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GOING “WHERE THEY DARE NOT FOLLOW”: RACE, RELIGION, AND SOJOURNER TRUTH'S

EARLY INTERRACIAL REFORM


Author(s): Margaret Washington
Source: The Journal of African American History, Vol. 98, No. 1, Special Issue: “Women,
Slavery, and the Atlantic World” (Winter 2013), pp. 48-71
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Association for the Study of
African American Life and History
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5323/jafriamerhist.98.1.0048
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GOING “WHERE THEY DARE
NOT FOLLOW”: RACE, RELIGION,
AND SOJOURNER TRUTH’S EARLY
INTERRACIAL REFORM
Margaret Washington

In the wake of the Great Western Revival beginning in the 1820s, the vice that
white male urban evangelicals so urgently wanted to alleviate was visualized,
through biblical exegesis, as “woman.”1 Scripture both begins and ends with
woman as the trope for powerful unbridled and unredeemed sexuality. While the
book of Genesis confirmed the link between female sexuality and the temptress
foremother Eve, the book of Revelation depicted a sinful world as “the great
whore” of Babylon, drinking “the blood of the saints” and the “martyrs of Jesus.”
In New York City in the 1820s, evangelicals assumed the mantle of the spiritual
leaders of the community, and interpreters and guardians of morality. Nonetheless,
in bemoaning rampant prostitution and the profligate lifestyles of the city’s poor,
evangelical fathers called upon women to step out of their “sphere” and do the
Lord’s work in the slums among the harlots, Irish immigrants, and recently eman-
cipated African Americans. Isabella Van Wagenen, a newly arrived, uneducated,
newly freed African-Dutch woman joined white women in answering this appeal.2
Later, an epiphany inspired her to change her name to Sojourner Truth. But that
metamorphosis was only possible because of her reform awakenings in New York
City that paradoxically led her down a slippery slope that almost undermined her
place in history.
This essay explores Sojourner Truth’s New York City years, when she was
Isabella Van Wagenen. I examine interracial female activism and religious ferment
to illustrate the complexity of race-gender dynamics in antebellum social reform.
Some historians, correctly I believe, distinguish between evangelical and reform
women.3 In New York City, evangelical white women were solidly middle to
upper-middle class, were affiliated with traditional churches, and were conserva-
tive on racial issues. Non-evangelical women reformers were generally from the
fluid middle and artisan classes, had joined one of the Great Western Revival
splinter groups, particularly “Perfection,” and were more liberal on race. In the
early 1830s, both groups of women supported moral reform; however, I argue that

Margaret Washington is Professor of History at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

48

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 49

attitudes on race, and particularly on African American women, differentiated


these two groups of white women.4 Isabella Van Wagenen’s relationships with
white female associates suggest that just as the seeds of a segregated sisterhood
existed early on, so too did elements of cross-racial cooperation and camaraderie.
Although historians recognize that a few female antislavery societies of the 1830s
brought black and white women together, Isabella’s New York City misadventures
reveal that some seeds were planted earlier and in a different context.5
In spite of evangelical male claims as guardians of morality, a socially promi-
nent and conservative Scottish Presbyterian named Isabella Graham spearheaded
benevolent work among prostitutes at the turn of the 19th century.6 The lull cre-
ated after her 1814 death was reawakened through revivalism, but with men at
the helm. When Isabella Van Wagenen joined this latter day reform effort, it
marked the beginning of Sojourner Truth’s discernment and wisdom in navigat-
ing her vision of reform. By the time she left the city, the trials she had encoun-
tered crystallized her view of “a woman’s rights” and dovetailed with the rise of
abolition.7
Thirty-one-year-old Isabella Van Wagenen left her Ulster County, New York,
birthplace in 1828, having been out of bondage for only two years. Extraordinary
personal triumphs had convinced Isabella that she was anointed, sanctified, and
called to preach. In 1826, after having a total of five slave owners, and even
though she would be freed by statute in 1827, she boldly “took” her freedom, flee-
ing with her infant daughter because her owner of eighteen years, John Dumont,
broke his promise to free her a year early. She found refuge with a Dutch family
who purchased her remaining time and freed her and her baby. In gratitude
Isabella took their last name, “Van Wagenen.” She had no early religious training
beyond her mother’s teachings on morality and rudimentary Protestantism, inter-
spersed with African spirituality involving talks with God and communion with
the heavens. At the Van Wagenen’s home, she began attending Methodist camp
meetings and experienced an intense spiritual transformation. Combining her
mother’s “ancient faith” with a claim of Jesus as her personal savior, Isabella uti-
lized both in a remarkable test of faith.8
Isabella soon learned that John Dumont had sold her five-year-old son, Peter,
to relatives of her former owner who had moved to the South. This was illegal in
New York because the child was assured emancipation upon reaching adulthood.
The outraged young mother traversed the countryside talking to God, rallying sup-
port from local Quakers, and challenging Peter’s abductors. The child was even-
tually returned, but his physical condition was shocking. Peter’s back was a mass
of scars and ridges; his face showed marks of a horse’s hoof. “Oh, Lord Jesus,
look!” Isabella beseeched. “See my poor child.” This “is where Fowler [the slave
owner] whipped, kicked and beat me,” Peter informed his mother. “Oh my God!

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50 The Journal of African American History

Pete, how did you bear it?” Neither Peter’s miraculous return nor the court releas-
ing him to Isabella with free papers assuaged her vengeful anger. “Oh God!” she
invoked, “Render unto them double for all this.”9
After asking God to curse the white family, she soon heard that Dr. John
Fowler, who tortured Peter, had now brutally murdered his young wife Eliza,
Dumont’s niece, who had tried to help the boy. This was far more retribution
than Isabella expected or desired. She reflected on the wonder of special provi-
dence, but recoiled at poor Eliza’s demise. Isabella “dared not find fault” with
God, “but the language of [her] heart was” too much. “I did not mean quite so
much, God!”10 These events, which became her testimony, assured Isabella that
she had moved from justification to sanctification. Convinced of God’s favor,
believing that she was singled out for a special purpose, Isabella had asked God
to show people that she was under a special sign. “And he did; or if he did not
show them, he did me.”11
Isabella’s amazingly persuasive powers of communication so impressed
Ulster County Methodists that they took her to New York City and introduced her
into the fold of James LaTourette, the leader of Gotham’s Methodist splinter
group. LaTourette was a middle-aged, well-to-do fur merchant of Dutch Reformed
religious background. He was an unordained Methodist preacher who was dis-
missed from New York City’s influential John Street Church because he advocat-
ed Perfection, which became the basis of Isabella/qua Sojourner Truth’s faith.12
Originally a Wesleyan doctrine, Perfection spread throughout the North dur-
ing the Great Revival under the dynamic preaching of Presbyterian Charles
Grandison Finney and his “Fifth Column,” many of whom went beyond Finney.
Perfectionists believed that certain people achieved special holiness—a sort of
earthly sainthood—through traumatic, soul-grappling encounters with the Holy
Ghost. Perfectionists embraced an expressive worship style. They condemned the
cold formal conservatism and closed communion of the traditional churches; they
prepared for the kingdom of God on earth by living a spotless life, but differed
over preparations for Christ’s Second Coming. Most believed that Perfection
involved a “striving” for special holiness manifested through evocative worship,
bringing “the Word” to the less fortunate and addressing societal ills. A small
group even declared themselves totally incapable of transgressions and lived in a
special state of grace called a “doctrine of security” from sin.13
For an even smaller group, sexuality played a major role in their practice of
Perfection. Leaders such as John Humphrey Noyes of the Oneida Community and
Joseph Smith of the Mormons advocated the doctrine of security, multiple mar-
riage for men, and living apart from the world. The Shakers also lived in isolation,
but practiced total celibacy. Other Perfectionists challenging monogamy main-
tained that “spirit coupling” among worshippers superseded the sanctity of civil

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 51

marriage. Some Perfectionists even supported female preaching. Traditional


denominations labeled all Perfectionists, including Finney’s restrained variety, as
“ultras” and religious extremists. The man Isabella met, James LaTourette, was
called the “emperor” of this growing movement although he denounced doctrines
of security, and tampering with monogamy or with civil marriage. He preached
that saints were closer to creating conditions for the Second Coming by alleviat-
ing the human suffering of God’s people and when they preached against profli-
gate habits such as alcoholism, opium eating, and prostitution. He strongly sup-
ported female public preaching and independent female reform work not sanc-
tioned or overseen by men. He was anxious to cultivate this spirited black
woman.14 Thus, from the beginning of her New York City years, Isabella
embraced religious radicalism.
The LaTourettes hired Isabella and she bonded with James’s wife Cornelia,
who was much younger than her husband. She had recently lost a baby, was again
pregnant, and had a toddler. Isabella’s recommendations from prominent Kingston
former employers were stellar. “She was an exceptionally capable, reliable domes-
tic,” wrote one, “who merited the entire confidence of my family, by her good con-
duct and fidelity.” Additionally, Isabella’s letter of Christian experience from the
Kingston Methodist Church guaranteed her membership in the John Street
Church, where Cornelia LaTourette taught African Americans in the “colored
class.”15 It was a fortuitous beginning for the rural African-Dutch woman.

