Uncle Tom’s Christian Roots

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“The bitterest tears shed over graves are
for words left unsaid and for deeds left undone.”

When the Fugitive Slave Act went into effect,1 Northerners began to experience the reality of slavery and many were appalled. Black people weren’t safe anywhere. Slave owners and hired slave hunters chased down Blacks and drug them back to slavery often with brutal cruelty. Panic spread among Blacks. Toward the end of 1850, more than 3000 Blacks fled to Canada and others stowed away on ships bound for Europe.2 Outrage spread among the Abolitionists. Isabella Beecher wrote an impassioned letter to her sister-in-law, Harriett Beecher Stowe. “Oh Hatty,” she wrote. “If I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”

Years later, Hatty’s older children still remembered the scene when their mother read Isabella’s letter out loud to them in the parlor. They never forgot the fervency of her determination when she said, “I will write something. I will if I live!” Harriet had been writing articles and books to supplement her husband’s meager salary as a seminary professor, but she could write only at night after the children were in bed. In those quiet hours, she labored at her second job.

“Hatty set up a table near the fireplace in the parlor to escape the icy drafts that whistled through the house. Seated there, with the cold winds howling outside, an old shawl draped over her shoulders, she worked on an article that was promised to a certain editor. But as she worked, strange thoughts filled her mind, thoughts that she could not push away. She swept the pages of the article to one side, spread a clean sheet of paper squarely in front of her, dipped her pen into the inkstand, and with an urgency she had never known before, she began to write.”3

Hatty wrote feverishly, as one possessed and she was; she was consumed by her passion and her sense of calling to this crucial task. She devoured everything she could find about slavery and listened to former slaves so that she could tell their stories. Once, when her husband was working at the desk and her visiting father commandeered the kitchen table, she simply moved to the back steps and continued to write.4

The book that Hatty wrote was first published in serial stories. They became an overnight sensation. One of her biographers wrote: “It was a powerful novel, filled with memorable characters and incidents drawn from life, and, unlike any novel before, its hero, Uncle Tom, was a black man a courageous slave, moreover, whose dignity and strength grew not out of resignation but from a profound Christian faith.”5 Langston Hughes, Black author and poet, described Uncle Tom as a “gentle Black Christ who turned the other cheek.”6

The book catapulted the problem of slavery into the national spotlight. Harriet described slavery as “the next worst thing to Hell.” She also put a human face on slavery copies of the series were passed around “as if the tear stains on them were sacred.”7 Through Uncle Tom, readers came to understand that slaves were human beings who were suffering cruelly.8 Her book has been called “one of the most effective pieces of reform literature ever published.”9 When Harriett Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he remarked, “So, this is the little lady who started this big war!”

Such is the power of the pen. When the book was published March 13, 1852, it broke all sales records: selling 3,000 copies the first day, eventually more than 3 million copies were sold worldwide, and it has been translated into more than 20 languages. Tolstoy considered the book to be a “great work of literature.” Alfred Kazin wrote that the book “is the most powerful and most enduring work of art ever written about American slavery.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning declared that Harriet’s powerful writing had, more than any other man or woman of her era, “moved the world for good.”10

What made the book so powerful? Harriet asserted that “she did not write Uncle Tom’s Cabin; God wrote it; and she served merely as His instrument.”11 She also believed that the book “had its root in the awful scenes and bitter sorrow” of the summer that her son died. She explained, “It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.”12 Mrs. Stowe went on to write, “I felt I could never be consoled for [the death of her baby, Charley, in 1849] unless this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some great good to others.”13 Her obedience to that call and her faithfulness to that mission produced Uncle Tom’s Cabin a book that not only “moved the world,” but was also a novel “unparalleled among works of fiction for its impact on contemporary opinion.”14

Harriet also wrote a hymn after Charley’s death that has become a well-loved classic, “Still, Still With Thee.”

