Harriet Tubman honored as a saint

CAMBRIDGE — CAMBRIDGE -- Dorchester County-born slave Harriet Ross Tubman was honored as a saint here yesterday in the Episcopal church where her owner had been a baptized member.

The service of song and word in the 303-year-old Great Choptank Parish would probably have amazed the 19th-century freedom fighter in her own time.


But it was extraordinary enough even in present-day Cambridge. Whites and blacks packed Christ Episcopal Church, as the parish is also known, to "re-examine the mistakes of our past," in the words of the Rev. Linda Wheatley, one of the participants.

Ms. Wheatley, executive director of Dorchester County's Harriet Tubman Coalition that keeps alive the memory of the famous "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, spoke on behalf of descendants of Tubman's family. She was born a slave in 1820 or 1821 about six miles southeast of Cambridge. She died in Auburn, N.Y., in 1913.


Historians say Harriet Tubman was freed in 1849 after the death of her master, Edward Brodess, when she fled to Pennsylvania. Returning to Maryland at least 15 times, she led more than 300 slaves to freedom along the dangerous, secret path of abolitionists known as the Underground Railroad.

Ms. Wheatley told yesterday's Evening Prayer congregation, however, that the deeply religious Tubman, who believed she was directed in her mission by the voice of God, was freed "right here in Dorchester County, conversing with her Master."

Ms. Wheatley added, "I don't mean Brodess."

The service in Christ Church, where an ecumenical group of clergy, including Bishop Martin G. Townsend of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton, took part, celebrated the nomination of Tubman to the liturgical Calendar of Saints of the Episcopal Church.

At the church's General Convention last summer, the former slave was nominated for this honor along with three other 19th-century women who were pioneers in the anti-slavery and women's rights movements. The others are Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer and Sojourner Truth.

While they are to be commemorated as a group July 20, the observance honoring Tubman this year in the Diocese of Easton was held yesterday so that it could be part of Black History Month.

Final approval of naming her a saint is expected at the 1997 General Convention. Tubman is the first Maryland native to be chosen for this honor.

"To be added to our Calendar of Saints is one of the highest honors our church can bestow on any individual," said the Rev. Nathaniel W. Pierce, rector of Great Choptank Parish, who officiated at the service. "Harriet Tubman, who was not an Episcopalian, often said that she only did what the Lord told her to do, and her life bears witness to a spiritual depth rarely found in any person."


At the conclusion of the multicultural service, at which Christ Church's choir was joined by the choir of Refuge Temple Church of God, Bishop Townsend said, "There has been no time since I came to this diocese when I've been prouder to be a part of it."

Bishop Townsend, who was elected in 1992, is the ninth bishop of the Easton Diocese, which covers Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Refuge Temple's contribution to the rousing music of the service included a high-decibel, syncopated rendition of "Ride On, King Jesus," which had the congregation clapping hands along with the choir and applauding at its conclusion.

The sermon by the Rev. Michael B. Curry, rector of St. James Episcopal Church on West Baltimore's Lafayette Square, also brought an applauding congregation to its feet -- an unusual occurrence for an Episcopal service. Preaching on a text from the Book of Exodus, Father Curry reminded the congregation that Harriet Tubman is remembered as "the Moses of her people" for her role in freeing slaves.

"There's always a new Pharaoh," Father Curry said. "He takes many disguises . . . making slaves of the children of God."

The preacher likened much of the music and language of television and the drugs that hold children in their power to the Egyptian Pharaoh of the Bible.


"Pharaoh by nature is always engaged in a big lie," the priest declared.

During the service, Father Pierce led the congregation in prayers that included, "O God, whose spirit guides us into all truth and makes us free, strengthen and sustain us as you did your servant Harriet Ross Tubman."

The priest and the congregation also prayed, "Bind us together by your Holy Spirit in the communion of Harriet Tubman and all your saints, entrusting one another and all our life to Christ."

And the choir sang, "Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised."