gleaning from the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe

The longer I live, the more convinced I am that God’s providence in the affairs of men and women is evident wherever we look. As I have often shared, I believe it is important for homeschooling families to recognize the Biblical truth that God has no plan B, only a plan A and that only when we acknowledge this to be true and trust in God’s sovereignty, are we able to accept whatever comes into our paths. It is then, with the grace that the Lord gives to us, that we are able to minister to others who experience the pain and sufferings that come with living in a fallen world. This very real fact is evident in the life of the woman I want to share with you today.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a Christian wife and mother whom the Lord used in a mighty way to bring light and grace to citizens of the United States in the mid 1800’s. The core values of her life ought to be examined and emulated today by every believer who seeks to have a lively, practical faith in the 21st century.

Harriet was born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, to Rev. Lymann Beecher, who was an abolitionist, pastor, and the founder of the American Bible Society. At that time, Litchfield was a gathering place and a resort for lawyers, judges, pastors, and other professional men who had achieved some particular status and the Beecher home often welcomed many of these families into their home.

Harriet’s mother died when she was only four years of age, leaving 13 children to be raised by her godly father. However, before Mrs. Beecher died, she prayed, asking the Lord to call her six sons into the ministry and eventually that prayer was answered, with the youngest one, Henry Ward Beecher, becoming the most prominent. It was within one of America’s most celebrated families of Christian intellectuals that Harriet’s value of human life was shaped and honed. According to one biographer, “Someone once quipped that the human race was comprised of “men, women, and Beechers,” and the observation was only half in jest. Lyman Beecher’s children devoted themselves to transforming the culture, and they played leading parts in many 19th-century reform movements, including abolitionism, temperance, education, and woman’s suffrage. The Beechers’ activism was fueled by their passionate commitment to pursue truth whatever the cost. In the Beecher family, debate was not merely tolerated, it was obligatory. As Harriet’s brother Charles later recalled, “the law of the family was that, if anyone had a good thing, he must not keep it to himself.”

It was around their family dinner table where Harriet first began to apply a biblical worldview to the issues of her day, giving her a vision for her own work within God’s kingdom. When she was 12, Harriet, who was called moody, bookish, and brilliant and who loved to read the poetry of Lord Byron, went to live with her older sister, Catherine, who was a teacher. She began to excel in the writing of compositions and soon was helping to teach in the school that Catherine opened. The next year, when she was 13, Harriet came to a personal faith in Jesus Christ and later said that as she listened to one of her father’s sermons, the Holy Spirit quickened her heart, causing her to confess her sins and call upon Christ alone for salvation.

As a young woman, she moved again with her family to Ohio where her father became the president of Lane Theological Seminary and where she met Professor Calvin E. Stowe, a well known and well educated man who was a widower and who was deeply opposed to slavery. It was also in Cincinnati where Harriet came into contact with fugitive slaves for the first time.

In 1836, Harriet married Mr. Stowe and eventually they had 7 children. Their commitment to each other was evident in the notes she penned to Calvin: “If you were not already my dearly beloved husband,” she once wrote, “I should certainly fall in love with you.” Together, they sheltered fugitive slaves in their home and were deeply touched by the stories they heard from the underground railroad movement.

As Harriet was lovingly raising her children, she continued to write, publishing travel books, biographical sketches, children and adult novels, and poetry, helping to supplement the family income as her husband’s small salary as a college professor brought financial stress to the home. However, her many published pieces in local magazines and newspapers were not as precious to her children as the many passionate letters she wrote to them, admonishing them to seek Christ first in all things and to conform their lives around Him and His Word.