Sojourner Truth
Courtesy of Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services, Cornell University.

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52 The Journal of African American History

In her own words, Isabella was “ignorant as a horse” when she arrived in
New York, and “could not speak English very well.” But she was a quick study.
She met Cornelia LaTourette’s circle of Methodist-Perfectionist women who
also taught “colored classes.” Unlike Cornelia, whose husband was an estab-
lished merchant, these women were the wives of an aspiring group of small
shopkeepers—shoemakers, painters, jewelers, carpenters, and tailors—whose
socioeconomic status was more fluid. The Great Revival took this class of work-
ers by storm and some embraced Perfection. Isabella was determined to learn all
she could from these women. Her English improved and she saved money,
dressed well, and learned to maneuver in the city. She developed spiritually
through the religious classes and was soon integrated into her white associates’
“holy band,” one of many such female groups preparing the world for the Second
Coming. Perfectionist holy bands practiced moral rectitude, asceticism, simple
living, and simple dress. They abhorred invidious distinction, including racial
segregation and rented pews in churches. They prayed collectively, bore witness
through visions, and bonded under the biblical summons from the disciple
James, who preached the gospel of good works: “Be ye doers of the Word and
not hearers only.”16
Within two years of her New York arrival, Isabella’s spiritual gifts were
widely known among Perfectionists and the participants in camp meetings.
James LaTourette’s home became the Perfectionist “nerve center” and he held
counsel with every out-of-town believer traveling through the city. Through
LaTourette, Isabella crossed paths with important religious radicals such as John
Humphrey Noyes, Charles Weld, Harriet Livermore, and others with whom she
would later reconnect as an abolitionist. She began her spiritual outreach by tes-
tifying and then preaching at LaTourette’s loud exuberant services in the Five
Points neighborhood. Although revivalist Charles Finney and evangelicals who
supported him denied women a public voice, non-traditional sects such as
Quakers and Freewill Baptists joined Perfectionists in accepting female preach-
ers. They eschewed the Pauline doctrine that women “keep silent in the church-
es.” Women preached in homes, in city institutions, and at camp meetings.
Boldly defying traditional convention, black and white preaching women dis-
played scriptural knowledge, commanding style, and strong powers of persua-
sion. Isabella’s “long and loud preaching and praying were remarkable for their
influence in converting,” observed James LaTourette. He called her “a child of
God and eminently gifted and favoured by God.” She had a sonorous singing
voice and the physicality of her robust preaching style was enhanced by a com-
manding presence—she was six feet tall. Isabella was especially endowed, added
LaTourette, with “spiritual mysteries.” At camp meetings, the African-Dutch
preaching woman was strong competition even for the celebrated Irish preacher

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 53

John Moffit “when both were preaching on the same ground, at the same time.”
Another account noted that “Isabella, the coloured woman . . . is well known
among the Methodists, and . . . much respected by them. . . . The influence of her
speaking was miraculous; even the learned and respectable people were running
after her.”17
In 1831 Isabella Van Wagenen moved her membership to Zion’s African
Methodist Episcopal Church, which was as conservative about female religious
status as traditional white denominations. Yet Isabella continued in the John
Street Church colored classes, in her work with the holy band, and at
LaTourette’s Five Points mission. But Zion’s, a working-class church, offered
Isabella association with her own people and provided a black social and politi-
cal center. At Zion’s Isabella even reunited with two older siblings who were
taken away from her parents in childhood. Instead of holy bands, Zion’s women
formed benevolent associations, engaged in self-help, provided for sick and shut-
in members, supported the adult night school and the children’s African Free
School, aided the poor, and worked for the Underground Railroad to aid “fugi-
tives” escaping from slavery.18
Rural women such as Isabella were neither welcome nor comfortable among
most middle-class black women. African-Dutch people comprised the majority of
the rural folk flooding New York City after adult emancipation in 1827 and
women outnumbered men two to one. They were poor, uneducated, socially raw,
and unrefined newcomers, not even fluent in English. They sought new opportu-
nities; but forced to leave their children behind, they remained tied to the coun-
tryside. African-Dutch women such as Isabella, who had four living children,
looked back at slavery with what historian Vivian Kruger called “hungry hearts.”
Like Isabella, most were live-in domestics, but some pursued the independent,
though less reliable, occupation of street vendors. Still others simply became
“street women.” Long-time residents of the city considered them problematic.
Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first black newspaper, urged these newly eman-
cipated women of “uncultivated minds” to stay in the countryside and continue in
agriculture, rather than congregate in overcrowded, crime-ridden New York
City.19
Just as Isabella’s association with white women Perfectionists broadened her
spiritual horizons and Zion’s put her in touch with the African American commu-
nity, preaching connected her with other African American women “doers of the
Word.” Catherine Ferguson and Mary Washington were both long-time residents
of the city. Catherine, a popular confectioner, was born in slavery around 1775,
raised Presbyterian and although uneducated, recited Bible stories to children of
both races from her Five Points home long before New York emancipation. Two
white reformers, Isabella Graham (who freed Catherine) and Reverend John

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54 The Journal of African American History

Stanford, who supervised the city’s “humane institutions,” helped Ferguson estab-
lish what was reportedly the city’s first Sunday school. Ferguson’s home was also
the gathering spot for weekly adult prayer meetings where women bore witness.
“Respected” Mary Washington claimed to be the former slave of George
Washington. Affiliated with St. George’s Episcopal Church, fair-skinned Mary
was noted for charity work, for nursing the sick “whether cats or people” during
New York’s worst epidemics, and for sharing her reservoir of stories about the
Founding Father on his birthday. Isabella insisted that she and Mary Washington
were “intimate friends” before Mary’s 1836 death. Neither Catherine nor Mary
was Perfectionist, but their cross-racial community interests predated Isabella’s
interracial reform and that of antislavery women.20
At Zion’s Church, Isabella became friends with an African American woman
named Katy who was on the run from Virginia. In addition to being born in
bondage, the two women had other things in common. Both left children in slav-
ery; each worked for a prominent merchant who embraced Perfection, which the
two women had also adopted. Katy’s employer, Elijah Pierson, was a recently
widowed former Presbyterian elder. The Piersons were reformers. Pierson’s late
wife Sarah had a holy band and Katy, like Isabella and the Methodist women, was
a regular participant. The Piersons had turned their home into an asylum, called
Magdalen, for penitent sex workers. They lived on Bowery Hill, an upscale
neighborhood outside the city overlooking the Hudson River. After Sarah
Pierson’s untimely death in 1830, John McDowell, a newly appointed young mis-
sionary, convinced wealthy merchant and evangelical Arthur Tappan to revive the
now floundering Magdalen. Pierson agreed to lease his home on Bowery Hill,
move his residence to another location, but remain as a Magdalen board member
and supervisor. Normally cautious Tappan also supported McDowell’s sugges-
tion that evangelical women go into the slums and round up penitent converts and
lodge them in the Magdalen Asylum halfway house in preparation for the
Magdalen.21

MISSIONS TO FALLEN WOMEN

In 1811, a group of “gentlemen” had also established the first Magdalen, but
they elected a “Board of Ladies” to govern it and appointed Isabella Graham as
presiding director. Women had no supervisory role in Tappan’s endeavor. With the
exception of Elijah Pierson, everyone on the twelve member all-male board was
an evangelical, “High Church” member, or a merchant. John McDowell was the
only minister.22

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 55

The Five Points


Courtesy of Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services, Cornell University.

