president and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home Inc. in Auburn, New York.
“She knew that they didn’t have total and complete freedom and whatever faith they practiced was under the aegis of their slave masters,” added Hill, a member of the AME Zion Church, where descendants of slaves have helped maintain Tubman’s home for more than a century.
“She knew that she could not really practice her faith until she was truly free.”
The contradictions of faith and slavery are brought to life in the Rev. Samuel Green, a black minister portrayed in the movie by Vondie Curtis-Hall, who recites Bible verses encouraging slave obedience. Larson noted that Green may have preached what the slave owners wanted to hear. But he also was “a very good Underground Railroad stationmaster,” she said, noting that scholars have documented that he helped at least 25 people escape.
Green also advised Tubman in her work for liberty.
“Fear is your enemy. Trust in God,” Green tells Tubman as she plans her solo escape in the movie.
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When Green was brought to trial for his work on the Underground Railroad, “the all-white jury acquitted him because he was so well respected,” said Larson. “But then they brought him up on charges of owning a copy of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ which was illegal for African Americans to have in Maryland at the time.”
Tubman’s onetime pastor was sentenced to 10 years in prison for owning the book.
Some of the people who worked most closely with Tubman as she focused on her freedom campaign could not help but notice how faith was “the principal driver of everything she did,” said Hill.
“I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul … and her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great,” reads an 1868 quote from Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett on the wall of an exhibit at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park.
Her faith also had a mystical side. When Tubman was about 13, she was struck in the head by an iron weight thrown by an overseer who was trying to catch a runaway slave but hit Tubman instead, leaving her with an enduring head injury.
“When she’d have her seizures, she would hear voices, she would have premonitions,” said Larson. “She had a lot of visual hallucinations but she tied them deeply to messages from God.”
Though she could not read or write, Tubman relied on memorization and depended on her belief in what she felt God was telling her to do.
“She had an amazing memory,” said Larson, who said Tubman recounted aspects of her life in interviews after the Civil War, during which she spied for the Union army and worked as a nurse and a combat leader.
“She could remember Bible passages and things like that and people would read to her all the time but she never learned to read.”
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Though the movie dwells on Tubman as a slave and slave rescuer, Hill said she hopes the film will move viewers to investigate more of her life as a free woman. Faith played a role then, too, Hill noted, in Tubman’s worship, financial support and 1913 funeral at what is now known as Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church in Auburn.
She also worked to provide free medical aid to blacks and whites and opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, where she eventually spent her last days.
“She communed with God but then she used all her mind, body and soul to carry out what God had directed her to do,” said Hill. “Her faith meant that she had to seek freedom in every aspect of daily living of humanity.”
“Harriet” could contribute to uncovering the complex person whose work, as Frederick Douglass noted when writing to Tubman in 1868, was necessarily cloaked in secrecy.
“I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude,’’ he wrote to Tubman, “while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, ‘God bless you,’ has been your only reward.”