THE BLOG
05/27/2011 11:09 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2011

Oprah and Lucretia: Friends that Go Back a Long Way

Oprah, who knew you have a great Friend in American history?

Her name is Lucretia Mott, and she also has a glow that could light a ship's way to shore. The common language between thee, Oprah, and a famed Quaker lady from Philadelphia -- the early champion for anti-slavery and women's rights -- seemed passing strange. Lucretia is my favorite heroine of history, but I never expected to run into her on your popular culture platform. Then again, it makes uncanny sense to someone who spends half her time in the 19th century, at work on a biography of Lucretia.

Oh, Oprah -- or O Oprah? Listening to the last "love letter," spoken to a wistful world on the last day of an extraordinary run, I was musing on not missing a day of work in 25 years in Chicago. Then suddenly I heard it: the Quaker in Oprah. The emphasis on a light inside each of us is the central Quaker concept of the way God works, as a divine spark within. Oprah's theology in a kind of a mass media sermon seemed to be a fresh way of putting those things. The Religious Society of Friends, started in England, settled the colony of Pennsylvania. A Protestant sect, it was the first American religion to officially oppose slavery, more than 300 years ago. In other words, Friends were way ahead of their time.

"Let your life speak." This is the oldest Quaker saying in the book, and Oprah kept saying it over and over, as if she was moved by the spirit. The fluid style of her delivery was also in the manner of the Society of Friends, who still worship in silence and spontaneous utterance. Lucretia had a radiant presence and a resonant speaking voice, just as her Chicago friend does. Her ally Frederick Douglass left the best living portrait of her: "the very sight of her, a sermon... bearing a message of light and love... my heart has always been made better and my spirit raised by her words." Doesn't that captures how it felt to say good-bye to Oprah?

In their times, Lucretia and Oprah were - are - singular in the power to inspire in the public square with spoken words. Their shared truths are not only in what they said over the years, but the way they voiced them -- in a flow, with energy flowing from the individual to the community. Each woman spoke from a strong faith that burnished and renewed a vision of empowering oneself and others, thus escaping the bonds of oppression. Oprah shone a first light on sexual abuse and alcoholism, the price we pay for so much hurt society had hidden in the dark. For Lucretia, improving the plight of blacks and women were inseparable causes, one and the same. The Mott house was an Underground Railroad beacon long before Abraham Lincoln came along. (Don't get me wrong, I love Lincoln, but the Quakers first moved the public mind against slavery with persuasion and nonviolent resistance.)

To be heard on human rights, Lucretia traveled all over antebellum America, addressing assemblies large and small. In London at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, she became the talk of the town when British organizers snubbed the American women delegation she led. John Quincy Adams invited her to come to Washington in 1843 to speak to senators and congressmen, several of them Southern slave-owners. Lawmakers packed a Unitarian church on a cold winter night, and the striking lady, face framed by a bonnet, spoke from her Inner Light -- with no notes, like Oprah. Ralph Waldo Emerson sat spellbound in the pews and praised "the flower of Quakerism" in a letter home to Concord the next day.

Lucretia and Oprah both worked outside the power structure in bringing out the best in their worlds -- with a woman's words alone.

The truth is, these women are no strangers, but sister spirits.