Thursday, June 30, 2011

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

The half-decade of 1850-55 has been called "the American Renaissance," since the most important American literary masterpieces were produced in this "one extraordinarily concentrated moment of expression" (F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman [New York: Oxford University Press, 1941], vii). "You might search all the rest of American literature without being able to collect a group of books equal" to Representative Men, The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, Moby-Dick, Pierre, Walden, and Leaves of Grass.

Missing in that list and mentioned by Matthiessen only once in nearly 700 pages is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, whose 160th anniversary will be celebrated next year. (This past month has marked the 200th anniversary of Stowe's birth.) Matthiessen limited his analysis to the works of the two authors named in his subtitle and to the writings of three others: Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau. That Stowe was left unexamined is difficult to fathom, especially when one considers that her novel became the most politically significant literary creation in nineteenth-century America. Did Matthiessen share the judgment of Sinclair Lewis, who once described Stowe's novel as "the first evidence to America that no hurricane can be so disastrous to a country as a ruthlessly humanitarian woman"? Perhaps. One could also argue that Uncle Tom's Cabin doesn't quite reach the level of literary beauty and aesthetic form that one detects in the best fiction of the others. Nevertheless, that novel's moral vision and persuasive power put it on the same level as the best that Americans have produced. Certainly President Lincoln thought so when, during the height of the Civil War, he famously said to its author, "So is this the little woman who made this great war?" No other work was as instrumental in changing people's minds about the evils of slavery. Many have concluded that without that novel there might not have been a Civil War.

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." The full title of the novel is Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. (I highly recommend the second edition of the Norton Critical Edition [New York: Norton, 2010], which contains copious background materials and scholarly essays and criticism.) What she did through that novel was to shift public opinion in favor of her biblical vision, despite the fact that many were using the same Bible that she read to support a pro-slavery position.

The Beecher family into which Harriet was born on June 14, 1811, had already become well-known in American public life for its progressive views against slavery, intemperance, and other social ills. Her father, Lyman, was an articulate and well-known, if somewhat dull Calvinist preacher (and later president of Lane Theological Seminary), and her younger brother by two years, Henry Ward, was from early adulthood until his death in 1887 the leading figure in American liberal Protestantism. Harriet was the seventh of nine children. After her mother's death, her father married another woman and had four more children with her.

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.

So this month I have been giving thanks to God for this woman story-teller/preacher who was called "to preach on paper."


  1. Did Walther actually call slavery a "good," or did he say that it was permissible and a result of the fall?

    It seems to me like the same reasoning that would allow one to think that the Bible is opposed to slavery would also lead a person to argue that it is a sin to eat meat. To me Stowe is an example of the 19th century American radicalism that ultimately views the created order as oppression and injustice. We see it today in the redefinition of marriage to include homosexual unions. One wonders what oppression will be left to fight for future generations, but I suspect it will never involve fighting for equal rights for men, particularly as women begin to outnumber men in the workforce and in every level of higher education.

  2. Pr. Hess,

    As far as I can tell, Walther never stated that the institution of slavery is a result of the fall. Rather, he held that slavery was a biblical order of the Creator established for the good of creation by the eternal law of God's will. Certainly, Walther was right to stress that the Bible nowhere condemns the slave-master ordering/relationship as contrary to the will of God. This is why Walther opposed the abolitionists, who in his mind were guilty of sinning against God's created order. Walther even called them anti-Christian.

    Walther's reflections on slavey, written in Lehre und Wehre in 1863, are easily read online.

    Surely, the abolition of slavery was a good thing, no? Or do you honestly believe about slavery as Walther did? From your comment I suspect that you are also opposed to the emancipation of women. What a shame. Why shouldn't the gospel and the dictates of Christian love and justice and freedom be allowed to have what most would consider to be a positive impact on the reformation of human social and political orderings? If prophetic (Moses) and apostolic laws can rightfully be set aside--even laws that appear in Scripture to have the force of the eternal will of God behind them--as St. Paul and John and Luther ("How Christians Should Regard Moses") and Apol 28 so forcefully argue, then as far as I can tell one should be cautious in identifying ANY social-political "ordering" as "an order of the Creator" that reflects the eternal will of God for all times and places.

    Walther, of course, was wrong. Sometimes, as Luther correctly noted, one must urge Christ and Christian love and justice AGAINST the Scriptures. Many biblical passages have become outdated, set aside, undone by the historical development of the impact of the gospel and Christian love.

