Tell the Story (Artful Devotion)

Lawrence, Jacob_Harriet Tubman and the Promised Land
Illustration from Harriet Tubman and the Promised Land by Jacob Lawrence (New York: Windmill Books, 1968; repr. Simon & Schuster, 1993). © Simon & Schuster

Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

—Psalm 145:3–5

Young Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross) was shaped, among other things, by stories of the mighty acts of God in history, especially his bringing his people into freedom. Her parents, who were devout Methodists, and others in her Maryland slave community fired her imagination with stories of the Red Sea crossing, Pharaoh overthrown, and a land flowing with milk and honey. Harriet craved that kind of freedom for her people and, as we all know, later led many into it.

In the 1960s, Windmill Books founder Robert Kraus commissioned the famous New York artist Jacob Lawrence to paint a series of pictures on any subject in American history to serve as the basis of a new children’s book. Lawrence chose Harriet Tubman (whom he had also painted a series on in 1939–40, The Life of Harriet Tubman [previously]). After Lawrence completed seventeen new paintings, Kraus wrote rhymed verse to go along with them, and the book was published in 1968 as Harriet and the Promised Land. (It was reissued in 1993 by Simon and Schuster; Kraus’s contribution is uncredited by choice in both editions.) It was the first children’s book to be reviewed in the Art section of the New York Times. The book emphasizes Harriet’s faith in God and his provision along the Underground Railroad, and Harriet’s role as a Moses figure.

Jacob Lawrence is one of my favorite artists, and I particularly love this painting of his that shows little Harriet sitting on a rock in rapt attention as an elder woman gives a performative telling of the biblical exodus story, recounting in detail how God brought his children up out of Egypt. In this nighttime scene, abnormally large bugs creep around on leaf and ground as the North Star shines bright above, a light that beckons and that will come to guide Harriet and others in a nineteenth-century exodus. Kraus’s text for the painting reads,

Harriet, hear tell
About “The Promised Land”:
How Moses led the slaves
Over Egypt’s sand.

How Pharaoh’s heart
Was hard as stone,
How the Lord told Moses
He was not alone.

Harriet Tubman is also the subject of a new dramatic film directed by Kasi Lemmons, currently in theaters. I haven’t seen it yet but plan to.

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SONG: “I Love to Tell the Story” | Words by Kate Hankey, 1866; refrain by William G. Fischer, 1869 | Music by William G. Fischer, 1869 | Performed by Emmylou Harris and Robert Duvall, on The Apostle soundtrack, 1998

Arabella Katherine Hankey (1834–1911) was a contemporary of Harriet Tubman’s (ca. 1822–1913), but she grew up in a much different context, as the (white) daughter of a wealthy English banker. Her family, though, used their wealth and influence to serve others. Her father, Thomas Hankey, was a leading member of the Clapham Sect, a group of evangelical Anglican social reformers whose avid campaigning, in society and in Parliament, led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Though the group was waning as Kate was growing up, social justice (alongside personal conversion) remained a key aspect of the gospel her parents taught her, which impelled her to embark on ministry to young female factory workers in London, teaching them the Bible and, I presume, advocating for better working conditions, as her father had a generation earlier.

In her early thirties, a serious illness left Kate bedridden for a year. During her convalescence she wrote a long poem in two parts that she called “The Old, Old Story,” which tells the story of redemption, from the Garden of Eden to Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to the Spirit’s outpouring, in fifty-five quatrains. “I Love to Tell the Story,” as well as her other famous hymn, “Tell Me the Old, Old, Story,” are derived from this longer work.

I like the paradox of “old” and “new” in Kate’s hymn, underscoring the enduring relevance and impact of Jesus’s self-giving. His sacrifice for sin was planned since the foundation of the world and accomplished in first-century Palestine but continues to resound anew today as it’s received into countless hearts and lives. It reminds me of Augustine’s famous exclamation to God in his Confessions: “O Beauty, so ancient and so new!”

“I Love to Tell the Story” features in the 1997 movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall as a charismatic preacher, with many flaws, who starts a church in the Louisiana bayou. Jeffrey Overstreet writes that it “may be the most unapologetic, intimate portrayal of a religious man in the history of American cinema.” Duvall wrote, directed, and, since Hollywood wasn’t interested, produced the movie himself. He said it was important to him to show Sonny as a complex character with a genuine faith rather than as a caricature of southern Christianity.

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Sunday’s reading from Psalm 145 celebrates the “wondrous works” of God, told down through the ages. Whether it’s God’s work through Moses or Harriet or the Clapham abolitionists to bring people out of literal enslavement, or God’s salvation of an individual soul from the bondage of sin, these are wonders to proclaim, stories that are part of God’s story, that we should love to tell.

Read the whole psalm.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 27, cycle C, click here.

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