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.”
… 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.