Harriet Beecher Stowe on the Christian Life

[1] June 14, 2011, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her first novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, (henceforth UTC) converted thousands of readers to the anti-slavery cause. Stowe's story ran as a serial in the anti-slavery paper National Era and then appeared as a book in 1852. It became the bestseller of the century, second only to the Bible. Stowe's book made history by bringing the anti-slavery cause (long thought to be fanatical) into the mainstream. She changed public opinion.
Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Christian Life by Nancy Koester

[2] Stowe was a Christian author who believed fiction could change society for the better. She came by her longing for a godly society honestly, having been raised by Calvinists; her father, Lyman Beecher, led revivals to save souls and reforms to change society. While Stowe discarded some of her father's theology, she continued to believe that the Christian life transforms people, both individually and collectively. Her Puritan heritage also exposed her to a theology of sin as total depravity. And while she modified her own views later, she continued to see human nature as corrupted by sin; which meant that no person can be trusted with absolute power over another. Stowe saw slavery as just that: the absolute power of some people over others. It was, therefore, bound to hurt not only the slave but also to corrupt the slaveholder and to poison all the social structures that supported it.

[3] When Stowe wrote on slavery, she wrote from a domestic point of view. She was decidedly a nineteenth-century woman deeply rooted in home and family. Thus she saw slavery through the eyes of a wife and mother for whom marriage and family were sacred. From this angle of vision, slavery was an abomination. How could she remain silent as black families were torn apart, and the families of slaveholders corrupted by infidelity? Once a former slave whom Stowe employed as a cook, and who had one or more light-skinned children, told Stowe that slave women "could not help themselves" when their owners demanded sex. Meanwhile the white women on the plantations were supposed to feign ignorance as to where light skinned slave children came from. Thus did slavery deny marriage to blacks, and corrupt many marriages of whites. Indeed slavery encouraged the breaking of God's commandments against theft, murder, adultery and false gods.

[4] As a mother, Stowe empathized deeply with black women whose children were sold away on the internal slave trade, never to be seen again. When Stowe's youngest child died of cholera, her grief and loss made her feel solidarity with other mothers who had lost their children.

[5] This grief made Stowe impatient with abstract debates about slavery. Of course, she knew the arguments — political, theological and legal. After all, she came from a prominent clergy family and was married to a seminary professor. From childhood she was saturated with sermons, lectures and the conversations of educated people. And yet she could not fail to notice that while sincere folk debated about slavery (as if they had all the time in the world) black children were torn from their mothers' arms; husbands and wives were separated, and human beings were whipped, starved, and driven like beasts.

[6] Stowe was aware that some masters treated their human property kindly, by the standards of the time. This, however, did not address the problem, since the stroke of a pen on a bank draft could send a well-treated slave into a living hell. The core issue was not how well slaves were treated, but whether human beings can be held as property. Believing that no human being can be trusted to wield absolute power over another, Stowe viewed a system that enshrined such power as opening the gates to all manner of sins against God and humanity. In a book she wrote shortly after UTC, Stowe said that the "deadly sin of slavery is its denial of humanity to man ... to vilify and crush the image of God, in the person of the poor and lowly, has been the great sin of man since the creation of the world."1 This was Stowe's theological view of slavery, and she dressed it in fiction.

[7] In the introduction to UTC, Stowe said she wrote to "awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race."2 Sympathy was something more than a passing emotion. It opened one's heart and mind to change, and it could alter one's actions. The best way to awaken sympathy was to tell stories vividly, as a painter paints pictures. In UTC, Stowe's pictures were the stories of slavery, as seen by the slaves themselves. What was slavery like for those who actually lived it? If readers could see this the world might change. And the timing had to be right.

[8] The right moment came with the passage of the new Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. It was part of a bundle of legislation Congress passed to cobble the Union together. The Fugitive Slave Law guaranteed that the rights of slaveholders to their human property would be respected and enforced not only in the north but in the south. This was an attempt to stanch the loss of slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad, a system of safe hiding places and routes operated by anti-slavery activists. Slaveholders were outraged by this craven disregard for the law.