Harriet knew her own share of loss and grief during her lifetime. Besides being left without her dear mother, four of her own seven children died during Harriet’s lifetime. Her son, Charley, died at 18 months of age from cholera and an older son, Henry, drowned while he was a student at Dartmouth. Another son, Frederick, became an alcoholic after he was wounded in the Civil War and never fully recovered from his wounds. Her daughter, Georgiana, died in her early 40’s from morphine addiction. It was the grief that Harriet experienced in her own life that burdened her to write a novel called Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

One day, Harriet’s sister-in-law wrote to her, saying, “Harriet, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is. “After reading the letter aloud to her children, Harriet dramatically crumpled the paper in her hand and said, “I will write something if I live.” Later, while in church, she is said to have had a vision of “Uncle Tom’s death” and was reportedly moved to tears. Immediately she went to her home and started writing her book.” Thoroughly researching what was known as the “peculiar institution,” she interviewed fugitive slaves and slave owners with all points of views, and read several books.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly was first published as a series of weekly articles in the National Era, a Washington D. C. Anti-slavery publication in 1852. It was deeply controversial but immediately the demand for her story became so great that it was published as a novel, the first week selling over 10,000 copies, and during its first year selling over 1 million copies in England and 300,000 across the US. Now, over 160 years later, it has remained a part of school curriculum in many parts of the US and has been translated into 62 languages.

In her novel, Harriet drew on personal experience. Her whole life had been spent with people who had been involved in the abolitionist movement. She had housed fugitive slaves herself and she had lived in Cincinnati, a city on the border between Ohio, which was a free state, and Kentucky, which was a slave state. She had once heard the story of a young slave mother, Eliza, who knew her young son was about to be sold off to another plantation owner. In order to keep him with her, this mother made a daring escape across the frozen Ohio River, leaping from one floating ice chunk to another with the child in her arms, until they were both safely across. That true account later became the inspiration for one of the most poignant moments in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In juxtaposition to southern theologians like pro-slavery theologian, R.L.Dabney, Harriet Beecher Stowe challenged the body of Christ to show respect to escaped slaves and some passages of the book even sounded as though they could have been preached in the leading pulpits of the day “On the shores of our free states are emerging the poor, shattered, broken remnants of families,–men and women, escaped, by miraculous providences, from the surges of slavery,–feeble in knowledge, and, in many cases, infirm in moral constitution, from a system which confounds and confuses every principle of Christianity and morality. They come to seek a refuge among you; they come to seek education, knowledge, Christianity. What do you owe to these poor, unfortunates, O Christians? Does not every American Christian owe to the African race some effort at reparation for the wrongs that the American nation has brought upon them? Shall the doors of churches and school-houses be shut down upon them? Shall states arise and shake them out? Shall the Church of Christ hear in silence the taunt that is thrown at them, and shrink away from the helpless hand that they stretch out, and shrink away from the courage the cruelty that would chase them from our borders? If it must be so, it will be a mournful spectacle. If it must be so, the country will have reason to tremble, when it remembers that fate of nations is in the hand of the One who is very pitiful, and of tender compassion.”

Harriet soon became one of America’s most famous writers of her day, traveling to Europe and garnering over a half a million anti-slavery signatures from women from every walk of life, from noble woman to peasant. Assembled, the names were bound and given to her in 26 volumes. Readers of her personal journal would later read: “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother I was oppressed and brokenhearted, with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity, because as a lover of my country I trembled at the coming day of wrath.” In further reflecting on her purpose for writing the book, she said:

“… I HAVE BEEN the mother of seven children, the most beautiful and most loved of whom lies buried near my Cincinnati residence. 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. In those depths of sorrow which seemed to me immeasurable, it was my only prayer to God that such anguish might not be suffered in vain. There were circumstances about his death of such peculiar bitterness, of what seemed almost cruel suffering that I felt I could never be consoled for it unless this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some great good to others. I allude to this here because I have often felt that much that is in that book had its root in the awful scenes and bitter sorrow of that summer. It has left now, I trust, no trace on my mind except a deep compassion for the sorrowful, especially for mothers who are separated from their children.” Ever true to her convictions, even after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that made it illegal for someone to help a slave to freedom and that required runaway slaves to be returned to their masters, Harriet aided the runaways, offering them shelter, food, and motherly compassion.

