While much is spoken as to the polarization of our present society, there is hardly any comparison to the angry dissonance of the mid-19th century America. Today, politicians and pundits shout accusations, but in those days they slew one another in our national history’s most atrocious war. Into that fray was published a novel, on today’s date, March 20 in 1852, with the effect of a high, dry wind on a smoldering prairie fire. It was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (also known as Life Among the Lowly), the best-selling novel of that century and best-selling book second only to the Bible.
Prior to Uncle Tom’s Cabin our nation had tenaciously been held together since its inception by one compromise after another beginning with the composing of the constitution. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s publication all bets were off and even President Lincoln referred to Stowe as the “little lady who started the big war.”
What few readers realize is the genuine influence made on Beecher’s writings by her evangelical Christian background. She was a deeply spiritual individual having been raised in a family where her father was one of the most respected evangelistic America Congregationalist of New England. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, eventually became one of the clergy’s most capable orators.
Essential to the Puritan’s Calvinism understanding of salvation was the concept of “leveling” society and rebelling against authority. Social reform was in her blood.
Even before Uncle Tom’s Cabin she had published similar short stories that were fundamentally abolitionist, but she held that the novel for which she is best remembered came to her in a vision while partaking of Communion during a worship service. In that vision she witnessed an elderly slave whipped to death by two younger slaves at the goading of a white man.
As a child she had often heard her father recount many fascinating stories from the pulpit as sermon illustrations, a oratory gift he had honed to near perfection. In a day and time when preaching was not an acceptable calling for women, Stowe described her famous novel as a “vocation to preach on paper.”
All too many times the spiritual community has viewed evangelism and social concern as separate entities with little or no relation to one another. Nothing could be farther from the Gospel. Stowe correctly saw them intertwined, that loving God could not be detached from loving one’s fellow human being.
This concept was not some late-day theological development of ivory tower academics. Even before Jesus started preaching, John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” while admonishing anyone who had two coats to offer one to a person who had none and he who has meat do the same.
Even more involved was the ministry of Jesus who fed the hungry and healed the sick while proclaiming the good news.
One of the most memorable sermon illustrations from my childhood growing up in Montgomery, Alabama during the civil rights movement was the minister noting that the cross of Jesus was made of two pieces of timber. One was vertical pointing to God above and the other horizontal stretching his arms out enfolding humankind. Only by joining together could they necessarily form the altar of his sacrifice.