[9] But now there was a new sheriff in town — one bent on defending the rights of slaveholders. Henceforth northerners were required by law to help the capture of slaves in northern states. Federal commissioners would "issue warrants, gather posses, and force citizens to help catch runaway slaves under penalty of fine or imprisonment." The commissioners "received ten dollars for returning the fugitive to the claimant, five dollars if they freed the person."3 Any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an accused fugitive slave could be fined $1,000. Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law trumped civil liberties and individual conscience.4

[10] Under the new law, black persons — regardless of where they were born or how long they had lived in the north — could be dragged south in chains. Detainees were denied a jury trial and could not testify on their own behalf. Northern blacks who chose to stay in the United States organized neighborhood vigilance groups and armed themselves; thousands more headed for Canada.

[11] The Fugitive Slave Law radicalized many northerners, Stowe among them. Anti-slavery activists vowed to break the law whenever they could, even if that meant fines and jail. Quoting Acts 5:29, dissenters said that they must obey God, rather than humans. Many invoked the concept of a "higher law"; which might refer to individual conscience or the command of God, or both. Stowe understood the higher law to refer ultimately to the God of the Bible, as we shall see below.

[12] William Seward, senator from New York, invoked the higher law in a speech he made to Congress as it debated the Fugitive Slave Law. He reasoned that a law, to be legitimate, must be just. The Fugitive Slave Law was unjust; it was therefore illegitimate. Seward "denied 'that the Constitution recognizes property in man' and asserted ... the nation's charter must heed 'a higher law.'"5 Those who would obey the higher law must now disobey the Fugitive Slave Law. The response of pro-slavery congressmen was to charge Seward with promoting anarchy. What was to stop fanatics from picking and choosing which laws to obey? Did Seward mean to render the Constitution null and void? They accused Seward of promoting "racial amalgamation, socialism, and women's rights"6; after the publication of UTC, pro-slavery folk made similar accusations against Stowe.

[13] Perhaps Seward was out to change the Constitution! The New York senator, soon to become Secretary of State under Lincoln, believed that "law derives its legitimacy from the dominant moral consensus." Governments cannot force people to change their moral convictions. But, if the moral consensus changes, people will change the laws accordingly. And it is just here — at this crucial point — that Harriet Beecher Stowe came in. As Crane notes, "literary and cultural figures" could help to change the moral consensus7 by persuading the masses that slavery was wrong. Seward rightly sensed that public sentiment was shifting on the slavery question. No single individual did more to push this shift than Harriet Beecher Stowe. Even the great abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, who had valiantly battled slavery for decades before Stowe appeared on the scene, never reached the reading public on the scale achieved by UTC.

[14] All this lay in the future in the spring of 1850. As congressmen argued, Stowe was pinching pennies and packing trunks. Her family was moving from Cincinnati to Brunswick, Maine, where her husband had accepted an appointment at Bowdoin. Calvin Stowe had to finish out the academic term at Lane Seminary, which meant that Harriet preceded him to Maine to set up the household. She made the trek from Ohio to New England with three children in tow with one more on the way.

[15] Before UTC, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her family lived in what has been described as genteel poverty. Her husband was not paid well (and sometimes not at all), so Harriet had to scrimp to pay for train fares on the trip back East. According to family lore, a station master mistook Stowe and her children for vagrants, and tried to evict them from a railway station. The story contrasts nicely with the fame and wealth Stowe would one day enjoy. But in fact, Stowe was already becoming known as a writer. By 1850, she had published many articles and sketches, and a book of short stories. Armed with a pen, she might become (as her family used to say) as terrible as an army with banners.

[16] Indeed, the Fugitive Slave Law made Stowe angry enough to fight. And her family encouraged her. Not long after arriving in Maine, Stowe received a letter from her sister-in-law saying, "Hattie, if I could use a pen as you do, I would write something to make this nation feel what a wicked thing slavery is." According to family lore, Harriet then rose up from her chair. She crumpled the letter in her hand and vowed, "I will write something, I will if I live."

[17] She was further emboldened by daily newspaper accounts of fugitives being caught in New England and returned to slavery. Which law should people obey? The Fugitive Slave Law, or the higher law? This was much on her mind as she wrote UTC. In one installment of her story, she staged a conversation between a (fictional) U.S. senator and his wife. Senator John Bird of Ohio has just come from Washington where he has voted for the Fugitive Slave Law passed by the Congress. Arriving home in Cincinnati, he is surprised when his normally meek wife declares that she will not obey the law, even if he has voted for it. She calls it a wicked law, and vows to break it the first chance she gets (no idle threat, given the many fugitives passing through town). Now, now, cajoles the senator: Mrs. Bird must not let her feelings run away with her ... she must abide by the law.

