Honoring Harriet Tubman, a Methodist, Republican, evangelical woman for the ages

After considerable backing and forthing, the Obama administration  announced April 20 that it will put Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill. She’ll be the first African-American honored on U.S. currency, and one of very, very few women to be given this honor -- even briefly. Martha Washington and Pocahontas briefly held this distinction, and Susan B. Anthony dollar coins remain in circulation, but are no longer minted.

Tubman, the famed savior of slaves via the “underground railroad” and a Republican, supplants Democratic President Andrew Jackson, who’ll be relegated to the bill’s back along with the continuing White House image. The quip of the week prize goes to conservative economist and columnist John Lott, who tweeted: “On $20 bill, Ds replace Andrew Jackson, a founding father of D Party, w Harriet Tubman, a black, gun-toting, evangelical Xn, R woman.”

Also fast on the draw was Religion News Service, issuing “5 faith facts” about this devout Methodist in a format the wire has used to good effect with various 2016 candidates. The facts:

Tubman was nicknamed “Moses” after the biblical rescuer because she led  hundreds of slaves to freedom and attributed such bravery to faith in God. She experienced many vivid dreams and visions that she believed came from God.

Her favorite song in a personal hymnal she collected was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” She believed that God directed her to go on the hunger strike that raised $20 to free her own parents from slavery. Her death-bed words in 1913 quoted Jesus Christ, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

It will be interesting to see how much the mainstream news-media coverage notes the powerful religious faith that drove this activist to glory.

The team at RNS states that Tubman is “the first unabashed Christian to be portrayed on a bill,” which is a debatable assertion.

For sure, Jefferson ($2) and Franklin ($100) belong in the freethinker camp -- though they were notably respectful toward Christian contributions compared with many current secularists. Lincoln ($5) was no baptized church member despite his profound musings about God. His colleague Grant ($50) was only vaguely Protestant. But by most accounts Jackson became a sincere Presbyterian, albeit one scorned today and nearly tossed off the $20 altogether as a slave owner who harried Native Americans. 

That leaves two fascinating allies who were Anglicans (that is, Episcopalians), Washington ($1), and Hamilton ($10), who was rescued from currency oblivion by popular demand. The first president is claimed by people on all religious sides but apparently was not “unabashed.” The first treasury secretary, a notorious adulterer (and excoriated for this on MSNBC by Catholic Cokie Roberts), underwent a deathbed return to Christian faith.

RNS should also be aware of figures shown on currency in the past, such as Christian convert Pocahontas, Presbyterian Preachers’ Kids Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, churchgoing Methodist William McKinley and devout Episcopalian and abolitionist Salmon Chase.

The government is now planning some clever group honors. The back of the Lincoln $5 will now show historic figures associated with the depicted Lincoln Memorial, with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., alongside Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt. The back of the $10 Hamilton will pay tribute to five advocates of women’s vote including the devout Methodist preacher and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. 

The U.S. Treasury long looked for the right woman to honor and revealed 274 names proposed by the public, among them religionists St. Frances Cabrini, Dorothy Day, Ruth (Mrs. Billy) Graham, Julia Ward Howe (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”), evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, prohibitionists Carry Nation and Frances Willard, Flannery O’Connor, Phoebe Palmer, St. Elizabeth Seton and Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”).

IMAGES: The internet was full of proposed images for the Tubman $20.

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