Nonetheless, women were the backbone of the enterprise and reportedly com-
prised “the most extreme wing of evangelical Protestantism.” Five Points was a
special target, considered the grittiest and the “most notorious slum in the Western
Hemisphere.” Situated near City Hall, it was reportedly a “social melting pot,”
where the “vilest rabble black and white” lived, loved, and fought together. The
Points, noted observers, combined the worse elements of the city: working poor,
homeless urchins, elegant brothels, shabby sex houses, “streetwalkers and
dandies, fops and pimps, theaters and dance halls, saloons, gangs, alcoholics,
roaming pigs and wild dogs.” Riots and casual fistfights were frequent. A few
African American men controlled white female sex workers and whites frequent-
ed black-run establishments. Any man “hazards his good name,” if seen in the
Points, noted one newspaper account. And John McDowell insisted that besides
“sailors and Negroes,” a host of “men of fashion and profession” haunted the
Points for lewd purposes. “A virtuous female,” declared McDowell, could not go
into the Points without being insulted. Yet he recruited women from traditional
denominations and holy bands of Perfectionists: “Ladies, ladies, . . . your suffer-
ing sex demands this at your hands—the Savior demands it.”23
No place and no one should be off limits John McDowell told his female
brigade. They should challenge businesses, brothels, nightwalkers, pimps, and
their customers. The holy bands were already there admonishing, reproving, and
counseling. They reported stories of shame, seduction, and abandonment; they
challenged madams and gathered intoxicated women off the streets. Isabella
entered the “most wretched homes,” “dens of iniquity,” and “underground busi-
nesses.” The tall quick figure in a dark cloak and turban slipped into out-of-the-

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56 The Journal of African American History

way bailiwicks and dismal haunts known for interracial sex, such as the “Yankee
Kitchen,” “Cow Bay,” and “Squeeze Gut Alley.” According to Isabella, she was
“going where they dared not follow.” Her activism not only required a special kind
of boldness, but also meant that she had few ties to middle-class black women
seeking to protect their status by avoiding contact with urban vice. The lady
preacher would have censured Hannah Lewis—the popular black madam who
employed only white women—or the outwardly respectable black churchmen
whose groceries, oyster houses, and gambling joints doubled as places of ill
repute. Unlike white women, Isabella’s nighttime sojourns occurred after a full
day of domestic work. And being black added to the risks.24
But the Five Points housed more than pimps, sex workers, and the destitute.
Isabella’s Zion’s Church was next door to the “best known [white] madam in ante-
bellum America.” And next to the madam lived the Garnets, a respectable self-
emancipated family, whose son, Henry Highland Garnet, became a noted abolition-
ist and Presbyterian minister. The Crummells lived next door to the Garnets. Their
son, Alexander Crummell, became a leading black intellectual and Episcopal priest.
Down the street resided the Aldridge family, whose son, Ira Aldridge, would run
away from his strict father and become a world famous tragedian. Isabella believed
that just as she had refused to “bow to the filth of the city,” her personal example
could encourage others to rise above this “seat of Satan.” She offered a message of
hope to her recently emancipated people living in miserable, ill-heated garrets and
cellar homes, sleeping on hay mattresses, using rags for bed covers, suffering on
deathbeds from consumption and alcoholism. But Isabella later recalled that some
of her own people shunned her, preferring to hear the “Word” from the white
women. Although she “went away weeping,” Isabella was undeterred. She contin-
ued her Five Points outreach—preaching at LaTourette’s mission, at the Magdalen
Asylum halfway house, and handing out Bibles.25
In the spring of 1831, Rev. Daniel Smith and other Perfectionist friends
encountered Isabella at LaTourette’s meetings and enlisted her services as a
preacher at the Magdalen Asylum on Bowery Hill. She agreed. Katy subsequent-
ly took Isabella to the Magdalen and introduced her to Elijah Pierson.
Unfortunately, the former Presbyterian elder had become somewhat unhinged by
the death of his wife, Sarah. Pierson’s behavior at her funeral had caused a scan-
dal. Sarah’s father, Rev. John Stanford, Rev. Gardiner Spring, Pierson’s former
pastor, and others present were shocked when the members of Sarah Pierson’s
holy band gathered around her “lifeless body” and prayed fervently for an hour,
while Elijah Pierson stood over her casket, read from the book of James, and com-
manded her to rise. Yet “she slept the sleep of death,” Rev. Gardiner Spring con-
firmed. However, Pierson believed that Sarah did not rise because he did not have
enough faith. His bizarre behavior notwithstanding, Pierson’s mercantile friends

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 57

still considered him a “very rational and intelligent man” and he retained their
trust. After moving his residence from Bowery Hill, in his new home he estab-
lished a chapel, which he called the “kingdom of God on earth.” Through his
preaching and supervision of the Magdalen, Pierson gathered a circle of believers
called “spirits” and revealed his transmigration as “Elijah the Tishbite” or John the
Baptist.26 All of this occurred before Isabella met Elijah Pierson.
When they did meet, the former Presbyterian elder asked Isabella if she had been
baptized. “Yes,” she answered though she had not been immersed in water “by the
Holy Spirit.” Her response greatly impressed Elijah Pierson since God the Father
baptized with the Holy Ghost. He became more impressed as they conversed. She
was a mystic whose mysticism and favorable personal experiences predated her
Methodism. She had talked to God as a child and was blessed with spiritual interces-
sions while enslaved, and God had directed her to “take” her freedom. Quakers affil-
iated with the New York Manumission Society befriended her and orchestrated the
return of her son. Unencumbered by theology, Isabella’s faith and her calling were
grounded in spiritual introspection, which combined the practical, the secular, and
the sacred. She never went to church before embracing Methodism: “I knew God,
but I didn’t know Jesus Christ.” Her most important transformation came, she said,
upon realizing that only the power of Jesus and fire of the Holy Ghost absolved her
transgressions against her “Almighty Friend.” God “burnt me,” she said, “[and made
me] melt like a wax before the flame” and “wilt like a cabbage leaf.” That conver-
sion bound her to the cross and to humanity. Isabella was a wonder to Elijah Pierson.
He called her a “master spirit,” whose superior calling was in the true tradition of
Pentecost. He had scriptural knowledge, regularly experienced altered states of con-
sciousness through prayer and fasting, and was dedicated to service. But Isabella was
taught by “the Spirit,” had extrasensory perception, and possessed knowledge
beyond doctrine. Pierson interpreted Isabella’s presence as the “hand of God.” He
had two young daughters and asked Isabella to keep house while Katy made a clan-
destine trip back to Virginia to see her children. Isabella’s friends were taken aback
when she left their employment, her Five Points work, and Zion’s Church to become
one of the “spirits” in Pierson’s kingdom and to preach at the Magdalen.27
However, within six months of Isabella’s transition, the Magdalen came under
fire. Religious conservatives, the “sporting” community, and anti-reform
Democrats howled in protest over the publication of Rev. John McDowell’s annu-
al report. Their voice was the “penny press,” the locally printed pamphlets and
broadsides that thrived on sensationalism. The evangelicals and religious radicals
were vilified in the penny press and they especially went after Rev. McDowell,
claiming that he misrepresented the city, overstepped his authority, and was expos-
ing “virtuous” women to the slums. McDowell saw through this ruse and recog-
nized the real issues: his presentation of women as sympathetic victims rather than

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58 The Journal of African American History

as temptresses; his exposing respectable male citizens as culprits in the sex trade;
his revelations about the prevalence of interracial sex; and his assertion that a stag-
gering “ten thousand” prostitutes worked the city. Magdalen’s all-male board
resigned. Arthur Tappan withdrew his financial support and turned the Bowery
Hill house back over to Pierson. McDowell’s spirit was broken.28
Isabella remained in Elijah Pierson’s kingdom and the Asylum hung on for a
while. But in late winter 1832, the Magdalen closed and Katy returned. Isabella Van
Wagenen could have gone back to her former life, and the reason why she preferred
the kingdom lies in its liberalism in a time of sacred and secular conservatism. The
kingdom’s devotion to spiritual affinity, Christian communalism, and the secularity
of class, race, and gender leveling—abhorred by most in the larger society—made it
attractive to Isabella. The kingdom was a “family” where worship was in common
and communicants enjoyed a sumptuous communal meal after service. Kingdom
members, which included former sex workers as well as merchants, greeted each
other with a “holy kiss” and washed each other’s feet, all justified by scripture.
Isabella and Elijah, the leading “spirits” in the kingdom, shared preaching responsi-
bilities, taught Sunday school, and traveled to New Jersey revivals. Isabella devel-
oped a relationship with Pierson’s Morristown, New Jersey, relatives and friends,
who praised her oversight of Pierson’s home and two motherless daughters.
Furthermore, Pierson remained a shrewd merchant, even while claiming to be John
the Baptist or Elijah the Tishbite. He recognized the danger Katy faced, eventually
purchased her freedom, and sent her back to Virginia as a free woman.29 Nonetheless,
despite the kingdom’s family orientation and egalitarian practices, Isabella lived on
the dangerous edge of social and religious respectability. Belief in transmigration of
souls, direct teachings of the Holy Spirit, the presence of devil-spirits, and posses-
sion were too bizarre even for Isabella’s Perfectionist associates. Isabella’s adher-
ences to such practices soon led to her greatest New York City ordeal.

