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Her Faith

When Harriet Jacobs was a young girl, her mistress taught her many of the teachings of the Bible. She was blessed with a mistress that cared for her and loved her enough to teach her the value of Christianity in her life. Jacobs quotes the following, stating two of the Biblical wisdoms that she was taught: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.”[1] Throughout her life, Jacobs exemplified these two commandments; examples have been discussed in the previous section and will be discussed in the paragraphs that follow.

Throughout her time at the Norcom household, Harriet was under continual pressure the doctor to succumb to his sexual desires; however, she always denied him and fled from him so that she would not enter into any relations with him. As mentioned in the previous section, Mrs. Norcom confronted Jacobs about this issue on numerous occasions because she felt that Jacobs was seducing Dr. Norcom. One day, Mrs. Norcom confronted Jacobs with a Bible in hand and demanded that she tell her the truth concerning the issue at hand. “She handed me a Bible, and said, ‘Lay your hand on your heart, kiss this holy book, and swear before God that you tell me the truth.’ I took the oath she required, and I did it with a clear conscience.”[2] The fact that Jacobs denied Norcom the opportunity to take advantage of her and her obedience to the Biblical principles that were taught to her as a child imply that she had a moral problem with what Dr. Norcom was trying to do. She felt that she would be betraying Mrs. Norcom and she felt that she would be impure if she were to follow through with his demands.

Jacobs recalled an instance when she was invited to attend a church service because she was able to read. During the service, the preacher welcomed those in attendance and stated the following: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”[3] He continued by saying

"Hearken, ye servants…You are rebellious sinners…God is angry with you, and will surely punish you, if you don’t forsake your wicked ways…Although your masters may not find you out, God sees you; and he will punish you. You must forsake your sinful ways, and be faithful servants. Obey your old master and your young master – your old mistress and your young mistress. If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master."[4]


If Jacobs listened to this preacher, she would have obeyed whatever Dr. Norcom said, obliging his every sexual demand. However, she did not obey what this preacher was saying. She did not believe that this preacher was correct in what he was preaching. She knew that it would have been wrong for her to engage sexually with her owner, and her moral obligations and beliefs conflicted with her master’s interests. Nevertheless, she still refused to do what he said out of her respect for herself, but more importantly for God.[5]

When Jacobs was a teenager, she recalled an incident with a fifty-three year old man. This man had recently joined the Baptist church and desired to learn to read. “He thought he should know how to serve God better if he could only read the Bible. He came to me, and begged me to teach him…I asked him if he didn’t know…that slaves were whipped and imprisoned for teaching each other to read.”[6] She continues by saying “This brought tears into his eyes. ‘Don’t be troubled, uncle Fred,’ said I. ‘I have no thoughts of refusing to teach you. I only told you of the law, that you might know the danger, and be on your guard.’”[7] Jacobs was asked by man nearly forty years older than her to teach him how to read. Understanding the law that she would be whipped and severely punished for teaching him, she agreed to teach him as best that she could. She knew that the man had a strong desire to learn more about God through the Bible and she wanted him to experience everything that she knew to be true about God – his sovereignty, faithfulness, goodness, etc. The fact that the man asked her to help him learn to read the Bible indicates that Jacobs was very knowledgeable about the Bible herself. She was willing to share the blessings of literacy and faith that she had been given.

After Jacobs had her two children with Mr. Sawyer, she sent them both to live with her grandmother because she was not able to care for them the way that she wanted. While they were at her grandmother’s house and Jacobs was living at Dr. Norcom’s son’s plantation, Dr. Norcom presented her with a proposal. He told her that if she would agree to live the rest of her life as his mistress, he would set her and her children free. He told her that he would “procure a cottage, where you and the children can live together. Your labor shall be light, such as sewing for my family.”[8] At this moment, Jacobs must make a decision. She wants more than anything for her family to be freed, yet the offer she has been given contradicts everything she believes in as a Christian. It would not have been morally right for her to accept such an offer in exchange for her freedom. This decision in Harriet Jacobs’s life is extremely important. She could have received freedom for her family,[9] but instead, she chose to live her life by faith in God. She had faith that he had her life in his hands and that he had a plan for her life. She knew that God would set her free at some point if it was his will. Having declined the offer, Jacobs was sent back to the plantation where she and her children would be put to work.

