Will Harriet Tubman Movie Show How Faith Fueled Audacious Abolitionist?

Plus: Books to Read and Shows to Watch Before ‘Harriet’ Movie’s November 1 Release

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in the Harriet movie
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman. (Photo: Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

The movie “Harriet,” a dramatic account of abolitionist hero and activist Harriet Tubman’s life and exploits, will be in theaters on November 1. While the official movie trailer is high on drama, it reveals barely any hints that Tubman’s motivation and strength to fight for the liberation of her people was grounded in her unwavering faith in God.

Focus Features promises to give audiences “the untold true story” of Tubman’s life, but the only reference to God in the near-three-minute trailer is when Tubman declares, “God don’t mean people to own people!” While there is a church worship scene and publicists insist “the film illustrates the power of God working through Harriet Tubman,” viewers don’t really see or hear God get any credit during the trailer.

It would also be rather strange for “Harriet” to downplay Christianity’s role in the abolitionist movement. The Underground Railroad, which provided safe passage for the formerly enslaved, was comprised of Quakers and others who rejected slavery for religious reasons.

Tubman was a woman who frequently called on God.

When she found herself in tight or uncertain situations, it was God who Tubman called on for protection and direction. So for Tubman, nicknamed after the Bible’s prophetic deliverer figure Moses, faith was not a cursory part of her life. It was the fuel that propelled the audacious abolitionist forward into numerous exploits to help enslaved Black Americans acquire freedom.

Harriet Tubman Portrait
Harriet Tubman.

Anyone who’s done any cursory research on Tubman, born Araminta Ross on a Maryland plantation around in 1822, knows her faith in God was not shallow. Tubman even attributed the peculiar visions and dreams she often experienced to God – although others suggest they may have been the result of a childhood attack by an enslaver.

Paul Asay writes:

“Historians believe that Tubman’s religious fervor was given a unique push when, as a child, an overseer accidentally hit her in the head with a two-pound weight. The blow knocked her unconscious, but two days later she was back in the fields, ‘with blood and sweat rolling down my face until I couldn’t see,’ she later said. She suffered seizures and sometimes appeared to fall unconscious, and she dealt with terrible headaches for the rest of her life. But she also experienced incredible visions — visions she believed came from God.”

Tubman relied on God so heavily that she would pray for the Lord to change the heart of the man who kept her enslaved. When that didn’t seem to work, the woman called Moses then asked God to get the man “out of the way.”

As Mark Ellis tells it:

One day she learned that she would be sent to a chain gang in the far south – considered a terrible fate for any slave. The tone of her prayers shifted, and began to mimic the imprecatory prayers of David. “Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him Lord, and take him out of the way, so he won’t do no more mischief.”

God apparently answered Tubman’s prayer, causing the woman some remorse.

Similar to the enslaved Nat Turner who cited God’s leading in carrying out a bloody anti-slavery rebellion, Tubman, too, believed it was God’s voice that called her to flee the plantation in 1849. After a couple of prior unsuccessful attempts, Tubman finally succeeded. She traveled about 90 miles north on foot by herself to Pennsylvania.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in the Harriet movie
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman. (Photo: Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

Over the next decade, Tubman worked bravely and tirelessly to liberate at least 300 enslaved Blacks, including her own relatives. During uncertain times on the run, she would often pray to God, remaining receptive to His leading and seeking His protection.

As explained elsewhere: “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.’”

Tubman, who was illiterate but knew the Bible’s stories well, may have lived almost 100 years (she died in March 1913). Throughout her life, which started in slavery, she defied society’s expectations and injustices in her obedience to God’s call to help liberate her people. Tubman also worked for the Union Army as a spy, nurse, and more during the Civil War and later advocated for women’s suffrage.

On her deathbed, Tubman assured her loved ones, “I go to prepare a place for you.” As Christians know, that is a reference to the Great Liberator Jesus’ remarks to his disciples hours before his crucifixion (John 14:3).

As faith was the cornerstone of Tubman’s life and actions, viewers should definitely expect to see that reflected in the “Harriet” movie. After all, it would be strange for “Harriet” to downplay her desperate reliance on God for strength to fight her oppressors. Perhaps subsequent trailers will show more of this part of Tubman’s life in “Harriet.”

“Harriet” stars Tony Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo (“Widows,” “Bad Times at the El Royale”) in the title role, Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton,” “Murder on the Orient Express”), Janelle Monáe (“Hidden Figures,” “UglyDolls”), and Joe Alwyn (“The Favourite,” “Mary Queen of Scots”). It is directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Luke Cage,” “Talk to Me”). Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard (“Remember the Titans,” “Ali”) share screenwriting credit.

If you really want to dig into Tubman’s life before “Harriet” hits the big screen, you can stream the following media on Amazon (for free if you’ve got Prime): the 2018 documentary “Harriet Tubman – They Called Her Moses” and the 1978 series “A Woman Called Moses” starring the iconic Cicely Tyson as Harriet Tubman.

Plus: 5 Books to Read Before ‘Harriet’ Drops

Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero (Many Cultures, One World) by Kate Clifford Larson. Bound for the Promised Land is highly recommended by readers and lauded for its apparent accuracy in tracing the history of Tubman’s life.

Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (African American). This account was written by Sarah Bradford and originally published in 1869, with this edition published by Dover Publications in 2014. Harriet Tubman remains the most popular Tubman biography in Amazon’s list of “Best Sellers in American Civil War Biographies.”

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton was reportedly “widely praised for its impeccable research and its compelling narrative.” Published in 2005, it remains among the top bestselling books on the U.S. abolition of slavery on Amazon.

(Kid-friendly) Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman by Dorothy Sterling is popular among young readers and lauded for a faithful retelling of Tubman’s life.

(Kid-friendly) Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Caldecott Honor Book) by Carole Boston Weatherford. Readers call this account of Tubman’s life “beautiful” and “inspiring” for its portrayal of Moses’ interactions with her God.


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    Written by Nicola A. Menzie

    Nicola A. Menzie is Editorial Director of Faithfully Magazine. Nicola is a religion reporter in NYC whose bylines have appeared on the websites of the Religion News Service, The Christian Post, CBS News and Vibe magazine. You can find her on Twitter @namenzie. Email: nicola.menzie (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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