THE COMING OF MATTHIAS

Isabella was alone in the house on 5 May 1832, when a tall, attractive bearded
stranger with piercing grey eyes appeared at the door. In an age of beardless men,
Isabella, with her vivid imagination, thought of him as “Jesus in the flesh.” He said
he was the “Prophet” or “Father Matthias,” the twelfth disciple appointed after the
betrayal of Judas and Christ’s Resurrection, and claimed to be seeking what he had
actually stumbled into: “a kingdom of God on earth.” In point of fact he was Robert
Matthews, a carpenter, who like Pierson, was a Scottish Presbyterian turned
Perfectionist. He was from Albany, New York, where he had deserted his family to
become a street haranguer, a calling he continued in New York City. When he heard
Pierson’s followers urging people to “Come and hear Elijah, the Prophet,” he decid-

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ed to investigate. His beard and smooth talk about the scriptures impressed Isabella.
She related her miraculous experiences, told the stranger about Pierson, and suggest-
ed he return Saturday to meet “John the Baptist.”30
When the two men met, if Elijah Pierson had declared Matthias an imposter,
the story would have ended there. Instead, the prophet, whose numinous persona
had charmed Isabella, used information she had inadvertently provided to woo the
gentle merchant by emphasizing the synchrony of their beliefs and experiences.
But Matthias also claimed superiority as “Father God,” thus outranking “John the
Baptist.” In Isabella’s presence, the men concurred that John the Baptist would
lead converts to Father God, the ultimate authority. The two washed each other’s
feet and all three sat down to dinner.31
After that first day, the prophet assumed control of the kingdom family; he
held the power and became the teacher in house and chapel. Matthias silenced
Pierson’s public presence because the Father was “mightier” than John the Baptist.
He silenced Isabella because Matthias’s perspectives on women and preaching
mirrored those of the traditional Christian denominations. Women, he said, were
“the cap sheaf of the abomination of desolation—full of all deviltry.” He insisted
that women manifest no spiritual role outside the home. This contradicted
Isabella’s calling, her previous activism, and the outreach work she and Pierson
had developed, including her Sunday school. Matthias forbade all reform work
and all female public preaching, praying, and teaching.32 Acceptance of these lim-
itations on Isabella’s autonomy offers some insight into Matthias’s appeal,
Isabella’s early background, and her somewhat naïve mindset.
The editor Gilbert Vale, who later wrote about this group, had observed Matthias
previously, and he reported that the prophet not only looked like “Jesus,” he adopt-
ed the Nazarene’s style of sermonizing while seated. Vale said Matthias’s sentences
were often flat and unconnected, but his themes were sometimes very simple and
direct, which camouflaged certain incongruities. Matthias was derisively called
“Jumping Jesus” because of his temper, rages, and regular professions of divinity.
He knew the Bible but “displayed no marks of great genius”; and unlike Pierson, he
had no advanced learning. However, he was captivating and provocative, and he
drew large crowds. Matthias’s interest in African American spirituality and his egal-
itarian rhetoric were also alluring. He insisted that the African Americans he met had
true religion and he only experienced real spirituality in church when worshipping
at Zion’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. He also preached that the time was
near when all blacks and whites would openly associate. Matthias and Isabella had
long sessions on scriptural interpretation, visions, dreams, and sanctification, which
he directed.33 Isabella was a product of patriarchal Dutch slavery, and men had deter-
mined her fortunes: her father saved her from a cruel Englishman; her Dutch-
Huguenot owner protected her from her mistress; another Dutch man purchased her

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60 The Journal of African American History

freedom; a Quaker elder provided money to regain her son; a Dutch lawyer found
the boy; an all-male court freed him; and James LaTourette and Elijah Pierson pro-
vided the spiritual examples that Isabella respected. Following Matthias was part of
a pattern. Against these male models, Isabella’s New York women associates had
only moral suasion. Although she was a preaching woman, she had not yet devel-
oped true confidence in female power or authority.
Father Matthias enthralled others as well. Sylvester Mills, a wealthy merchant
and follower, moved the “kingdom” into his lavish home and showered Matthias
with money, ostentatious clothes, fancy boots, and an eye-catching carriage. Isabella
joined Father, while Katy kept house for Elijah Pierson. All worshipped together at
the new kingdom. Matthias’s carriage, his promenades down the Battery, and his
lavish gaudy attire drew larger crowds to the chapel and to the meals that were pro-
vided. His sermons on marriage and the kingdom’s interracial character invited crit-
icism and loud debates. Sylvester Mills even allowed Matthias to banish all of the
merchant’s female relatives from his home. But when the prophet made plans to
build a glitzy “Temple of God” with Mills’s money, his brother Levi Mills stepped
in. In September 1832 Levi Mills gathered a group of angry “Christians,” along with
the police, and they descended upon the kingdom. A public melee ensued, in which
kingdom members were routed. In the spirit of Jesus, Matthias sat meekly as he was
stripped nearly naked, divested of money and jewelry, shaved, and taunted. Isabella
attempted to stop the prophet’s humiliation, but she was beaten and restrained by
police. As the police ushered Matthias to Bellevue Hospital’s “apartment for the
insane,” according to the penny press, he screamed that he was “God Almighty.”34
Local Perfectionists and political progressives expressed outrage at the police
for their involvement in a private matter and for attacking Isabella, a harmless
“colored woman.” Gilbert Vale, the editor and freethinker, believed that the police
and other authorities were in collusion with mercantile interests, the churches, and
conservative penny press editors William Leete Stone and James Watson Webb.
Stone, the editor of Commercial Advertiser, and others were apprehensive about
the revivals and the rise of activist reformers, and answered back. The Matthias
events and latest incident represented religious “fanaticism,” wrote Stone, which
if unchecked would lead to “free love” and “racial amalgamation.”35
Elijah Pierson tried to disassociate himself from the kingdom. Lucy Whiting,
a shoemaker’s wife from the Perfectionist holy band, took in Isabella. As much
Isabella’s friend as employer, Lucy cautioned “Bell,” as they called her, to stay
away from Matthias. But Isabella convinced Pierson to help get Matthias released
since he had broken no law. Fearful about his reputation, but also still believing in
Father’s power, Pierson rented a house for Isabella and Matthias and gave him a
monthly stipend. Isabella did domestic work at the Whitings until the summer of
1833 when, as usual, she went to Ulster County to see her children. Upon return-

