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.