Martha of Bethany vs. Harriet Tubman

A day after Florence Li Tim-Oi left Gregory the Great chanting to himself in despair, we have a clash of two women, one Biblical and one modern. Martha of Bethany and Harriet Tubman are duking it out for a chance at Hilda of Whitby (and NO this is not a conspiracy to have these worthy women knock one another out of the bracket). To get to this point, Martha stomped on the "Little Flower," Therese of Lisieux while Harriet made quick work of Nicholas Ferrar.

This is the penultimate match-up of the Round of the Saintly Sixteen (we really do love that word) with the last battle taking place between Benedict of Nursia and Dorothy Day on Monday. Then we're on to the Elate Eight, aka the round of Saintly Kitsch. What will your Celebrity Bloggers dredge up? What distasteful and tacky saint-ware will see the light of day? Will the easily offended shun Lent Madness entirely? These are the questions that await us starting on Tuesday.

In the meantime we all face another weekend without Lent Madness and the inherent hollowness of despair.

martha and dragonMartha of Bethany

Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, testified to Jesus, saying “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Despite all you may have heard about Martha, nowhere in the Bible does it actually say she does any cooking or cleaning. “Tasks,” yes. “Work,” sure. And though one might infer that these are domestic chores, that is an inference only, not to be found in Scripture.

This didn’t stop Irma Rombauer from putting Martha on the cover of the 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking, “slaying the dragon of kitchen drudgery.”

The dragon part of the image actually has stronger literary connections to Martha than cooking does. According to the Golden Legend, after the Resurrection, Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and several others were persecuted and set adrift in the Mediterranean in a boat with no oars or sails which somehow ended up in Marseilles. Martha made her way to a region between Arles and Avignon that was besieged by “a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side.” She stunned him with holy water (query: where did she get it?) and two sticks made into a cross. She dragged the bad boy back to town (either using her own hair or her belt) where he was killed. The dragon’s name was Tarasque, and the town Tarascon-Sur-Rhone was named for him. There’s an annual Fetes de la Tarasque the last week in June when the dragon is lured from his lair “accompanied by chevaliers” (query: what did they do to deserve to be there?).

Despite this feat of derring-do, Martha has a hard time shaking her domestic image. In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, “older infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic servitude” are known simply as Marthas. Martha Stewart didn’t do her any favors either.

St. Augustine, however, notes that Martha’s work is important for Christians to emulate and that Jesus “did not say that Martha was acting a bad part.” Instead, this “necessary business” would someday be unnecessary, and “that part which is occupied in the ministering to a need shall be ‘taken away’ when the need itself has passed away.”

The Golden Legend conveys this understanding as Christ appears to Martha on her deathbed, saying, “Come, my well-beloved hostess, for where I am thou shalt be with me. Thou hast received me in thine harbour and I shall receive thee in mine heaven.”

 -- Laura Toepfer

harriettumbansittingHarriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman devoted her life to fighting for freedom -- whether leading slaves to Canada on the Underground Railroad, becoming a nurse, spy, and soldier in the Union Army, or fighting for the rights of women.

She described escaping into freedom in this way: "I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came up like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven."

Harriet was rock-solid in her faith -- a necessity in the life she led. She would pray, "Oh Lord! You've been with me in six troubles. Don't desert me in the seventh."

Once, while in charge of several escaping slaves, Harriet led them to the next house in the journey, only to discover upon knocking that the previous owner had gone, and a stranger now lived there. Afraid that the new owner had sounded the alarm, she led the band of escapees to a nearby swamp, where they waited, and Harriet prayed, for over a day. At nightfall, Harriet saw a Quaker man pacing by their hiding place, muttering to himself, "My wagon stands ready in the next barn across the way, the horse is in the stable and the harness is on the nail." Harriet snuck out of their hiding place to discover everything just as the Quaker had said -- a fully stocked wagon with food, and a ready horse. They made it to the next stop, and freedom, in safety.

Harriet also had a gift for faith-based fundraising for her conductor work on the Railroad. One morning, she approached a well-known abolitionist in New York, and informed him that God had told her that he "had twenty dollars to give her to free the slaves." The gentleman was not convinced. Undeterred, Harriet staged a one-woman sit-in in his office. She sat down, and calmly, politely continued to sit throughout the day, as the man continued to do his business.  People came and went, wondering who this determined black lady sitting in the corner could be, but by the time it was over, the gentleman had given sixty dollars to Harriet.

Of her work on the Railroad, Harriet said later, "I was a Conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most other conductors can't say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."

She explained her motivation thusly: "I had crossed that line of which I had been so long dreaming. I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.

-- Megan Castellan


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84 comments on “Martha of Bethany vs. Harriet Tubman”

  1. I know so many Marthas (some by name, some by nature) that this time around I voted for her. Some of it was her previous bio, stressing her belief in Jesus as Messiah, some of it was the legend of her "smacking down" the monster, some of it was voting for the underdog.
    Praise to Harriet Tubman, though, for her dedication and hard work. I'm sure she's getting whatever rest she wants. Perhaps she and Martha are sitting in the Elysian Fields, drinking nectar out of a Mary Magdalene mug.