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 61

ing, she found Matthias living in a rooming house. She went back to work for Mrs.
Whiting, but stayed in touch with Matthias.36
A pretty and wealthy young Perfectionist named Ann Folger gave new life to the
kingdom of Matthias. She was Elijah Pierson’s former neighbor from Bowery Hill, a
member of Sarah Pierson’s holy band, and a participant in Sarah’s funeral and
attempted “resurrection.” Elijah Pierson was the spiritual mentor to Ann and her hus-
band, Benjamin Folger, a hardware merchant and Pierson’s business associate. Ann
Folger offered to reconstitute the kingdom, away from prying eyes, in her
Westchester County home. Pierson consulted Matthias, who agreed. This rural but
elegant kingdom, called “Zion Hill,” included the Folgers and their three children;
Pierson and his two daughters; Catherine Galloway, the Irish domestic who previous-
ly worked for Matthias’s former patron Sylvester Mills; as well as a few artisans.
During weekdays Benjamin Folger lived in Elijah Pierson’s New York City town-
house where Catherine Galloway kept house; they joined the family on weekends.
The kingdom of Matthias abolished private property; all labor was done in common
and no status hierarchy existed. The house was Ann’s inheritance but legally
belonged to her husband Benjamin. Pierson insisted that property be placed in
Matthias’s name, ostensibly to deflect the criticism from “Father” that they were crass
merchants, but also so creditors could not take it if their business ventures failed.37
When Ann Folger offered to reconstitute the kingdom, she did not include
Isabella. However, Matthias and Pierson overruled Ann and invited Isabella to join
them. Zion Hill was a working farm and Matthias arranged everyone’s daily work-
load, except the two merchants. Ann performed light chores and Isabella cooked
and performed much of the heavier work. Elijah Pierson had grown a beard and
retired from his mercantile business; he worked on the farm and on the kingdom’s
investment portfolio, including purchasing land and selling a “kingdom stove.”
No one received wages, but they made a profit and did not incur any debts.38
Throughout the fall and winter of 1833, all seemed well. However, Isabella
soon observed that Ann’s interest in Matthias was more than spiritual. Ann first
peppered Isabella with questions about the prophet’s opinions, spiritual revelations,
and dreams, and then used the information to beguile the Father. Impressed with
Ann’s insight, Matthias proclaimed that it was “exactly the same spirit” he had. In
the mornings the family appeared at the table for Matthias’s daily inspection. The
once ascetic Ann now appeared elegantly dressed and perfumed. She embroidered
linens and nightcaps for Father and gave him a large gold ring. Isabella had admon-
ished the Father about forward women who made advances, but he seemed to be
seduced by Ann’s tender trap. In the evenings after the family retired, Matthias and
Ann sat together in the parlor and conversed. Isabella had always participated in
these evening conversations. Now, however, when she entered the room, the two
fell into hushed silence, making it clear that she was not wanted.39

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62 The Journal of African American History

Isabella Van Wagenen and Ann Folger traveled in the same Perfectionist cir-
cles. Besides Elijah Pierson, the Folgers were friendly with James LaTourette,
who like Ann had been raised in the “bosom of the Dutch Reformed church.”
However, her Swedenborgian views on marriage were radical, even for
Perfectionists. Mid-19th-century progressives debated the philosophy of Swedish
mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, who maintained that marriage without a spiritual
base was invalid and that a believer should not be “unequally yoked.” Hence,
some Perfectionists disavowed civil marriage if they found a “spirit match” more
suitable than their spouse.40 Ann expressed those beliefs to Elijah Pierson. After
his wife died in 1831, Ann meekly revealed her “dream” about Pierson’s new
“match spirit” and the “child” they would conceive. Gradually Ann expressed
those views to Father, gently suggesting that perhaps she and he were “match spir-
its.” Father responded that he would “think on it.”41
Eventually, Ann Folger displayed her feminine wiles before the entire kingdom
family, with only her husband Benjamin and Catherine Galloway absent. Pierson
had instituted foot washing and “holy” kissing; Matthias instituted bathing commu-
nally by gender. Hot water was first prepared for the men and boys, who bathed first.
Then the girls watched while Ann and Isabella bathed each other before bathing
them. One evening, after Matthias walked into the bathing room, but before any
other males could follow, Ann dashed after him asking, “Father shall I wash you?”
and locked the door. They remained inside far too long. This annoyed Pierson’s
youngest daughter who quipped, “Father should certainly be clean enough.”42
Not long afterwards, Elijah Pierson and Ann Folger visited Benjamin in New
York City. Upon their return, Ann told Isabella to set the house “in order,” espe-
cially the master bedroom, in preparation for a wedding. Isabella refused to take
such orders, but Ann announced that she and Father, as newly revealed “matched
spirits,” were going to “unite.” Isabella wanted clarity on what Ann meant. “But
are you going to sleep with him?” she asked. Ann replied, “yes, certainly.” She
would be “Mother” of the kingdom and as a transmigrated “virgin,” she would
bear a “holy child,” a son to be named James, after the disciple.43
Catherine Galloway reported to Isabella that a terrible “to-do” had occurred in
the city when Ann and Elijah Pierson brought this news to Benjamin Folger, who
was stricken with “both grief and passion.” It took much convincing on Pierson’s
part, but Benjamin finally softened upon learning that Father had a beautiful eight-
een-year-old daughter living in Albany, New York, and that Benjamin could have
her. Meanwhile, Benjamin could console himself with Catherine Galloway as a
temporary “spirit match.”44
The saga and the coupling became more and more sordid and uproarious and
events moved swiftly. In the spring of 1834 Benjamin Folger did indeed go to
Albany to seek out Matthias’s lovely young daughter, also named Isabella. But she

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 63

had recently married. Nevertheless, she went to Westchester and was so impressed
with the opulent surroundings at Zion Hill that she became Benjamin’s “spirit
wife.” Young Isabella’s husband, Charles Laisdell, followed her, obtained a court
order, and forced her to leave with him, but not before informing local Westchester
residents about the “wife swapping” going on. The village elders subsequently
confronted Benjamin and Ann Folger about these scandalous reports, but the two
presented themselves as a loving couple. Isabella Van Wagenen, standing back as
an observer, was disturbed by the goings on and was tempted to leave. But she had
not completely lost faith in Matthias and was curious about the kingdom’s even-
tual outcome. That was a mistake. In August 1834 Elijah Pierson was found dead
in his bed, apparently of natural causes. He was buried by the family. However,
Pierson’s relatives, already distrustful of his relationship with Matthias, suspected
foul play, especially after they found the deceased merchant’s finances in disarray.
Physicians were called in to exhume Pierson’s body. When they found a white
substance in his stomach, a grand jury investigation was undertaken.45

PERFECTIONISTS ON TRIAL

With the Zion Hill kingdom house in litigation after Pierson’s untimely
death, those remaining—Isabella, Matthias, Catherine, and the Folgers—moved
back to New York City. Ann Folger was pregnant with Father’s “holy child,” and
realizing that her respectability was tottering, she began having second thoughts
about her “match.” Benjamin Folger, the cuckold husband who wanted his wife
back and Matthias hanged, devised a scheme that would implicate the prophet,
sacrifice Isabella, and hopefully leave his family unscathed. He gave Isabella
$25.00 for her past domestic services and gave Matthias $500.00 in silver and
gold, ostensibly to establish a new kingdom in western New York. He suggested
Matthias and Isabella travel “together” and that Isabella carry the money.
Benjamin and Ann were to follow after the “holy child’s” birth. Catherine
Galloway told Isabella what she had already surmised: “It was a trap.” Instead,
Matthias went to Albany, New York, with the money and left it with his previous
wife. Isabella, naïve but certainly no fool, left for Ulster County to confer with
her former owner and lawyer, John Dumont. When she returned to New York
City, Matthias was in jail and the Folgers were spinning yarns that were then pub-
licized in the penny press. Benjamin Folger accused Matthias of stealing the
money and Isabella of trying to kill his family by putting poison in the coffee,
which made them all ill. The “coloured woman” was under Matthias’s influence
and “intended to poison the family,” declared the Journal of Commerce.
Fortunately, it was later reported, none of the family members died, but they were
recovering from the intended poisoning.46

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64 The Journal of African American History

The “Prophet” Matthias


Courtesy of Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services, Cornell University.

Isabella was under suspicion and her friends were few. However, her
Methodist-Perfectionist women friends who knew her character sought to aid her,
and Lucy Whiting gave Isabella employment once again. In court Matthias assert-
ed that he did not steal the money, it was “given” to him. He claimed that he never
said he was “God,” but merely a “Jewish priest.” Matthias was lucid and sensible,
and no crime was proven. Folger decided to drop the case against him and Isabella
was not charged. But Benjamin had an ace in the hole. As soon as Matthias was
released, he was rearrested and charged with murder. Medical examiners had
found some “unknown substance” in Elijah Pierson’s stomach. Moreover, the
Folgers were still insisting that Isabella had tried to poison their coffee.47 This
could be the ruin of Isabella’s reputation, even if she was never convicted. Women
friends helped Isabella deal with the allegations and hire a lawyer to defend both
her and Matthias. Anxious to take the witness stand, Isabella vowed to “crush” the
Folgers “with the truth.” She secured more advice from John Dumont and

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 65

obtained character references from the Dutch Knickerbockers in Ulster County.