    While there is an eternal moral will of God, to be sure, it doesn't include the institution of slavery, or the subordination of women to men, for that matter. That it took the Holy Spirit a few centuries to set forth the clear implications of the gospel and Christian love/freedom with respect to the abolition of the slave/master subordinationism and the abolition of the female/male subordinationism is consistent with the fact that the Holy Spirit also took a few centuries to lead the orthodox church to set forth the clear implications of the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ with respect to the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas. Even the Lord promised that his Spirit would have many additional things to teach later generations of Christians (John 16:12-13). Could not the risen Christ be leading Christians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to develop theological positions consistent with the gospel and Christian love that go against the letter of the law?

    Your final comment sounds similar to laments one hears from the National Association for the Advancement of White People. Are you interested in forming an Association for the Advancement of Men? Do you really think that men in this country do not have equal rights to women? Do you want to repeal the 19th Amendment? How about the 1969 LCMS decision to allow women to vote that came nearly 50 years after the US decision to grant women's suffrage?

  3. Hi Matt,
    I always find your blogs interesting. Thanks for keeping up with them.
    I wanted you to know that your blog posting on Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspiring to me. The quote you posted from Lincoln makes all the more sense. In all of my lit courses through the years, Uncle Tom's Cabin was not on one of them. I decided I needed to read it. I was traveling to Washington state for the university last week and downloaded it on my Kindle. I love the Norton editions but that one was not available through Kindle. According to the Kindle, I am 60% through the book and I am thoroughly enjoying the book. I better understand the implications of writing and publishing such a book at the time she did. I wanted you to know that your blog postings have made a difference even outside of the theological discussion.

    Debra Albers, Associate Director of Church Relations
    Center for Church Relations
    Valparaiso University

  4. Dr. Becker:

    Walther wrote this in the essay from Lehre und Wehre:

    "From all this we can conclude that according to Holy Scripture – The Old Testament, God did not initially institute slavery or servitude as he did the state of matrimony or civil authority. Neither did He institute absolute monarchy, the class of the poor or any other social burden in life. Rather He deemed them punishment for sin itself and considered them as a "duty-relationship" based on the fourth commandment. Further, he declared slaves to be the indisputable property of their master in the tenth commandment, in societies where such a relationship is lawful, just as He confirmed all other worldly and civil freedoms, burdens, rights, duties, ownership, etc."

    He finds the "institution" of slavery in Noah's curse on Ham. So slavery is not a necessary part of the created order, but instead an extra burden that came because of sin, according to Walther, who, as usual, isn't saying anything new but is simply repeating what Luther, Melancthon, Chemnitz, and the dogmaticians all said before him.

    On the other hand, you raise the issue of "the emancipation" of women. I think this is a different question. God did not create human beings slaves, but He did create them male and female. Being male or female is not a curse for sin, nor is it a temporary law meant as a pedagogue to lead us to Christ. It is part of God's creation that He called "very good", and so when the Holy Spirit inscribes the law on our hearts (the fulfillment of which is "love") He also restores our masculinity and femininity.

    All of which to say: you're right, I don't think our society's experiment at having men and women as autonomous, interchangeable units has been a movement of the Holy Spirit. As a pastor, I'm amazed at the incredible suffering inflicted on the people I serve that has come as a result of failure to teach what it means that God created us male and female. I'm amazed at the damage it has caused the church and society.

    The Holy Spirit sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts, and we are no longer under the law. But what does the love of God look like? How does it work? Sadly, human reason is fallen; we think we are loving our neighbor when we say "if you feel like you are called to be a minister, you must be," or "if you feel like you are called to marry a member of the same sex, you must be," or "wives, submit to your husbands really means don't submit to your husbands." That's what seems loving to us, but in reality failure to recognize that male and female are not the same, but were created to be one and to help one another--that causes incredible suffering. It causes the majority of American kids to grow up without their fathers in the house, it causes almost half to be born out of wedlock, it causes many, many, women to have to work and support their kids alone. It causes the mass murder of infants in the womb. I could go on, but I won't.

    The love of God looks like obedience to the ten commandments. It looks like children obeying their parents; employees honoring their employers (even when they are gigantic neo-feudal corporations); citizens honoring and obeying their government; wives submitting to their husbands and husbands loving their wives by giving themselves up for them.

    Because sin still remains in us, we still need the law, both as a spur to our unbelieving flesh and as a teacher to our fallen minds, which have not been completely renewed in the knowledge of God.

  5. Pr. Hess,

    Walther's view of slavery was different from what you present above. To be sure, he wrote what you cite above, but if you read further he clearly did not think that the institution of slavery was merely permissible as a result of the origin of sin. Rather, he stressed that slavery accords with the eternal moral will of God, that is, slavery is an eternally-valid relationship within God's good creation.