  2. Laura has written a beautiful commentary about Martha. What a compelling image of female strength - going out to slay the dragon! Whether that was the dragon of domesticity or, more likely, of the drudgery of daily living, women have done that from the beginning of time. Martha has taken on new life for me today: a universal symbol of what women do. Harriet Tubman went out and slayed that dragon everyday of her life. Such courage and persistence. I love the story about her sitting in that office. Megan made her come alive today! I cannot choose between these two powerful role models. I will have to think on this a while longer before voting! But I will carry with me the image of woman as dragon slayer from here on. Thank you Lent Madness!

  3. I had to go with Martha because I loved that, instead of slaying the dragon as George did, she tamed the dragon. No disrespect to Harriet, but Martha has always been a favorite of mine.

  4. LM is a fascinating exercise. Taking a few moments everyday to look at the lives of our elders in the faith. I try to see myself in all of them, examine my faith in the light of their own. In truth, I don’t find winners and losers – just people. The “losers” teach us as much as (sometimes more than) the “winners”. And here, we learn from each other’s example in our comments. So much bubbles under the surface of each one – short or long. "Who is this person? What cross do they carry? Can any of us, ease the load of another? If so, how? Why would we?" Thank Tim, Scott et. all for opening this large, intimate classroom and letting us in. Btw - I voted for Harriet.

  5. Had to go with Harriet....although Martha tamed a dragon in legend, Harriet tamed a dragon in real life, and though her faith in God made others lives better as well.

    1. Thank you Maine Woman, beautifully stated,and clear as a bell....Harriet it is for me!!!

  6. Both women -- dragon slayers in their own rite -- came alive for me today but I am so moved by Harriet's description of freedom. May we all find that sense of landing in a strange new land when we are freed from our demons -- or dragons. But let us hope we do not arrive there feeling as alone as she must have. Hooray for both but Harriet has my vote!

  7. Wonderful women both! I am a fan of faith in action and today we have two wonderful examples. What decided me was Harriet's determined confidence that the Lord would come through. So many people are in bondage of one sort or another and her description of freedom was powerful.

  8. I have read and heard from multiple sources over the years that Harriet Tubman helped John Brown recruit men for the Harpers Ferry Raid. There are also stories of her having visions/dreams about him. (For example: If you watched the recent series on PBS about the abolitionists, you'll recall she wasn't the only one who worked with John Brown. (Facing evil can make for some strange alliances at times.) Frederick Douglas had been an associate of John Brown, but he decided against participating in the raid when invited. John Brown remains one of the most controversial figures of the war. Was he a prophet or saint, a terrorist (even some in the North contended that), or someplace in between. What does this have to do with today's vote? Perhaps not much, but I find it very interesting. If Martha is alleged to have fought a dragon, Harriet was no wallflower when it came to the battle before her. She was more hands on than many realize. As a past soldier and police officer, I appreciate the ethical struggle about the use of force or not in facing evil within our very troubled world. So, who did I vote for? No one yet...this one (shocker) is tough.

  9. This was a very difficult choice. I've known a little bit about Harriet Tubman since I was in grade school. I'm glad to know so much more. I always thought of her as a figure in history, but I now I know about her deep faith and boundless courage. Martha is another figure, so familiar for so long. But now I see her in detail, this friend of Jesus. I think of the haven she provided for him. I think of her frankness and her ability to listen to straight talk. I think of her so-familiar pain when her brother died and the way she quietly chastised Jesus. I think of her ability to hear the answers Jesus gave her and to change, to grow. I think of her at what must have been the lowest point in her life, looking into the eyes of Jesus and proclaiming her faith in words no one had ever used before. With deepened admiration for Harriett Tubman and Martha both, today I vote for Martha.

  10. Harriet Tubman for me. She is closer in time and space to me (I'm a Southerner who migrated North in early adulthood). And then there is the song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd" sung by those using the Underground Railroad. No insult to Martha of Bethany!

  11. As I was taught in Seminary, the key phrase in it's real translation was Jesus saying to Martha, "Quit your fussing..." I kinda like Martha despite that but I'm just wild about Harriet!

  12. Two compelling stories. But slaying a "Dragon" come on...that's "out of the park" stuff..
    Martha makes madness, march. The Holy Fool goes with MARTHA..

  13. I love dragons and all the lore that surrounds them. For Harriet the dragons were all too real. She more than earned her place in this challenge. Go Harriet!

  14. I'm for Harriet Tubman today, the "Moses of her people". Brave, tough, true to her faith in God and always, always seeing what she could do next to help the Kingdom along - underground railroad, soldier, cook, nurse, spy, scout, caregiver of orphans, founding schools though she was illiterate, and joining in the battle for women's rights. Untiring saint. Love you, Harriet, and so grateful for you.

  15. I knew before reading,that I would vote for Harriet. But for the first time,because of Laura's delicious writing and research,Martha gave me pause. I loved Martha's dragon and the image of Martha giving chores to the unfortunate holies on that boat. Perhaps she kept them occupied,as all good raft commanders do,to keep them from thinking of impending doom. I loved learning more about the incredible force for God that Harriet was. Megan's writing was also wonderful,absorbing and made me wish for such courage in myself. I enjoyed myself here today as always. It is good to be mad:it is good to have a balm for the madness.

