I’m on my way to General Conference in Portland. When I go to Portland, I often go through Madras to spend time with my mother. That’s where I am this morning with a few minutes to get this off to you.
As my mother reminds me, I had a keen interest in United States presidents while I was growing up. I would impress the grown-ups by reciting the presidents in order from Washington to Eisenhower (or whoever was president way back then). I would be asked, “Who is your favorite president?” I would answer, not Washington or Lincoln as everyone expected I would, but Andrew Jackson.
I’m not even sure why he was my favorite. But I do remember my favorite rendition of his likeness was the one found on the $20 bill. So imagine how thrilled I was, even all these years later, to learn that Andrew Jackson is soon to be replaced by Harriet Tubman.
I’ve gotten over it. Especially after I learned that Harriet Tubman was a Methodist, the third Methodist now to appear on United States currency. (Can you name the other two?)
She was a slave who suffered a head injury at the hands of her master and for the rest of her life she saw visions and made prophecies. Her certainty about hearing God’s voice fueled her tremendous courage, leading to her escape with help from Quakers, and her daring leadership in the Underground Railroad. She would return to the south in secret again and again. She was putting her life in danger each time. It is estimated that hundreds of slaves may have found liberation in the north thanks to her.
Eventually Tubman settled in Auburn, New York, thanks to her friendship with anti-slavery statesman William Seward, who became Lincoln’s Secretary of State (and always thought he should have been president instead). Seward sold her some land, which may have been technically illegal (you had to be white to own land). In later years she turned her property over to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which still owns it.
During the Civil War Tubman was a fearless nurse, scout, and spy for Union forces in the South. After the war she advocated for the newly freed slaves, among other causes, including women’s voting rights and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a favorite Methodist cause. She never learned to read but her memory for Scripture and other material was legendary, which contributed to her spellbinding oratory. Working with white and black Methodist churches in Auburn, she helped the indigent, sick, poor and elderly, often taking them into her own home, and in the process getting robbed several times.
Plagued by a lifetime of headaches, as an elderly woman she elected to have brain surgery. She rejected anesthesia in favor of biting a bullet while mumbling prayers. She lived to age 91, eventually moving into the home for elderly blacks she helped found with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, whose clergy led her funeral. She was celebrated by whites and blacks, including aging Civil War vets, for her faith, service, sacrifice, tenacity, and bravery. Her casket was draped in an American flag, and she was buried with a crucifix and a medal from Queen Victoria.
Harriet Tubman is a worthy choice for the $20 (especially since that musical about Alexander Hamilton made it impossible to put her on the $10 bill). And, by the way, the other two Methodists on US currency are Ulysses Grant on the $50 bill and William McKinley who was on the $500 bill until that bill was discontinued.
Pray for General Conference!