She was born an enslaved person named Isabella in Ulster County, New York. After slavery was finally abolished in New York, she found refuge with a Quaker family named Van Wagener and took their name.
Isabella Van Wagener was caught up in the atmosphere of religious excitement then sweeping American Protestantism. She did missionary work among the poor of New York City and was associated briefly with a Christian community headed by a dynamic leader who turned out to be a scoundrel.
In 1843 she set out on her own as a traveling preacher. God, she said, had given her a new name: Sojourner Truth. As was common in that era, religious fervor led her into association with reformers who hoped to create a better world. Tall, gaunt, and commanding, she lent her powerful talents as a speaker to the antislavery movement. When she happened upon a women’s rights convention, she made that her cause as well. Illiterate all her life, she spoke more often among whites than her own people. Her homely eloquence and native wit disarmed hostile crowds.
At the Civil War’s end, she worked as counselor to the newly freed enslaved people who gathered in Washington. Hoping to aid in their transition to freedom, she circulated a petition for public lands to be set aside in the West for a “Negro state.” Shen continued to speak, proclaiming God’s love and the rights of the disadvantaged.