    "Who then can read all of this, in his heart accepting Holy Scripture as the word of God, and still consider the relationship of master and slave to be a sinful one, OFFENSIVE TO GOD'S WILL AND ORDER and to the spirit of the Gospel which therefore must be abolished?

    In one of his notes, Walther indicated that the subordination of women to men, in keeping with "God's order," is a kind of slavery as well: "the female, according to God’s order, is in a certain kind of slavery."

    Walther was opposed to both the emancipation of slaves and the emancipation of women, for the same biblical reasons.

    You are correct when you note that human reason is fallen. Walther's "reasoning" is a good example of that fallen condition. He could not see how evil the institution of slavery was in reality, how it degraded human beings and led to their abuse and unjust suffering and death.

    It is revealing that some who today want to defend female subordination to men as a biblically-justified order of God find support in Walther's defense of the American institution of slavery.

    Pr. Hess, was the 1969 decision to allow women to vote and have authority alongside of men in the LCMS (so that now a woman's vote for something can at least cancel out a man's vote for the opposite) a good decision? If not, how far back do you want to turn the clock? Does your understanding of the Creator's law mean that women should not work outside of the home? That they should not serve in positions of authority over men in society? That they should not be allowed to vote in elections of any kind? Please shed some more light on what your vision of God's intended order of creation for men and women is. What needs to be changed? What needs to be enforced, at least for Christian men and women? How ought that "submission" of women to men look like in God's creation, at least here in the US?

  6. Dr. Becker:

    I hesitate to argue with you about how to understand Walther's theology of slavery because I would imagine that you would probably have a better grasp of it than me. I also appreciate that you address these particular issues. I think it's very important for us to deal theologically with American slavery, and not just ignore it. By avoiding it we avoid real engagement with American culture--we avoid dealing with one of the moral questions that has shaped American identity.

    However, I am pretty certain that Lutheran dogmaticians understood slavery as a punishment for sin. Yes, Walther says that slave owners don't sin by owning slaves. But he also says that slavery was not instituted at the beginning the way that marriage was. The fact that Christians may own slaves without sin doesn't, I don't think, mean that slavery is not a curse on sin. As I wrote somewhere on this blog, nobody argues that it is a sin for Christians to eat meat (at least, no one in the Missouri Synod that I'm aware of.) But neither killing nor death was present at the beginning; God didn't give man to eat animals until after the flood, which is also the first recorded instance of slavery.

    I would agree that inequality and hierarchy were present at the beginning of the world. But where there's no sin, hierarchy involves no domination or mistreatment and no pain. You could argue that Eve was Adam's slave at the beginning but you could just as easily say that Adam was Eve's slave. The domination of wives by their husbands and the depriving of slaves of their liberty, the pain of being subject to another person is a result of the fall. Do you see hierarchy as requiring domination and oppression?

    With regard to your questions about my understanding of the relationship between men and women--I don't expect that in a public setting any reactionary views about the vocation of men and women can get a fair hearing. Also I am reticent to say something that may be construed as speaking against the position of synod--not because I am unwilling to resign or be removed from the synod if I can't be convinced that its doctrine is faithful to the scripture and if the synod's position is not going to change. However, I want to follow the agreed upon process of dissent, and I'm not sure what it is.

    I will say that I dissent from the 1969 decision. I have made this dissent known among my peers, although I am willing to be shown that I am wrong, together with the founders of the synod, Luther and others.

    With regard to the various questions about what women may or may not do, I don't like the framing of the question. It's not a question about what women are capable of, or what I think women should be permitted to do. My concern with the way we have structured society is that rather than regarding the family as the basic unit of society the individual has become the center. This way of structuring society has caused chaos, pain, and harm to children, not to mention women and men. It does not reflect the realities of life either. Men and women and children don't exist independently of each other, and pretending as though they do creates a host of social ills.

    Men were created by God to love their wives and children and to be the head of the family as Christ is the head of the church. As the head of the family the husband/father should always be acting in the interest of the entire family. It is true that men are unreliable and have often abused their authority, but the situation has not been helped by redefining femininity and the role of women. Brainwashing several generations of children to believe things about women and men that simply do not accord with experience has certainly not made life better for people. It's just made millions of young people confused and lonely, caused out of wedlock births and divorce to skyrocket, caused young men and women to deny the gift of being made male and female.

  7. Pr. Hess,

    Thank you for sharing your comment above. I appreciate the time you took to write it. I also appreciate that you are open about your dissent from the LCMS decision to allow women to vote in congregations and synodical assemblies and to serve in leadership positions in the synod.