When sinks the soul, subdued by toil, to slumber,
Its closing eyes look up to thee in prayer;
Sweet the repose beneath thy wings o’reshading,
But sweeter still, to wake and find thee there.

So shall it be at last, in that bright morning
When the soul waketh, and life’s shadows flee;
O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning,
Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with thee.

Harriet’s background prepared her to write hymns and stories with deeply spiritual messages; her father was Lyman Beecher a famous preacher and seminary president. Beecher was reputed to have fathered more brains than any other man in America15 all of his sons became outstanding, influential clergymen and three of his four daughters became famous and influential. Harriet’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was a distinguished preacher and reformer and her husband was a respected theologian and Bible scholar.

Harriet met Calvin E. Stowe, a widower who was 9 years her senior, at the seminary where her father was the president.16 It was a mutually happy, unusually close marriage throughout. Early in their marriage, Calvin wrote to her: “My dear, you must be a literary woman. It is so written in the book of fate. Make all your calculations accordingly … drop the E17 out of your name … write yourself fully and always Harriet Beecher Stowe, which is a name euphonious, flowing, and full of meaning.”18

Years later, she described herself as “a little bit of a woman, somewhat more than forty, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff, never very much to look at in my best days and looking like a used up article now.”19

In many respects, Harriet’s description was accurate; by then she was “used up” physically. For almost 30 years, she produced a book a year and writing, on top of all her other responsibilities, was like “rowing against wind and tide.”20 And, while Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a remarkable success and booksellers couldn’t keep up with the demand for the book, there were outspoken critic of the book as well. Harriet was called a “wicked authoress” and a “vile wretch in petticoats;” the book was called “detestable and monstrous” and Harriet lived with constant threats and barrages of obscene letters.

Harriet never lost her masterful use of language. Toward the end of her life, she wrote, “I feel about all things now as I do about the things that happen in a hotel, after my trunk is packed to go home.”21 She had fought the good fight, had been faithful to her talent and calling, now she was ready to leave for a better place. She suffered a mild stroke, afterwards writing to Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I make no mental effort of any sort; my brain is tired out. … And now I rest me, like a moored boat, rising and falling on the water, with loosened cordage and flapping sail.”22 When she died, there was a lovely wreath on her grave with a simple card from “The Children of Uncle Tom,” sent by former slaves in Boston.23

End Notes

  1. The Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in 1850 to return runaway slaves who had escaped to the North back to their owners. The act prompted widespread panic among Blacks in the North and spawned a rush among Southerners who pursued their slaves who had sought refuge in free states. Undesirables were inflamed to capture slaves for reward money.
  2. Suzanne M. Coil, Harriett Beecher Stowe, New York: Franklin Watts, An Impact Biography, 1993, p. 100.
  3. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 102.
  4. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 108.
  5. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 109.
  6. John Anthony Scott, Woman Against Slavery: The Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1978, foreword.
  7. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 109.
  8. National Women’s Hall of Fame, 1998.
  9. National Women’s Hall of Fame, 1998.
  10. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 156.
  11. Barbara Smith, “Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Little Bit of a Woman,” Arnold, Maryland, Third Floor Publishing, 1998-2000, www.chfweb.com/smith/harriet, p. 2.
  12. In a letter to Eliza Cabot Follen, December 16, 1852.
  13. In a letter to Eliza Cabot Follen, December 16, 1852.
  14. Scott, Woman Against Slavery, cover jacket.
  15. Harriet’s father dedicated all his sons to what he considered the most important task a man could have saving souls. He regretted that Harriet was a girl. When she was six years old, he wrote a friend, “Hatty is a genius … I would give a hundred dollars if she were a boy.”
  16. Smith, “Bit of a Woman,” p. 1.
  17. Her middle name was Elizabeth.
  18. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 82.
  19. Smith, “Bit of a Woman,” p. 3.
  20. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 98-99.
  21. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 153.
  22. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 153.
  23. Coil, Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 154.

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