In the nineteenth century Harriet Beecher Stowe was the most important woman in the United States. It is reported that during the American Civil War, when she was introduced to President Lincoln he said, ‘So this is the little woman who gave us this great war.’
Harriet was born in New England into the Beecher family, a distinguished American dynasty. Her father was a famed Christian preacher and Harriet grew up in a godly family that promoted progressive social causes, such as the abolition of slavery and the education of women. Harriet, intelligent and well educated, underwent a conversion experience in her teens that was to affect who she was for the rest of her life.
When Harriet was twenty-one the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where she became a teacher. Although Ohio banned the holding of slaves, it bordered Kentucky where slavery was legal, and in Cincinnati Harriet encountered many escaped slaves. Harriet’s objections to slavery deepened when visiting Kentucky she saw families being broken up and sold at slave auctions. Her loathing of slavery was supported by her faith: after all, if a slave was a child of God, what right did anyone have to buy or sell them?
Harriet became friends with Calvin Stowe, a professor of theology. After his wife died, Calvin married Harriet in 1836 and they had a long marriage with seven children. Moving back with her husband to New England, the Stowes were involved in the Underground Railway, the network of individuals that helped slaves flee to safety. As they housed fugitives, Harriet listened to their sad stories. In 1851 she was asked to write for an abolitionist newspaper. Following the pattern established by authors like Dickens, she started a novel in weekly instalments. It was a great success, running to forty instalments, and was published as a book. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as it was titled, is an involving novel that deals openly with the horrors of slavery. It ends with Uncle Tom, a noble and humble Christian slave, being beaten to death by his master because he refuses to reveal the location of two escapees. With his final words, Tom offers forgiveness and utters an appeal for conversion.
The passionate and emotional storyline of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an extraordinary impact on people and appealed powerfully against slavery. The first blockbuster novel, it broke publishing records, selling a million copies in the States before the Civil War. It was a global success with well over a million copies sold in Britain alone.
Understandably, many African-Americans were troubled by the way that Uncle Tom lets himself be beaten to death by a white man. Yet the book did have an astonishing impact. Did it cause the American Civil War? Probably not, but it did make slavery morally indefensible and may have helped the abolitionist Abraham Lincoln become president. Nevertheless, it did play its part in the war. Britain, with its enormous cotton industry, was tempted to support the South – an action that would probably have changed the course of the war – but the enormous success of Harriet’s book made that politically unacceptable.
Harriet continued to write books and undertook national and international tours. She made three trips to Europe where she met with crowds and with Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria. She remained committed to social reform in such areas as better legal rights for women and opportunities for education for the newly liberated slaves. She and her husband continued to live modestly and she donated much of her considerable profits to good causes. Following the death of her husband, Harriet’s mental health declined and she died in 1895.
What can we learn from Harriet Beecher Stowe? Thinking about the remarkable achievement that is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I note four intriguing and challenging elements.
First, Harriet was a woman who was ready. It’s been said that ‘fortune favours the prepared mind’. A similar but overlooked phenomenon occurs in the Christian life: prepared people find that God gives them things to do. Harriet, deep-rooted in the Christian faith, Bible knowledge and committed to social action, was certainly prepared. All that was needed was the trigger of that request to write against slavery. Are we making it a priority to prepare ourselves for God to use us?
Second, Harriet reacted. One of the troubling features of slavery is how so many people conveniently managed to overlook it as a moral issue. Harriet not only saw what slavery entailed but her offended conscience demanded that she took action. We live at a time when there are plenty of overlooked outrages and we need more Christians with Harriet’s enthusiasm to notice them and react wisely.
Third, Harriet responded. Her gift was storytelling and that’s what she did. The horror of slavery might seem to have demanded more, but what she was able to do turned out to be remarkably effective. What gifts do we have that can be used to make a difference? Let’s use them!
Finally, I see how God brought results. As with the boy with the five barley loaves and two small fish in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, God delights in making much out of little. God achieved much through Harriet Beecher Stowe. He can use us too.