Back in New York City, she called on James LaTourette, explained her situation,
and asked for a character reference. But LaTourette was already on the Folgers’
side after they confessed to him and asked his “forgiveness.” LaTourette gave
Isabella a tongue-lashing for leaving his Five Points meetings, but the African-
Dutch woman would not humble herself. That was not the issue, she shot back:
Would he write about her character during the time that he knew her? LaTourette
refused, even though privately he admitted to his wife Cornelia that he believed
everything Isabella said. He thought Isabella had the “best character for morals,
truth, industry and intelligence.” Still, LaTourette remained more loyal to his class
than to a wronged black lady preacher he knew well. Publicly he supported the
Folgers.48
But the shopkeepers’ wives with whom Isabella worked in the Five Points
championed her. Belinda Gatfield insisted that her family “never had a servant that
we could place such implicit confidence.” Mrs. John Downing said, “[Isabella
was] a strictly honest moral woman, and her equal I have not found since she left
me.” Lucy and Perez Whiting were the closest to Isabella—her chief advisers.
They were always there in between her communal living arrangements. Their let-
ter of recommendation offered a stark contrast between Ann Folger and Isabella
Van Wagenen. They never had a domestic in whom they placed “such implicit
confidence,” wrote the Whitings. In fact, they continued, “we did, and do still
believe her to be a woman of extraordinary moral purity.” The revival ministers
also wrote on Isabella’s behalf, as did the grocer Daniel Smith, who had encour-
aged her to come to the city and invited her to preach at the Magdalen; he wrote
that she was “worthy of any trust.”49
But the publishers of the penny press had already found Isabella guilty of
attempting to poison the Folgers’ coffee. Then they published stories claiming that
Elijah Pierson himself was poisoned with blackberries served by this “coloured
woman.” Of course, all of these charges could be traced to the Folgers, who had an
inside agent. Commercial Advertiser editor William Leete Stone was Benjamin
Folger’s childhood friend, and the two men had agreed secretly to write a book on
the kingdom based on information provided by the Folgers. William Stone was an
anti-abolitionist, pro-colonizationist editor credited with inciting the race riot that
erupted in New York City in July 1834, while Isabella was away at the Westchester
kingdom. Abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison declared that Stone’s paper
created the mob that destroyed Rev. John McDowell’s office and African
Americans’ homes, businesses, and churches. Stone, said Garrison, was the most
unscrupulous of editors, “a miserable liar and murderous hypocrite. . . . If any man
ever deserved to be sent to the Penitentiary or State Prison for life, Stone is that
man.”50

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66 The Journal of African American History

Stone depicted Isabella as representing the same forces that he insisted caused
the July 1834 race riots—free blacks’ excesses, sexuality, and fanaticism. In the
Commercial Advertiser he consistently labeled Isabella as the personification of
evil: “The original members of this church were about a dozen. . . . Among them
was Isabella, a black woman; who . . . was probably, before the end came, among
the most wicked of the wicked.”51 As Isabella gathered her character letters and
her lawyer prepared her testimony, Stone led the press in excoriating her with the
“poisonous blackberries” story. Reportedly, she gave them to Pierson at Matthias’s
behest; the prophet wanted the merchant dead so he could seize his property. In
fact, Pierson’s youngest daughter, not Isabella, had prepared the blackberries.
Isabella was anxious to reveal this and much more, but the murder trial was post-
poned because of Ann Folger’s childbirth confinement and illness with smallpox.
Meanwhile, sordid stories about Isabella escalated. Isabella’s women friends
urged her to sue Benjamin Folger for slander. She did so, and won a $25.00 judg-
ment as she waited anxiously for the trial.52
Under the defense attorney’s cross-examination, it was shown that the substance
in Pierson’s stomach was “white,” and hence, not blackberries; and there was no evi-
dence of poison. Ann Folger and Catherine Galloway, walking arm and arm into the
courtroom, testified about Matthias’s doctrines, but said nothing about living
arrangements. Ann intimated slyly that before she met Matthias, Isabella had been
his “housekeeper,” a term then synonymous with sex worker. Ann insisted that the
only people who did not become ill from the blackberries were those who did not
eat them—herself, Isabella, and Matthias. Ann Folger claimed that Isabella was
cruel to Pierson on occasion and even slapped him. (She did not tell the court that
Pierson sometimes masturbated openly and had instructed Isabella to snap him out
of it with a slap.) Just before Isabella’s turn to testify, the defense attorney moved to
dismiss the charges and the judge so instructed the jury.53
Isabella was grievously disappointed and understood the implications of her
position. As an uneducated black domestic, she was considered ignorant and expend-
able. White public opinion eagerly believed the worst about the African-Dutch
woman and the white carpenter, including a sexual liaison, a conspiracy, and murder.
The New York City race riot in July 1834 was incited by paranoia about black sexu-
ality. In June 1834, the Laight Street Presbyterian congregation complained strenu-
ously when abolitionist Lewis Tappan invited African American Rev. Samuel
Cornish to join him in his pew. Pastor Samuel Cox used the opposition to Cornish’s
presence as an opportunity to preach against intolerance, maintaining that Jesus him-
self was probably dark-skinned. A few weeks later, when rioting occurred, besides
destroying black homes, businesses, and churches, the mobs attacked Tappan’s resi-
dence and damned Rev. Cox for calling the “savior a nigger.” Rioters also claimed
that abolitionist ministers were performing interracial marriages. Abolitionists, wrote

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 67

Stone, wanted to “mulattoize” white society and create a race of “mongrels.” Just
days before violence erupted, Stone published a fictitious advertisement entitled, “A
White Woman Wanted.” The black “Bandy Pump” announced his eagerness to “mal-
gumate and . . . marry a white woman. . . .” Interested ladies “will please send
their proposals to de Editor ob de Liberator.” In the riot’s wake, Isabella became the
scapegoat, the “wench” character acted out in the minstrel shows of Jacksonian
America’s theaters. The Matthias case exemplified the sensationalism of sex-tinged
and racist amusements in mid-19th-century American society.54
Nonetheless, Isabella told her story. A friend introduced her to Gilbert Vale,
the British editor, labor agitator, professor of navigation, and freethinker who
loved a good fight for justice and had followed Isabella’s saga. Vale was also an
abolitionist and had published the writings of British women’s rights advocate
Mary Wollstonecraft. Isabella fascinated the editor. She “is not what she seems,”
Vale observed. She was no ordinary domestic, but possessed shrewd common
sense, had a feisty personality, and despised artifice. As a member of the kingdom,
Ann Folger’s “warm constitution” got the better of her and on the witness stand
the “lady” came across as the femme fatale in the kingdom of Matthias.
Conversely, Isabella possessed the cardinal virtues of true womanhood, and Vale
readily agreed to publish her version of what went on in the kingdom of Matthias.
In the end, while a white woman attempted to bring down Isabella, other white
women stood with her, publicly expressing total confidence in her character and
worth. These women were not only urban moral reform activists, but advocates of
immediate abolition. Their signatures appear on New York City antislavery peti-
tions; they supported the “free produce” movements, boycotting goods produced
by slave labor, and insisted on drinking java coffee, using beet sugar, or none at
all. They religiously read the Liberator published by William Lloyd Garrison,
himself a Perfectionist who admired Rev. John McDowell. Garrison believed that
McDowell was “hastened to a premature grave by ecclesiastical oppression.”
Perfectionist women should not be confused with the evangelical women who
refused to allow African American women to join their antislavery societies, and
refused to sign the progressive and antiracist statements that emerged from the
1837 Women’s Anti-Slavery Convention. Indeed, the failure to form a national
women’s antislavery organization was due, in the words of abolitionist Angelina
Grimke, to “wicked prejudice.”55 But that was not the whole story.
The seeds of Sojourner Truth’s womanist consciousness were sown in New
York City because of her missteps in the kingdom of Matthias and her redeeming
relationships with Methodist-Perfectionist women who answered in the affirma-
tive to the question, “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?”
After fifteen years in the city her epiphany came as a vision and a voice. One
night she went to bed as Isabella and awoke the next morning as Sojourner. She was

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68 The Journal of African American History

living with and working for Lucy Whiting, to whom she announced her imminent
departure. They had been through much together, but Lucy was not prepared for this:

“The Lord is going to give me a new home, Mrs. Whiting, and I am going away.”
“Where are you going?”
“Going East.”
“What does that mean?”
“The Lord has directed me to go East, and leave this city at once.”