In chapter fourteen of her autobiography, Jacobs recounted the fact that she made the decision to have her children baptized in the church. This is particularly important because of how blacks were viewed in society at this time. Blacks were seen as inferior beings. They did not deserve to hold the same positions as whites, to have the same rights as whites, or to do a countless number of other things. One of these was the practice of baptism. Because of how blacks were viewed, particularly in the church, baptisms were generally only permitted for whites. Jacobs’s faith in God and her devout Christianity clearly had an impact on her decision to have her children baptized in the church. She saw baptism as a symbolic renewal of the spirit – a cleansing or repentance.

Towards the end of her narrative, Jacobs discussed her relationship with other whites that she had met while living in the North. On her way to Philadelphia, there was a man on the ship that offered her help, but she remained very guarded and unsure about whether she should trust him. Also, while living in the North, she came across many white people that were very kind to her. In particular, Mary Stace Willis, one of her closest white friends, changed Jacobs’s perspective about white people. She understood that you cannot judge someone based on the color of their sin. Rather, she understood that you must judge them by their actions. Because of her experiences with many different kinds of white people, she was able to look past the skin color and open her heart up to the reality that not all white people are the same. I believe that she understood that God does not judge people based on their skin color, he judges them based on everything that they do while they are alive.

I will now focus my attention on a few letters written by Harriet Jacobs that are found in The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers. After reading through dozens of letters that were written by Jacobs, there are three in particular that show her stout faith in Christ. In between December 27 1852, and February 14, 1853, Jacobs wrote a letter to Amy Post. She wrote the following:

"I had determined to let others think as p they pleased but my lips should be sealed and no one had a right to question me     for this reason when I first came North I avoided the Anti-slavery people as much as possible because I felt that I could not be honest and tell the whole truth…I have tried for the last two years to conquer it and I feel that God has helped me or I never would consent to give my past life to any one for I would not do it with out giving the whole truth    if it could help save another from my fate it would be selfish and unchristian in me to keep it back."[10]


Later, around May 23, 1855, she wrote to Amy Post again saying


"I thought to have written to you before this. And sent the patterns          I hope that I am not too late –  I was sorry that I saw so little of you in the City – but I was thankful even for the hurried moments. your friend ship. dear Amy which has been so pleasant to me   I owe it all to that Dear Brother who I still hope much from if it is Gods will to restore us together…"[11]


Again, on June 21, 1857, Jacobs wrote to her good friend Amy Post stating

"A heart full of thanks for your kind and welcome – letter which would have been answered immediately – but for want of time to think a moment. I would dearly love to talk with you as it would be more satisfactory – but as I cannot I will try to explain myself on paper as well as I can –

I have My dear friend –…[obliterated] Striven faithfully to give a true and just account of my own life in slavry – God knows I have tried to do it in a Christian spirit – there are somethings that I might have made plainer I know – woman can whisper – her cruel wrongs into the ear of a very dear friend – much easier than she can record them for the world to read – I have left nothing out but what I thought – the world might believe that a Slave woman was too willing to pour out…"[12]


Each of these letters shows the true heart of Harriet Jacobs. She desired more than anything to please God. She wanted so earnestly to live her life the way that God would have her live her life. She sought to serve him in everything that she did and I believe her writings make that a very clear truth.

[1] Jacobs, 10. These Biblical references are Mark 12:31 and Matthew 7:12, respectively.

[2] Ibid, 36.

[3] Ibid, 76. This Biblical reference in found in Ephesians 6:5.

[4] Ibid, 77.

[5] Further in chapters twelve and thirteen in Incidents, Jacobs discusses some of the differences between the white church and the black church. She emphasizes the hypocrisy of whites, in particular, saying that they do not recognize African’s religions as relevant. Also, they lean towards a Biblical doctrine that teaches blacks that they are inferior to whites using out of context Biblical references like Ephesians 6:5.

[6] Jacobs, 81.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 93.

[9] According to Dr. Norcom, she would have received her freedom, but Harriet did not believe that he would have followed through with his promise if she actually agreed to his proposal.

[10] Jean Fagan Yellin, The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 2008), 191.

[11] Yellin, Family Papers, 224.

[12] Ibid, 236.