One common theme often emerges from the biographies of social trailblazers—their acknowledgement of a higher force guiding their lives.
In those biographies and autobiographies we hear of “callings” and “visions,” and sense that the individual’s contributions add to the larger orchestra of humanity’s progress and advancement. Since spiritual forces transcend time and place, we sometimes note that individuals in vastly different environments seem to be “moving” to a common harmony at play at that moment in human history.
Those things all happened in the contemporaneous lives of two great women of modern history – Tahirih (born Fatimeh) from Iran, and Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) from the United States of America.
Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in 1797 in Ulster County, New York, and endured decades of hardship and suffering. She was separated from her parents at age 9, sold with a flock of sheep for $100. Ten years later in 1827, she escaped slavery, but continued to endure much suffering. When she moved to New York City, her religious faith deepened, and although she had no formal education, she acquired a vast and deep knowledge of the Bible. She recognized her strong voice and became a travelling orator. She chose her new name, Sojourner Truth, in 1843, and turned her life over to God, travelling from church to church, sharing the message of Jesus Christ. She died in 1883 after a life of sacrifice for the greater good.
Tahirih was born as Fatimeh in the city of Qazvin, Iran in 1817. From a young age, she showed great interest in religion and spirituality, and sought knowledge at every opportunity. She was attracted to the message of spiritual teachers who were preparing their followers for a new religion, and when she came upon the writings of Siyyid Ali Muhammad—the Bab—she readily accepted him as the new prophet of God for that era:
There is no paradise more wondrous for any soul than to be exposed to God’s Manifestation in His Day, to hear His verses and believe in them, to attain His presence, which is naught but the presence of God, to sail upon the sea of the heavenly kingdom of His good-pleasure, and to partake of the choice fruits of the paradise of His divine Oneness. – The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 77.
As a result of becoming a follower of the Bab, her Muslim family ostracized and disowned her, and she was ultimately murdered for her beliefs in 1852 after leading a life dedicated to truth and freedom.
As one reads the biographies of these two amazing women, several common themes emerge from their lives. Both women rose above a seemingly unsurmountable oppression to become clear clarions of truth and reality. Centuries later, their messages are widely accepted, but it is awe-inspiring to imagine that they recognized the reality of oneness when nearly none of their contemporaries were able to similarly do so. Both of these remarkable contemporary women invoked a higher power and were thus able to transcend their environments.
A Calling from God
What is it that precipitates a handful of human souls throughout history to arise among their peers to speak out? What gives them such a burning interest in influencing the social norms of their communities? In the case of Tahirih and Sojourner Truth, a soon to be published book titled The Calling suggests there is a spirit of the age that vibrates throughout civilizations, touching the hearts and souls of humanity. Some souls are highly moved by this spirit, and their response is a source of the quickening of other hearts.
Both Tahirih and Sojourner Truth attributed their awakening spirit to a higher force that came to them. In Tahirih’s case, her recognition of the Bab came to her in a dream. For Sojourner True, a vision confirmed and caused her to fully align her life with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The Power of the Word
Both Tahirih and Sojourner Truth were able to articulate their vision and spirit very effectively. Tahirih was a well-admired writer and poet, and her spoken word moved masses of people to follow her, even in a culture that held women in very low regard. Likewise, Sojourner Truth, although not formally educated, was a masterful orator whose speeches moved people’s hearts. She delivered her most famous speech, titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.
The combination of these two women’s non-constrainable spirits and their gift for touching the hearts resulted in a great deal of travel and a departure from their homes and families to connect with an ever-growing number of individuals who succeed in inspiring others through their speech.
Their suffering and sacrifice most tightly binds together Tahirih and Sojourner Truth—and they did so willingly. Both women had families, but chose their calling over the advantages and ease that would have perhaps accompanied a safer, more domestic life. Tahirih left her family to look for the Promised One, and ultimately her family betrayed her. Sojourner Truth was also separated from her first husband whom she loved, and then her child was sold illegally without her knowledge. She unwillingly sacrificed the chance to raise her child. Both women found a higher calling than their physical families, and associated themselves with an allegiance to the broader spiritual and social good.
An Absence of Fear
Why did Sojourner Truth and Tahirih exhibit such courage in their respective communities? Those who’ve studied their lives point to one theme that emerges very clearly: they both exhibited a seemingly unquenchable fearlessness. Notwithstanding what they had to overcome–deeply ingrained, violent prejudices based on race, gender and faith–they continued to speak out, day after day. Sojourner Truth was so confident that her son should not have been illegally sold that she overcome tremendous obstacles and became one of the first black woman to challenge a white man in court. Tahirih, for her part, must have known that her actions would result in her death, and nevertheless she carried forward fearlessly, regardless of the consequences. In societies steeped in prejudice against women and people of color, they stood firm and triumphed in their fearless commitment to social good.
These precious women are now surely reunited with their beloved Creator. Although they came from vastly different societies and contexts, they emerged through their spiritual capacities to be quite similar in their world-view and vision. They are champions for all those who yearn for the recognition of the equality of women and men, and the establishment of human rights for every single human soul, and the oneness of humanity. Who are the souls among us today breaking the norms of their society and emerging as leaders of our collective consciousness?