    Could I ask also, do you disagree with the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution? To know the answer to that question would help me to understand how you think the Creator works in nature and history apart from Christ.

    Matthew Becker

  8. That last sentence sounds vaguely like your book, which is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

    I think my answer about the 19th amendment is in my answer above.

    But you didn't answer my question: do you see hierarchy as being oppressive necessarily?

    And do you think my point about Walther's view of slavery is valid? That is, Walther found inequality at the creation of the world, but not slavery. You seem to be saying that since Walther thought that it was not sinful for Christians to hold slaves, slavery must have been part of God's created order which he called good. But killing animals and eating them was not part of the creation He called good. So it seems to me that if you're going to argue that it is sinful for Christians to own slaves, then you'd have to also argue that it's sinful for Christians to eat meat.

    The only difference is that slavery could be positive to the slave, given the right master--for instance, if your master is Jesus. I don't think there's any situation in which being killed and eaten could be beneficial to the animal. I don't think we will kill anything in the new creation or that anything will die, but I do think there will be slavery in the new creation. We will be "Christ's slaves" just as the woman at the beginning was Adam's "slave."

  9. Pr. Hess,

    Does your congregation know that you oppose both the 1969 LCMS decision that allows women to vote and serve in leadership positions and the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution? I ask this because I can't imagine that too many men and women in Joliet, Ill. agree with this extreme view. Are women allowed to vote in your congregation? Do you preach that the US made a wrong turn in passing the 19th Amendment?

    Finally, did you already have this view in place before you entered the Fort Wayne seminary or were you taught this there?

    I will answer your question when you answer these additional questions.
    Matthew Becker

  10. For your readers--no, of course I don't preach against the synod's position. I am expressing dissent to peers.

    Secondly, I didn't say I opposed the 19th amendment. I really think that's kind of a non-issue and an ugly way to spin the concerns I have about the destruction of the traditional roles of father and mother and of the family as the foundation of society.

    Third, I can't imagine preaching about the US constitution, even if I opposed the 19th amendment. To me that would be slippery. It's not my job to tell Caesar what he needs to do.

    And finally, since you mischaracterize my position, your final question really doesn't apply. Even if you had me right, it would be a kind of "when did you stop beating your wife" Christian News type of question.

    With regard to my dissent from the 1969 decision, I was neither taught it at Fort Wayne, nor did I arrive there with it. I was ignorant of synodical politics when I got to Fort Wayne, and I had read only a little theology since I didn't go through the system. And as I'm sure you know, no professor at Fort Wayne taught against the synodical position, nor did they intimate that they were opposed to it.

    I suppose if they want to prevent seminarians from becoming opposed to women's suffrage in the church, or otherwise getting any countercultural views about the order of creation, what they should do is minimize the amount of pre 20th century theology that students read. Or else they need to stop teaching seminarians that LCMS theology, like the theology of Gerhard, Chemnitz, and Luther, should be drawn from Scripture alone; then seminarians won't imagine that when all orthodox Lutheran theologians agree about what "wives, submit to your husbands" means, they can expect that it probably means the same thing today.

    That would be a good resolution for someone to try to get through convention: "That Seminaries Should Carefully Explain the Errors of Luther and the Dogmaticians," and, "That Synod repudiate CFW Walter and F. Pieper as Model Theologians and acknowledge that Missouri Theology always evidenced Taliban mentality".

    It's sad that I'm so naive, but as anyone can see, I was actually trying to have a discussion with you--not because I thought I was your equal intellectually, but because I honestly couldn't understand your position.

  11. Pr. Hess,

    I still don't understand what you are arguing.

    You dissent from the synod's 1969 decision. That is clear.

    But I can't really tell what your attitude toward the 19th Amendment is. You wrote, "I think my answer about the 19th Amendment is in my answer above." When I reread your answer it sure seemed like you were being critical of how the 19th Amendment has changed American life. You referred to your view as a "reactionary view" and you were critical of "how we have structured society" so as to focus on the individual rather than the family.

    Given what you wrote about women in that post, it seemed clear to me when I first read your post that you are critical of the 19th Amendment. Is that not the case?

    If the "order of creation" is creation-wide, why limit yourself to being critical only of the LC-MS, for how it has, in your view, wrongly acted in view of this order (to allow women to vote and serve in leadership positions), when you ought also to speak out against any sin against this divine order in creation? There were LC-MS pastors and theologians who were critical of the 19th Amendment and of the earlier movements that led to that Amendment. Aren't you in sympathy with their criticisms?