Many historians today consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be the single most significant force leading to the US Civil War, which ended in the abolition of slavery. Again, in her journal she wrote about her feelings about the War. She said, “It was God’s will that this nation—both North and South—should deeply and terribly suffer for the sin of consenting to and encouraging the great oppressions of the South…the blood of the poor slave, that had cried so many years from the ground in vain, should be answered by the blood of the sons from the best hearthstones through all the free states.” In 1862, Stowe went to see Lincoln to pressure him to free the slaves faster. Her daughter Hattie, who was present at the meeting between Stowe and Lincoln, reports the first thing Lincoln said was, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Britain’s Queen Victoria, upon reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin wept bitterly. Tolstoy pronounced it one of the greatest achievements of the human mind and Mark Twain praised it as “a drama which will live as long as the English tongue shall live.” In reflecting upon her writings, one political scientist observed, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin rarely inspires accolades. Indeed, if mentioned at all, the novel is likely to be derided as patronizing, racist, and overbearingly sentimental. When I finally read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel for myself nearly a decade ago, I was astonished by its sophistication. As a political scientist, I was intrigued by Stowe’s multi-layered exploration of such themes as civil disobedience, human equality, and the role of religion in politics. Given Stowe’s family background, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.”

During the reconstruction years, Harriet established schools and boarding homes for newly freed slaves and her prolific writing reached the hearts and minds of people from all walks of life, from men who held high offices in the government, to the most common of men and women. She continued to pen other works, including a book entitled “How to Live on Christ,” which so impacted the missionary Hudson Taylor in China that he sent a copy to every person serving with the China Inland Mission.

A pastor friend of mine, who has been involved in the pro-life movement for several decades, once suggested to me that I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He shared with me that when he read it for the first time, as an adult, he had been deeply moved by the close parallel it made to the greatest social issue of our day, abortion. He challenged me to read it, as well. So, a number of years ago, I read it aloud to my own children and to my elderly mom who lives with us. We were all moved to tears on several occasions and I understood my friend’s admonition that I would never be the same once I had read it. I believe that I can say that that is true.

On the pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I found kindred spirits, those who knew that every man and woman is created in the image of God and thus ought to be handled with tenderness and compassion. I discovered the sin in my own heart as I heard Little Evie challenge her father’s spiritual values. I found myself drawn to old Uncle Tom, wanting to be like him, seeing the face of Jesus on the old slave man as he forgave his abusive master, being more concerned about the tyrants eternal soul than his own pain, even as he was taking his final beatings. But mostly, I was inspired to reach out to those women who have been so severely broken in our own culture as they have had their own precious children taken from them through abortion.

Those of us who are mothers cannot help but be touched by the suffering of mothers and children. Many of us have suffered the grief of miscarriage. Others have experienced the horrible trauma of abortion. But I believe that God, in His providence, has included these sufferings in our lives as part of his plan A, so that we might be able to more effectively minister to other moms who also bear these burdens. As we contemplate how we can be a part of bringing an end to the greatest injustice of our own day, let’s remember Harriet’s concluding remarks in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and apply them for such a time as this:

And you, mothers of America, — you who have learned, by the cradles of your own children, to love and feel for all mankind, — by the sacred love you bear your child; by your joy in his beautiful, spotless infancy; by the motherly pity and tenderness with which you guide his growing years; by the anxieties of his education; by the prayers you breathe for his soul’s eternal good; — I beseech you, pity the mother who has all your affections, and not one legal right to protect, guide, or educate, the child of her bosom! By the sick hour of your child; by those dying eyes, which you can never forget; by those last cries, that wrung your heart when you could neither help nor save; by the desolation of that empty cradle, that silent nursery, — I beseech you, pity those mothers that are constantly made childless by the American slave-trade! And say, mothers of America, is this a thing to be defended, sympathized with, passed over in silence?

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  1. Nantus van Greunen says

    I was reading a book and came across Herriet’s name. I’m eager to get holdofher book called” How to live on Christ ‘ and simmular books that she wrote. Can you please advice me as to where I might find them andhow to get them . I only want Christ’s fulfilment in my life.. This is the first timethat I visited this web , but surely not the last time. God bless you all.

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