1. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a series of short stories, later published in one volume as a book (Uncle Tom's Cabin) in 1852 that, next to the Bible, was then the #1 bestseller. She was the wife of Calvin Stowe, a Professor of Religion at Lane Seminary in Ohio, next to the Kentucky border. Her father was President of a theological seminary. Her six brothers were all ministers.
2. Back then, women were supposed to be "seen but not heard" on political subjects. Her own sister had written a book saying that women should keep silent. But Mrs. Stowe knew how to write. In her 20's, she had written a geography book for children. Her husband, the professor, did not make much money. So he figured, 'let her write, it'll bring in some extra money.' A collection of her writings is maintained for research purposes at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.
3. Pursuant to English and U.S. constitutional and criminal law, slavery was illegal and unconstitutional. Kidnaping, murder, robbery, and rape (the basic features of slavery as it existed) were illegal. Some religious Northerners said that slavery was therefore a sin. A number of men had written books, articles, and even set up newspapers to oppose it, and get it abolished. But they were not having success, as most Northerners felt unaffected by slavery. Any sin, it wasn't them doing it.
4. But 1850 brought a change. Slaves had been escaping along the "Underground Railroad." Some religious Northerners had been following the principles of (a) Deuteronomy 23:15-16, letting escaped slaves live among them, and forbidding returning escaped slaves to "masters," and (b) Matthew 25:35-40 (providing food, drink, clothing, shelter). But in 1850, slave holders had Congress pass a law (the Fugitive Slave Act) making following those biblical principles a crime, "aiding and abetting" escapes. This law made Northerners such as Mrs. Stowe feel that they were now being forced to participate in the sin. So the law was widely defied as unbiblical and unchristian.
5. A magazine publisher knew Mrs. Stowe opposed slavery, so offered her $300 to write four anti-slavery short stories. But based on her knowledge of incidents of abuses, the narrative grew, grew, and grew some more. Years later, Mrs. Stowe said, "God wrote it." Her intended four stories became 45 chapters, 442 pages! The separate stories were reprinted in one volume as Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co, 1852). After criticism by Southerners denouncing her as a liar, she was led to more fully document evils of slavery (citing Southerners' own writings and analyses) in a 508 page sequel, The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co, 1854), then two more books.
6. Mrs. Stowe used a story style of writing. She, or God, wrote her books more effectively, at least, differently, than anti-slavery men had. Instead of a dry academic, encyclopedic, style, listing incident after incident on the evils of slavery, and slavers as "atheists," she wrote in vivid word pictures. She showed effects on slaves, especially women, marriage banned, "husbands" sold, their families broken up, and themselves abused. (Examples were voluminous.) Stowe's mother had died when she was five, increasing her empathy for slaves separated from their families. The term "women's issue" did not exist back then, but that in effect is what she made vivid, as readers identified with the characters.
7. Stowe also used an example that northerners could relate to. Slave holders said slaves should "accept God's will," evidently God wanted slavery, and slaves should just accept it. When Mrs. Stowe wrote, the danger of being captured by Indians was still an event Northerners could dread. So Mrs. Stowe wrote a rebuttal to the slaver "just accept it" argument. When whites were captured, taken prisoner by Indians, they were separated from their families, and Indians would keep them, let's say, hoeing corn. Rhetorically, Mrs. Stowe asked, Is escaping a sin? Are the Indians now "your masters"? Are you now "their servants"? duty-bound to stay with them? to not escape? Is that God's will for you? If opportunity to escape occurs, is escaping a sin? or taking Indians' food or supplies for the journey with you? Instinctively, Northerners understood Mrs. Stowe's point.
8. Stowe also used sermon style data showing why slavery was a sin. Another thing that Mrs. Stowe did different was that she published in significant detail Scriptures that slavery is a sin--in essence a sermon. Slave-holders were simply using the word "slavery" from the Bible, without regard for its actual meaning. American-style "slavery" was nothing like the Old Covenant had "allowed."
She cited the fact that the whole Old Covenant system was imperfect, and superseded by the New Covenant, Hebrews 8:13. But even in the Old Covenant, the rules on "slavery" were totally different than in America.
In Genesis 18, when God and two angels visited Abraham, even though he had 300+ servants, he and his wife seemed to do all the work of preparing the meal.
In Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7, the Old Covenant banned kidnaping, set the death penalty, and she had an entire chapter on kidnaping by slave-holders.
Old Covenant "servitude" ended in seven years. It was not for life. Exodus 21:2. Even if servants were bought from heathen (a rule the Southerners could not invoke as their slave-sellers claimed to be Christian), slaves bought from heathens were freed by the 50-year Jubilee. Leviticus 25:10 and 54.
The slaves were of course, strangers from another continent, Africa, and the Old Covenant commanded over and over again, treat strangers as one born among you, don't vex or oppress them, instead love them. Exodus 22:21 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 1:16, 10:17-19, and 27:19.
The Old Covenant did not allow for family destruction by the fact that it did not allow for selling slaves; no change except automatic freedom from the original "master" could be made except with voluntary consent. Exodus 21:5-6 and Leviticus 25:42. But slave holders disregarded this.