Lucy was shocked and exasperated, no doubt wondering what Bell was up to this
time. “Bell, you are crazy.” “No I ain’t,” Sojourner responded. “The Spirit calls
me there, and I must go.”56
The Disciple of Christ left the city on 1 June 1843, Pentecost Sunday. By the
winter of 1844, Sojourner Truth was in Springfield, Massachusetts. Rachel
Stearns, a Springfield abolitionist, wrote to Maria Weston Chapman of Boston,
that “an amazing colored woman” was “taking Springfielders by storm.” “She can
neither read nor write,” Stearns added, but “the spirit has taught her.”57 The
Springfielders knew just the place for Sojourner Truth—the abolitionist headquar-
ters and utopian commune of Northampton.

NOTES
I wish to thank Brenda Stevenson, V. P. Franklin, and Rosalyn-Terborg Penn for reading earlier versions of this
study. I also thank Peter Hirtle in the Cornell University Kroch Library; Eisha Neely in Cornell’s Division of Rare
and Manuscript Collections; Bronwyn Mohike and Dannielle Mericle in Cornell’s Digital Consulting &
Production Services; and the Cornell Law Library.

1
The evangelicals of New York City were a mixed bag united by their interest in religious revivalism. Many
embraced the Great Revival, initiated in the mid 1820s by Charles Grandison Finney in Upstate New York’s
“Burned-over District.” Some evangelicals such as Joshua Leavitt and Arthur and Lewis Tappan later joined
black reformers in advocating immediate abolition. Others advocated colonization. They shied away from black
equality and working closely with blacks on antislavery issues. Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District: The
Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850 (Ithaca, NY, 1950),
87–109, 190–96, 229, 237; Margaret Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America (Urbana, IL, 2009), chapters 6–7;
Lewis Tappan, The Life of Arthur Tappan (New York, 1870), 110–13; Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and
the Evangelical War Against Slavery (Baton Rouge, LA, 1969), esp. 65–82, 109–10, 197–200.
2
Gen. 1–3; Rev. 17, 18, especially 17:5, 6, 15; Joshua Leavitt, Memoir and Select Remains of the Late Reverend
John R. McDowell, the Martyr of the Seventh Commandment in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1838),
97–110, 112–118, 124–127, 143–145, 158–170, 195–96; Tappan, The Life of Arthur Tappan, 110–13; Timothy
Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790–1920 (New York,
1992), 36–41, 182.
3
The best work on these divergences is Nancy Hewitt’s Women’s Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New
York, 1822–1872 (Ithaca, NY, 1984); See also Ann Boylan, “Timid Girls, Venerable Widows and Dignified
Matrons: Life Cycle Patterns among Organized Women in New York and Boston, 1797–1840,” American
Quarterly 38, no. 5 (Winter 1986): 779–797.
4
The Ladies’ New York Anti-Slavery Society, comprised of evangelical women, supported the American Anti-
Slavery Society but chafed at admitting black women to their local organization. See Amy Swerdlow, “Abolition’s
Conservative Sisters: The Ladies’ New York City Anti-Slavery Societies, 1834–1840,” in Abolitionist Sisterhood:

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 69
Women’s Political Culture in Antebellum America, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin and John C Van Horne (Ithaca, NY, 1994),
33–36, 40–41. Evangelical women also opposed any racial integration and opposed the racial inclusion resolutions
adopted at the National Women’s Antislavery Convention in 1837 in New York City. See Washington, Sojourner
Truth’s America, 133–37. For a class breakdown of antislavery activism, see John B. Jentz, “Artisans,
Evangelicals, and the City: A Social History of Abolition and Labor Reform in Jacksonian New York” Ph.D. diss.,
City University of New York, 1977, appendix; Edward Magdol, The Antislavery Rank and File: A Social Profile
of the Abolitionists’ Constituency (Westport, CT, 1986), 5–56, 96–97, 110.
5
Nanci Caraway, Segregated Sisterhood, Racism and the Politics of American Feminism (Knoxville, TN, 1991),
1–22; 117–24; Gerda Lerner, “The Political Activities of Antislavery Women,” in The Majority Finds Its Past:
Placing Women in History (1979; reprinted, Chapel Hill, NC, 2005), 94–103; Boylan, “Benevolence and
Antislavery Activity among African American Women,” 119.
6
Joanna Bethune, ed., The Power of Faith Exemplified in the Life and Writings of the Late Mrs. Isabella Graham
(New York, 1843), 166–68, 220–22, 231–34, 249–50, 307, 346–47.
7
Anti-Slavery Bugle, 21 June 1851; Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America, Part III.
8
Will of Charles Hardenbergh, Record of Wills, bk. D, 196, Ulster County Surrogate’s Office, Kingston, NY;
Sojourner Truth and Olive Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Bondswoman of Olden Time, ed. Margaret
Washington (1850; reprinted New York, 1993), 1–3, 7, 26–30; West Chester (PA) Daily Local News, 18 July
1874; Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, 13 August 1879; Vivian L. Kruger, “Born to Run: The Slave Family in Early
New York, 1626–1827,” 2 vols., Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1985, II, 767–84, 852–65, 887–89, 921–22,
936–41.
9
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 30–40, 44–46; New York Tribune, 8 November 1853; Kruger, “Born to Run,” II,
733–35, 741–51, 852–62; Theophus H. Smith, Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America (New
York, 1994), 3–15, 39–43, 159–82. Smith discusses the fusion of conjuration and Christianity, and Sojourner
Truth as “conjure woman.” Kidnapping victims were often beaten and threatened into silence. See Carol Wilson,
Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780–1865 (Lexington, KY, 1994), 27.
10
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 42–43; James Irving Clarke Papers, boxes 1 and 2, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Collection, Cornell University.
11
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 32, 41–43, 67; Battle Creek Nightly Moon, 8 June 1880.
12
Will of James LaTourette, 23 June 1841, Surrogate Court, County of New York; Cross, Burned-Over District,
177–78, 184, 189–96; Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 6–7, 16–17, 67; Gilbert Vale, Fanaticism; Its Source and
Influence, Illustrated by the Simple Narrative of Isabella, in the Case of Matthias, Mr. and Mrs. Folger, Mr.
Pierson, Mr. Mills, Catherine, Isabella, &c. &c., vols. I & II (New York, 1835); hereafter referred to as IN; see
IN, vol. I: 11, 18–19.
13
Joseph J. Foote, “An Enquiry Respecting the Theological Origins of Perfectionism and Its Correlative
Branches,” Literary and Theological Review 9 (March 1836): 7, 10, 15, 19.
14
Ibid.; IN, I: 18–19; II: 21, 112, 115; John Wesley, “Thoughts on Methodism,” Methodist Magazine and
Quarterly Review 9, no. 6 (June 1826): 225–227; Cross, Burned-Over District, 177–78, 184, 189–96; Robert D.
Thomas, Man Who Would Be Perfect: John Humphrey Noyes and the Utopian Impulse (Philadelphia, PA, 1977),
70, 72, 77, 82–83.
15
IN, I: 18–19, II: 122, 126; Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 50, 62; Nina LaTourette Romeyn to Loring McMillen,
Esq., 22 June 1938, LaTourette Family Papers, Staten Island Historical Society, Staten Island, NY.
16
Longworth’s American Almanac, New York Register, and City Directory, 1827, 1828, 1829, 1830; Records of
John Street Methodist Church, vol. 237: 1, 15, 31, 169, 179, 210, New York City Public Library; IN I:18–19;
New York Tribune, 7 September 1853; James 1: 33, 27, 2: 16–17.
17
“The Christian Duty of Christian Women,” Christian Advocate 4 (January 1826): 1–11; IN, I: 11–13, 18–19,
54–55; Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 67–68; James D. Folts, “The Fanatic and the Prophetess: Religious
Perfectionism in Western New York, 1835–1839” New York History 72 (October 1991): 371–72; William L.
Andrews, ed., Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century
(Bloomington, IN, 1986); Cross, Burned-Over District, 177–78, 184, 189–96, 240; Catherine Brekus, Strangers
and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1998), 3, 190–91, 195–204, 294–95.
I disagree with Brekus that women preachers were “conservative,” practiced a limited “biblical” rather than “sec-
ular feminism,” rarely protested against women’s inequality, and were not interested in ordination. Some of the
very examples Brekus chooses (Sojourner Truth, Julia Foote, Antoinette Blackwell, and Laura Haviland) belie
this assessment. See Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims, 6–7, 221, and passim.