[18] Mrs. Bird replies, "John, I don't know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible, and there I see that we must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate, and that Bible I mean to follow."8 With this and other scriptures, Mrs. Bird shows that for her (and for Stowe) the higher law is specifically tied to Christian scriptures. The senator and his wife discuss the subject of fugitive slaves: what is right and what is wrong, whether people should obey the law or follow their feelings. Their discourse is broken by a knock on the door. There stands a fugitive mother, shivering with cold and carrying a small child in her arms. Desperate to escape the slave catchers, she has fled Kentucky across the frozen Ohio River, jumping from one ice chunk to another. Miraculously, she made the crossing. The slave catchers will pursue her to Cincinnati. Now she needs a place to hide. What will the senator and Mrs. Bird do? This is the moment of truth for Senator Bird. He decides to help the woman, and break the law he has just voted for.

[19] What changes his mind when he has all his abstract arguments down pat? It is, as Stowe says, "the real presence of distress"9 which confronts the senator. He knows in that moment that he must help the mother and child escape. Note well that Stowe invokes "the real presence of distress." When Lutherans hear the phrase "real presence" we think of the Lord's Supper, and Christ's presence in, with and under the bread and wine. Stowe was not a Lutheran, but she was steeped in theological language, and she points to Jesus' presence in this fugitive mother and her child. They are like Mary and Jesus appearing out of nowhere, seeking lodging. Their appearance saves the senator from his pride and legalism, opening his heart and hands. This is the moment of transformation, both spiritual and moral. He will follow the higher law, which is exactly what Stowe wants her readers to do.

[20] We have said that the Fugitive Slave Law provoked Stowe to write UTC. That, of course, is not the whole story. She was also inspired. Stowe later said that her story began as she sat in a college church in Brunswick Maine. It was a communion Sunday, the day (in the Reformed tradition) to remember Christ's sacrifice. As she sat in the family pew she saw a vision of a slave being beaten to death. Like Jesus, he suffered with dignity and asked God to forgive his tormenters. This scene became central to her novel — Christ revealed in the dying slave. Stowe saw slavery as akin to crucifixion — a violent rejection of God. At the end of her book she warned that God's justice, though slow, must surely come. Rather than face this judgment, it would be so much better for the nation to end slavery peacefully.

[21] When war came, she compared it to an exorcism: war was the agony by which the evil of slavery would be banished. Stowe had friends and family who were killed or injured in the war. Wounded at Gettysburg, Stowe's son turned to drink to ease the pain. When the war ended Stowe told a friend that "no private or individual sorrow" (of which she had many) could leave her comfortless. "If my faith in God's presence and real, living power" in human affairs "ever grows dim, this [slavery's ending] makes it impossible to doubt."10 Stowe played her part in the great national exorcism, by telling a story that changed hearts and minds.

Nancy Koester has served as a pastor in the ELCA and currently teaches part-time at Augsburg College. She is the author of The Fortress Introduction to the History of Christianity in the United States. Her current research and writing is on Harriet Beecher Stowe.


1. Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (New York: Arno, 1968) 242.

2. Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in Harriet Beecher Stowe: Three Novels (New York: Library of America, 1982) 9.

3. "Fugitive Slave Law" in The Reader's Companion to American History, Eric Foner and John Garraty, eds. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991) 432, 433. See also "Compromise of 1850," 209–210.

4. Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1998) 407.

5. Gregg Crane, Race, Citizenship and Law in American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2002) 12, 13. Crane shows multiple roots for the concept of a "higher law" in the Bible, philosophy and politics (18–32). It was invoked early in American history; for example, the Revolution's slogan that "rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."

6. Ibid., 15.

7. Ibid., 13.

8. Stowe, UTC, 101

9. Ibid., 110

10. Stowe to Duchess of Argyle, Feb. 19, 1866. Quoted in Charles Edward Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Compiled from her Letters and Journals (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2002) 394–97.



© March / April 2011
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 11, Issue 2