The Old Covenant commanded time off for the Sabbath, the feasts, and every seventh year. Exodus 20:10 and 34:23; Leviticus 25:4-6; and Deut. 12:12. Slave holders disregarded this.
In Deuteronomy 6:6-9, everyone was to read and teach their children, whereas the South made it a crime for slaves to read.
Adultery was forbidden, Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 20:10, which was also a widely-ignored rule, as "masters" (in addition to their own wife) would also take the wives of slaves.
In 2 Samuel 9:10, Old Covenant servants had servants of their own. In 1 Chronicles 2:34, one master Sheshan gave his daughter to an Egyptian servant, Jarha, as a wife, and their son, Attai, was included in the genealogies like any other Israelite.
9. In other words, Mrs. Stowe said, the Old Covenant mandated strict equality in all civil and religious affairs. Everyone was made a citizen with full inclusion in the system, i.e., protection by the government, Deuteronomy 29:10-12. In the United States, the opposite was the de facto law (though the Constitution and laws actually said otherwise). When a slave sued a master, immoral federal judges despising morality and the rule of law, reduced them to the point where they "had no rights which the [slave master] was bound to respect." Dred Scott v Sandford, 60 US 393, 407; 15 L Ed 691 (1857).
10. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, p 336, Stowe makes a significant point to rebut one of the slavers' responsibility denials. After describing some brutality by slaver Simon Legree, Stowe wrote:
“‘You must not take that fellow to be any specimen of Southern planters,’ said he [a purportedly respectable slaver].
“‘I should hope not,’ said the young gentleman, with emphasis.
“‘He is a mean, low, brutal fellow!’ said the other.
“‘And yet your laws allow him to hold any number of human beings subject to his absolute will, without even a shadow of protection; and, low as he is, you cannot say that there are not many such.’
“‘Well,’ said the other, ‘there are also many considerate and humane men among planters.’
“‘Granted . . . but it is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour. If there were no planters except such as that one,’ said he, pointing with his finger to Legree . . . ‘the whole thing would go down like a millstone. It is your respectability and humanity that licenses and protects his brutality.’”
11. Applying Matthew 25:41-45, Stowe ended the Key:
"In the last judgement, will He not say to you, 'I have been in the slave prison, in the slave coffle [chain gang]. I have been sold in your markets; I have toiled for naught in your fields; I have been smitten on the mouth in your courts of justice; I have been denied a hearing in my own church--and ye cared not for it. Ye went, one to his farm, and another to his merchandise.' And if ye shall ask, 'When, Lord?' He shall say unto you: 'Inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'"
12. Mrs. Stowe thus was persuasive to religious people of that era by her showing mass violation of both Old and New Command principles and commands by Southern slave holders. When in 1862, she met President Abraham Lincoln, he gave her credit for leading Northerners to see slavery as it really was. Truly she was an effective Christian. Her book had inspired the Tsar of Russia and and the King of Siam to free their slaves.
13. Many people sing "Amazing Grace," a song by an ex-slave trader. It was people such as Mrs. Stowe whose opposition to slavery led people such as him to repent. But such principled opposition was unfortunately not successful in getting Southern slavers to repent. Their refusal to repent led to war when they attempted to overthrow the U.S. government after Lincoln was elected, and when that overthrow attempt failed, to secede.
In 1829, outgoing Pope Leo XII or incoming Pope Pius VIII told Mexico to abolish slavery "for the glory of God and to distinguish mankind from the brute creation." See abolitionist Parker Pillsbury, Acts of the Anti-Slavery Apostles (Concord, N.H., 1883), p 381. Abolitionists knew this and were citing the fact even six decades later as the Pillsbury book shows.
". . . the Church, from the beginning, regarded [the slave trade] as immoral . . . In 873, John VIII wrote to the rulers of Sardinia . . . ordering them to restore freedom to slaves bought from the Greeks. . . . ["on Oct. 7, 1462" "Pius II" issued a "condemnation" of the "slave trade."] In 1537, Paul III excommunicated those who enslaved the Indians of America and confiscated their property. . . . In 1838, Gregory XVI condemned all forms of colonial slavery and the slave trade, calling it inhumanum illud commercium."
"In a letter to the bishops of Brazil (May 5, 1888), Leo XIII recalled the Church's unceasing efforts in the course of centuries to get rid of colonial slavery and the slave trade and expressed his satisfaction that Brazil had at last abolished it."
"From the 15th century Catholic missionaries, theologians, and statesmen never ceased to strive for the abolition of ignominious traffic in human beings."
"During the French Revolution, at the instigation of a Catholic priest, the Abbé H. Grégoire, the National Assemby in 1794 decreed the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in all French colonies. In 1890, Cardinal Lavigerie founded the antislave league of France for combatting of slavery and the slave trade on an international basis." See New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol 13 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1967), pp 282, 284.
Vol 6, pp 786-787 adds that Gregory XVI's 3 Dec 1839 In supremo "condemned slavery and the slave trade and forbade all Catholics to propound views contrary to this."
A current historical review notes that Popes Urban VIII (1639); Leo XIII (1888); and Gregory XVI also denounced slavery, the latter "in a papal brief, In supremo (1839)." See Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II (San Francisco: Harper, 1997), pp. 303, 339, 350.
Copyright © 1998, 1999 Leroy J. Pletten