Harriet Beecher Stowe and C.F.W. Walther (1st LC-MS Pres)

10 Sep

Harriet Beecher-Stowe - author of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose 160th anniversary will be celebrated next year, became the most politically significant literary creation in nineteenth-century America. It is one of those books that must be read to understand the depths of inhumanity to which those in the slave trade descended.  Beecher-Stowe’s novel was significant in revealing to a nation just how complicit it had become in the torture and death of slaves.  This Christian, prophetic woman, through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, changed the course of a nation yet her church deemed women unsuitable to be pastoral leaders.

At a time when people like the first president of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, C. F. W. Walther, who was born in the same year as Stowe, argued that slavery was ordained by God and a positive, biblically-grounded good, Stowe set forth a minority position that was also biblically-grounded: slavery is contradicted by the Bible’s teachings about human equality and dignity, about human freedom and responsibility, about Christ’s love for “the lowliest members of society.”

via Transverse Markings: One Theologian’s Notes.

… Already as a young woman, Harriet was judged to be an intellectual cut above the rest of her siblings. Because the pastoral office was off-limits to her because of her gender (both she and her father wished that she had been born a male, since she had the intellectual and physical gifts to be a pastor), she channeled her creaturely gifts in the one public direction that was then open to women: writing. She described her calling as  a “vocation to preach on paper.” The mother of seven children, Harriet always found time to write, in between her responsibilities as mother and home-maker.

Later, she told those who would listen that her most famous novel came to her as a series of heavenly “visions,” not unlike the fulfillment of Joel’s famous prophecy, quoted by St. Peter in Acts chapter two. Such “revelations” have long been a feminine experience within the Christian tradition. One thinks immediately of Julian of Norwich’s Showings, but there have been many others. The recent work by historian David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Battle for America (New York: Norton, 2011), which received a very favorable review in last week’s New Yorker, explains that Stowe’s visions began in 1851. While she was taking Holy Communion, she “saw four figures: an old slave being whipped to death by two fellow slaves, who were goaded on by a brutal white man.” Uncle Tom was the beaten slave and Simon Legree the white man.
Today, perhaps we can forgive the 19th century President of LC-MS, C. F. W. Walther, for his support of the position that slavery was ordained by God.  We might suggest that he was a product of his age, that without 21st century hindsight and awareness of 20th century attrocities his ability to interpret Scripture was fundamentally crippled.
What academic contortions must we undergo today to understand LC-MS theology on women’s ordination?  When clergy are removed from the role for supporting women’s ordination and when a pastor is examined for communing with his ELCA wife, how are we to tolerate this Synod?
While Walther supported slavery,  Beecher Stowe was vehemently against it.  The gospel turns things on their head.  The logic is surprising. Jesus would appear to be often discontent with the status quo.
Why is it that, under Pastor Semmler, the LCA incrementally steps closer to the LC-MS, independent of our theological advisory body, the CTICR? Why does it distance itself from the more diverse and tolerant ELCA in the US?  How can we embrace and forgive the increasingly sect-like LC-MS and the LCA when women continue to be discounted, minimised and marginalised – all at a time when there are not enough pastors to serve the Church?  There is no logic.
The surprising logic we have is that from the God of slaves, the God of women, the God of the oppressed, the God who stares us down in the face of our self-righteous piety.
God, please reveal to us when we are a part of the problem.

Posted by on September 10, 2011 in history, sociology, theology


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6 responses to “Harriet Beecher Stowe and C.F.W. Walther (1st LC-MS Pres)

  1. Ben Weston

    September 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    Slavery was ordained by god. Its in the bible. Just after the flood Ham son of Noah saw his father naked. Gods judgment. The sons of Ham shall be the hewers of wood and the bearers of water for all men for all time. In biblical times the land of Ham was Africa the people there were from that time enslaved.

  2. Katie and Martin

    September 18, 2011 at 5:01 am

    Using the Old Testament as justification, you have:
    • Discounted the United Nations Convention on Human Rights
    • Discounted the US constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”
    • Turned a blind eye to sexual slavery and child-labour that continues today
    • Ignored biblical scholarship and hermeneutics that demonstrate there’s more to biblical interpretation than a fundamentalist, literal interpretation
    • Displayed a sad lack of awareness of personal and institutional ethics
    • Demonstrated a lack of critical literacy, i.e. the ability to adopt “critical” perspectives toward a text.

  3. martin b

    September 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    What, Mike Semmler hasn’t received his honorary doctorate yet from Missouri?

  4. lcamyopinion

    November 2, 2011 at 11:49 am

    I had been looking for reference material to help explore the whole slavery/ women/ gay connection. So i went back and checked out “Transverse Markings”. This stuff is GOLD. GOLD I tells ya. 🙂 thnx katie and martin. The stuff Walther says about those wicked, ungodly, humanistic and rebellionist emancipationists could be put in the mouths of those who argued loudly against GLBT people today. gonna post some thought along those lines soon. Maybe i’ll call it Christians, Gays and Slippery Slopes. (it even sounds a bit rude 🙂 ) . Man im glad i found your site.

    (but…who are you really??? bruce wayne??? clark kent??? i know….bruce banner! nooo… thats me. dont make me angry. you wont like me when im angry.

  5. Katie and Martin

    November 3, 2011 at 7:16 am

    Neil, yes, Transverse Markings is remarkable. It just goes to show that good things and something other than unthinking conservatism can come from the LCMS.

    On another note, we found an article by Dr Sasser (Luther Seminary, North Adelaide), acknowledging that the LCMS was more significant in evangelism in North America in the early days, than the precurser churches of the ELCA. However, we’re not sure that evangelism is valid if you work to keep people in slavery. How can a church be called evangelical when it treats one group as human and another as animals? What type of bigoted faith are you inviting people into? Such dualism lingers today in the fundamentalism of the LCMS and the LCA (where it is espoused that all are loved and treasured by God, yet God does not call women into pastoral leadership).


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