A Writer’s Inspiration: Harriet Beecher Stowe

I read Chapter 11 of Scot McKnight’s One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow last week. In that chapter, titled “Vocation.Life,” McKnight turns his attention to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

As a writer, I found McKnight’s discussion extremely refreshing and inspiring. For me, writing has not been lucrative. Meaningful — yes. But in the eyes of those steeped in our money-centered culture, I think I seem to be only wasting my time.

McKnight’s words were just the encouragement I needed last week. I had to share. It’s long, but very worth reading. Literary experts may quibble about the merit of Stowe’s works, but there is little question that she lived out her faith through her pen.

President Millard Fillmore, the thirteenth president of the United States (1850-1853), signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law in September of 1850. Section five of that law commanded citizens “to aid and assist the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required.” To translate: If you find an escaped slave, it’s your duty to return the slave to his or her master. The Fugitive Slave Act got under the skin of those who opposed slavery in a way that precipitated the end of slavery and the beginning of the Civil War. And no one was more irritated about this Fugitive Slave Act than Harriet Beecher Stowe.

So what did she do? Harriet did what she was gifted to do and, because of the dominant male power, she did what a woman could do. When the Fugitive Slave Act became law in Boston, Harriet’s sister Isabella Beecher Hooker wrote a letter to Harriet that was read to the family one evening: “Now, Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”

Stowe’s biographer continues: “One of the Stowe children remembered that when this letter was read aloud in the parlor, Harriet ‘rose up from her chair’ and declared ‘I will write something. I will if I live.’ ” Live she did and write she did. Her book was called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it brought into perfect display the art of storytelling Harriet Beecher Stowe had mastered over the previous years in publishing stories. She had a knack of recording how ordinary people talked and she used her stories to shoot arrows at the heart. She began writing her famous novel by sending in weekly installments to the National Era, and her goal was to “show the best side of the thing and something faintly approaching the worst.”

The result was nothing less than stupendous — some 500,000 women in England, Ireland, and Scotland joined her crusade to battle slavery. She was the right person at the right time, and she chose the right method for the greatest number of people. She simply told stories that turned the white slave owner into performing inexcusable behaviors and the slave condition into a heart-rending life. According to her biographer, John Hedrick, through this novel Stowe became “the single most powerful voice on behalf of the slave,” and, unlike so many, she had the courage to act on her convictions. She gave her One.Life to the vocations she was gifted to live.

Stowe went straight to the White House to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, in a set of lines I was not taught as a schoolboy growing up in his state of Illinois, declared his own allegiance in these words:

My Paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; … What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

Stowe’s allegiance was higher, however, and she wasn’t satisfied. She challenged Lincoln by publishing a response that turned his words inside out, and they became some of the more memorable words in that historical struggle:

My paramount object in this struggle is to set at liberty them that are bruised, and not either to save or destroy the Union. What I do in favor of the Union, I do because it helps to free the oppressed; what I forbear, I forbear because it does not help to free the oppressed. I shall do less for the Union whenever it would hurt the cause of the slave, and more when I believe it would help the cause of the slave.

Let no one doubt the power of the pen or the vocation of the novelist. Stowe’s words, alongside a personal visit with the President and Mrs. Lincoln in the White House just a month before the Emancipation Proclamation’s official announcement, surely had an impact on Lincoln.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, propelled by Christian convictions, relentless courage, and dogged determination to do something that mattered, did what she could do — her gifts were swallowed up by the kingdom vision of Jesus. She didn’t care about money, and she knew the African (American) was her neighbor. That vision, dipped in ink, made her a force. As I teach my classes, I sometimes ponder who might be the next Harriet Beecher Stowe. Or the next Alan Paton, whose Cry, the Beloved Country, the story of apartheid’s impact on South Africa, began to shatter the powers of racism. Or the next Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I wonder who might be the one who will speak to our world and our culture and our country about the evils and injustices that need to be eradicated. Perhaps it will be you.

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