  16. This has to be my most difficult choice yet, but as a confirmed "Martha" I had to go with my sister from Bethany. I deeply admire Harriet Tubman, and her description of the sensation of freedom is positively transcendent. My decision finally hinged on the broader application of Martha's witness -- "I believe you are the Messiah" -- and my admiration for her as an "ad-ministrator," that is, someone who works in the support services of ministry. Without the world's Marthas, who are decidedly NOT solely "domestic servants," few churches could stand!

  17. Too good! I guess I never learned any legends of the saints, so all that about Martha, who's a favorite of mine, is just too wonderful. However, you got me with Harriet's fundraising and the "stranger in a strange land" quote. I'm picking the overdog today.

  18. Hard choice, but today my heart is still with Martha, even though I have been a Harriet Tubman fan since I was a kid.

  19. For me it's Harriet Tubman, a woman I see as Mary, Martha and Sojourner Truth combined. Like most, I've known a long time about Tubman's courage in risking her own harrowing escape to freedom to return to slave country in order to bring others to freedom. But what I knew was two-dimensional and stereotyped, being limited to children's book level understanding.
    Then I read two serious adult biographies of her life (both published in this millennium) and discovered the fully-fleshed-out life of the real woman [See "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom" by Catherine Clinton; and "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero" by Kate Clifford Larson].
    What I hadn't known before is how deeply her life and work were imbued, motivated and empowered by her deeply spiritual and profound Christian faith. Because the Fugitive Slave Act meant that escaped slaves were actively being hunted down and returned to the South, Tubman fled to St. Catherine's Ontario where she worshiped at Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church. During the war, she was an active participant in South Carolina as a Union nurse and spy.
    Following the Civil War she settled permanently in Auburn NY, where she became an active member of the Auburn African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and continued to work passionately until her death for women's rights, civil rights, and founding and running a home to care for feeble and elderly African Americans. An extraordinary woman!

  20. There seems to be a bit of a pro-moderns bias in the voting thus far, with a few notable exceptions. Studying the life of Martha takes us into scripture and then back out into our own world as we consider the Mary/Martha distinctions and whether we are able to state so unquivocally our believe in Jesus as messiah. Harriet's faith and accomplishments are admirable without question, and considering her may cause us to consider how much we are willing to do to fight injustice, but I still think Martha can speak to us both more broadly and more deeply.

    1. I agree, Chris! It is hard to compare Martha, about whom we have to rely on ancient writers and their subsequent interpreters, and Harriet, whose life is so much more immediate to us! I haven't made up my mind on this matchup yet because I keep thinking about how much more there must be to Martha if only we had access to it. But I love Lent Madness for making me stop in my hectic day to consider both these deserving women!

  21. Martha! For all the churchladies in the kitchens at Coffee Hours, potlucks, and picnics! And whereever else they are helping.

  22. I'm most definitely a "Martha," but I had to vote for my long-time heroine - the female Moses!

  23. Had to vote for Harriet. Her rock solid faith is definitely one to emulate. I especially liked her phrase“Oh Lord! You’ve been with me in six troubles. Don’t desert me in the seventh.” I need to have faith like that!

  24. Really wanted to vote for Martha, but my students say Harriet. Now that I see Harriet is in the lead, I'm glad I listened to them (so they can get 4 more points), but I still love Martha (and especially the Golden Legend)!

  25. She did NOT slay the dragon. She TAMED it -- which story found its way this week into my blogpost on schizophrenia. There is a healthier (and more successful) alternate to slaying the dragon.

    Nevertheless, Harriet is too real, too immediate, too demanding that I wade in the water. With the voices of Sweet Honey in the Rock in my ear, I have to vote for Harriet.

    1. Well, in the bio it says the dragon was killed . . . not by Martha, but in the town -- so she tamed it to be killed later -- what difference does that make? I'm not trying to be sarcastic, I really don't get it.

      1. I first learned about Martha and the dragon forty years ago. My sources never said anything about the death of the dragon. Today is the first I read of that. This being legend, there are various versions. The point is, from the mythic perspective, that the dragon/chaos/subconscious/shadow within us is best tamed, harnessed, not destroyed.

      2. I was torn about the way to represent this because there are different portrayals of this dragon story. The one I like best is also the most difficult: she brings it back to the village where it is killed, and she weeps because she had not intended for it to be destroyed but reconciled. On the other hand, she understood the villagers' motivation because the dragon had been very destructive. That's a story I'll want to chew on for a while.

        1. Martha AND THE DRAGON?? I had no clue about any of this. Gotta love The Madness.
          Cool factor through the roof, and opportunities for more serious meditation abound.

          Voted Martha but would also not be at all sad to see Harriet advance.

  26. Very interesting info about Martha. Loved the taming the dragon story! Thank you again SEC and CBs for bringing so many of our spiritual ancestors so vividly to life. But gotta go with Harriet. Started out asking for $20 and got $60 cause she wouldn't leave. My kinda woman.