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70 The Journal of African American History
18
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 59, 63, 67–68; IN I: 19; Dorothy Sterling, ed., We Are Your Sisters, Black Women
in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1984), 105–112; Kruger, “Born to Run,” II: 926–27; Mahlon Day, New
York Street Cries in Rhyme (1825; reprinted, New York, 1977), 18, 22; Raymond A. Mohl, Poverty in New York,
1783–1825 (New York, 1971), 21, 93, 176–78, 225–33; Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African
Americans in New York City (Chicago, IL, 2003), 76–77; Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice:
African American Women and Religion (New York, 2010), 35–41.
19
Freedom’s Journal, 4 May 1827 and 1 & 22 June 1827; IN, I: 19; Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 59, 63, 67–68;
Kruger, “Born to Run,” II: 767–84, 852–65, 887–89, 921–27, 936–41.
20
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 59, 67; IN, I: 20, 46; New York Evangelist, 26 March 1836; Tappan, The Life of
Arthur Tappan, 110–13; Graham, Power of Faith, 249–50. For an excellent discussion of Katy Ferguson, see
Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice, 42–48.
21
IN I: 10, 19.
22
Graham, Power of Faith, 307; Tappan, Lewis Tappan, 110–13; Leavitt, Memoir, 101–7, 124, 131, 142–44;
Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America, 89–91.
23
Adam Clarke, “Christian Perfection,” Methodist Magazine and Quarterly Review 11, no. 1 (January 1828): 1,
3, 5, 141–46; John L. Peters, Christian Perfection and American Methodism (New York, 1956), 29–32, 64–66,
82–89, 100; Leavitt, Memoir, 100, 104, 112, 150, 158–59, 195–96; Gilfoyle, City of Eros, 36–41, 182.
24
Leavitt, Memoir, 97–101, 109–110, 113; Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 68; Colored American, 30 June, 9
September, 3, 17 November 1838; John H. Hewitt, “Mr. Downing and His Oyster House: The Life and Good
Works of an African American Entrepreneur,” New York History 74 (July 1993): 229–35; Gilfoyle, City of Eros,
39–54; Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York, 1999),
478–84; 495; Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The Nineteenth Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented
Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum (New York, 2001), 24–46, 91–96.
25
Leavitt, Memoir, 101–3, 131–35, 150–51, 164–65; Freedom’s Journal, 18 April, 12 October 1827, and 21
March, 11 July 1828; New York Tribune, 7 September 1853; Wilson J. Moses, Alexander Crummell: A Study in
Civilization and Discontent (New York, 1989), 16–19.
26
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 68; IN, I: 19, 40, 44–50; James I: 22, 2: 5–6; Diary of John Stanford, entries for
8, 23, & 29 June; and 1 & 12 July 1830, New York Historical Society; Gardiner Spring, Personal Reminiscences
of the Life and Times of Gardiner Spring (New York, 1866), 228–29; William Leete Stone, Matthias and His
Imposters: Or, The Progress of Fanaticism, Illustrated in the Extraordinary Case of Robert Matthews and Some
of His Forerunners and Disciples (New York, 1835), 59–61, 81–82.
27
IN, I: 23–36, 41–43; Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 31–35, 51–53; Stone, Matthias, 81–83; Rochester Evening
Express, 17 April 1871; Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, 13 August 1879; Delia Hart Stone, “Sojourner Truth,”
Woman’s Tribune, 14 November 1903, 124; “Isabella Van Wagner . . . experience,” box 1, folder 9, Berenice
Bryant Lowe Papers, Michigan Historical Collection, Bentley Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor;
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London, 1912), 382–89.
28
Leavitt, Memoir, 155–59, 178–79, 181–83, 195–98; IN, I: 12, 19; Tappan, Arthur Tappan, 68–70, 88–89; New
York Evangelist, 19 January, 2, 9, 16 July 1831 and 23 February 1833; Stone, Matthias, 79–80.
29
IN, I: 19–23, 25–27, 41, 43, II: 19–21, 110; Stone, Matthias, 81–83.
30
IN, I: 19–22; Stone, Matthias, 95–107; Margaret Matthews, Matthias by His Wife (New York, 1835), 3–7,
12–15, 18–22; Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias (New York, 1994), 52–53, 59–62.
31
IN, I: 25, 142–45.
32
IN, I: 25, 143–46.
33
IN, I: 40, 60–64; Matthews, Matthias by His Wife, 8–15, 20; Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America, 101–2.
34
IN, I: 43–51, 54; The People v. Robert Matthews, 24 September 1832, District Attorney Indictment Papers, and
Court of General Sessions, 10 December 1832, both in New York City Municipal Archives and Records (here-
after referred to as NYCMAR).
35
IN, I: 44–51, 54; Stone, Matthias, 120–26, 136–38.
36
IN, I: 52–55; Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America, 103–5.
37
IN, I: 59, 61–66; II: 44–48, 51–53; Commercial Advertiser, 18 April 1835; Matthews, Matthias by His Wife, 39.
38
IN, I: 53–65; II: 17–55, 72–73; False Prophet! The Very Interesting and Remarkable Trial of Matthias, the False
Prophet (New York, 1835), 8–9, 12–15.
39
IN, I: 59–63, 66–68, 73; II: 114; False Prophet, 7–13.
40
Robin Larsen, ed., Emanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision (New York, 1988), 6, 359–60.

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Race, Religion, and Sojourner Truth’s Early Interracial Reform 71
41
IN, I: 71–73, 76–79, II: 10–11, 17, 20–21.
42
Ibid., I: 53–54, 59, II: 9–11, 16, 108.
43
Ibid., I: 64, 71–73, II: 10–11.
44
Ibid., I: 69–70, 76–79, II: 17, 20–21, 32, 76–84; Matthews, Matthias by His Wife, 28–30; Stone, Matthias,
46–49.
45
Matthews, Matthias by His Wife, 32–35; IN I: 82; II: 11–39.
46
Journal of Commerce, 26, 28 September 1834.
47
Examination of Robert Matthews, otherwise called The Prophet, 1 October 1834, District Attorney Indictment
Papers, NYCMAR; Commercial Advertiser, 26 September, 2 October, 8 and 11 November 1834.
48
IN II: 94–95, 110–13, 115–16; Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America, 119–22.
49
IN I: 12, 2: 112; Longworth’s American Almanac, New York Register and City Directory, 1827, 1829, 1831,
1833, 1834.
50
Liberator, 19 & 26 July 1834.
51
Stone, Matthias, 63, 316, 317; Commercial Advertiser, 7, 8, 10, 11 July 1834.
52
IN, II: 95–96, 112–13.
53
IN, II: 116–18, 120; Stone, Matthias, 65, 213–19, 231, 250; Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America, 114–15.
54
Commercial Advertiser, 7–11 July 1834; Albany Argus, 10, 14 July 1834; Liberator, 12, 19 July 1834; Leonard
L. Richards, “Gentlemen of Property and Standing”: Anti-Abolition in Jacksonian America (New York, 1970),
21–27; Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan, 102–114; Anbinder, Five Points, 7–13; Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Black
Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York, 1993), 26–28, 76–77, 111–20, 132–33.
55
Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld and Angelina Grimke Weld, and Sarah Grimke, 1822–1844, ed. Gilbert H.
Barnes and Dwight A. Dumond, 2 vols. (Gloucester, MA, 1965), 1: 22–24, 145–47; Jentz, “Artisans,
Evangelicals, and the City,” appendix; Swerdlow, “Abolition’s Conservative Sisters,” 32–40.
56
Chicago Inter-Ocean, 13 August 1879.
57
Rachel Stearns to Maria Weston Chapman, 4 February 1944, Ms. 9-2-20, 109, Weston Sisters Papers, Boston
Public Library, Boston, MA.

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