The Living Church

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The Living ChurchMay 20, 2001Harriet Beecher Stowe by John Gatta222(20) p. 9-10

Harriet Beecher Stowe's writings must be viewed as the best memorial of this extraordinary author, churchwoman, and unordained minister of the word.

Even people who have never read Uncle Tom's Cabin have usually heard something about Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling novel and its huge influence in galvanizing support for the antislavery movement almost a decade before the Civil War. Many know also that the moral passion behind this book, written by Stowe's testimony with her "heart's blood," owes much to the author's strong Christian convictions. Yet the special character of her faith, as developed from two different church traditions, is not so widely known today.

Stowe's family background linked her not only to the Calvinist, evangelical heritage prominent in colonial New England, but also--on her mother's side--to the more sacramental piety of the Episcopal Church. Her conception of Christian faith was likewise deeply affected by her experience as wife and mother, and especially by the devastating loss she felt over the death from cholera of her infant son Charley in 1849. Accordingly, Stowe came to envision a less monarchical God, dwelling instead on the motherly compassion of Jesus, the natural sacramentality of love, and the creative power of spirit and intuition. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example, she presents a "feminized" Christianity that highlights the saving and liberating force of divine maternity -- but all the while retains her evangelical zeal to expose what a great Puritan divine, Thomas Hooker, called the "true sight of sin."

For Stowe, slavery was an intolerable sin that demanded immediate change on the part of Northerners as well as Southerners. The evangelical fervor of Stowe's rhetoric is plainly linked to her Calvinist heritage, as originally nurtured within the Litchfield, Conn., household of her father, Lyman Beecher.

Not only had he gained national celebrity as an evangelical, revivalistic preacher, but all seven of Stowe's brothers, including the famous Henry Ward Beecher, likewise became Congregational or Presbyterian ministers. She ended up marrying yet another clergyman of this stamp in the person of Calvin Stowe. So members of the Beecher clan were plainly at home in the denominational atmosphere of New England Congregationalism.

Less obviously yet profoundly, Harriet Beecher Stowe's maternal links to Episcopal faith and practice also influenced her religious development. Although she was only 5 when her mother died, her childhood visits to Nutplains, near Guilford, Conn., exposed her to a less severe religious tradition associated with the Episcopal faith of her maternal relatives, including her godmother, Aunt Harriet Foote, and grandmother Roxana Foote. Here, too, she was first exposed to the catechism teachings and liturgies found in the Book of Common Prayer.

Eventually, following the death of Lyman Beecher and her move from Andover, Mass., to Hartford in 1864, Stowe joined the Episcopal Church. For some years, she had attended Episcopal worship; and in 1862, a year before Lyman Beecher's death, her three daughters (Georgie and the twins, Hattie and Eliza) were confirmed in the Episcopal Church with her sister Catharine Beecher, as was her troubled son Frederick in 1864. By April, 1864 she had purchased a pew at St. John's Church, then located on Main Street in Hartford.

That Stowe herself became a formal communicant, despite doubts that have been raised on this score, can be confirmed by public records. As of Christmas Day, 1866, the Parish Registry of Trinity Episcopal Church (available at the Connecticut State Library, Hartford) clearly identifies Harriet B. Stowe -- along with daughters Hattie and Eliza -- as a full communicant. Her shift in churches is not surprising in the light of 1862 and 1864 letters to Hattie disclosing not only that she was drawn to Episcopal eucharistic worship, but that "In my heart and belief I am an Episcopalian -- and if I ever leave this position here shall fully unite with that church whither I should be happy to have all my children go."

In several books written after Uncle Tom's Cabin and visits to Europe, Stowe revealed her growing attraction toward Anglican worship, aesthetics and theology. For example, in Poganuc People (1878), she highlights the maternal, Nutplains side of her childhood experience, with its festive Christmas celebration and liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. In Oldtown Folks (1869), one of her characters describes the consoling prospect of belonging to such a "nice old motherly Church, that sings to us, and talks to us, and prays with us, and takes us in her lap and coddles us when we are sick."

Whereas Puritan tradition had expunged from the calendar all fixed days or seasons of religious observance except the Sabbath, Stowe approved the older church tradition that traced a course of devotional seasons of the spirit. This tradition, preserved in Anglicanism, is reflected in Stowe's collection of religious essays published as Footsteps of the Master (1877, later reprinted in Religious Studies), which is structured around the liturgical year.

Still, she readily acknowledged what she perceived to be faults of the Episcopal Church, including its historic ties with undemocratic social privilege and its failure to testify clearly against slavery. Toward the end of her life, though, she heartily embraced an Episcopal-sponsored scheme to help educate and minister to newly freed African Americans in Florida. During annual winter migrations from Hartford to Mandarin, Fla., made between 1867 and 1884, she combined the desire of leisure-class Northerners for escape to a "half-tropical dreamland" with the old Beecher passion for evangelical reform. In 1867, she boldly urged her brother Charles to "enter the Episcopal Church and be our clergyman" at Mandarin, a station near Jacksonville within the proposed "line of churches along the St. John's River" she had been discussing in correspondence with the Bishop of Florida.

Although Charles declined that invitation, Harriet pressed ahead with her missionary project to the point of arranging with the Freedmen's Bureau for construction of a combined church and schoolhouse building in Mandarin (today part of Jacksonville), where her husband preached and she sometimes taught. She also writes with satisfaction of having performed as "sole servitor" at communion services in Mandarin, acting to "prepare the bread and wine--care for the sacred vessels and set the table." So the world-famous author felt herself honored now to become a sacristan and acolyte.

Founded in 1880, Mandarin's Church of Our Saviour moved to a new frame structure in 1883, during the last winter of Stowe's migratory life in Florida. According to her son Charles, Harriet was largely responsible for seeing the church building and rectory constructed and a regular Episcopal clergyman installed.

Harriet herself apparently designated the space for a Stowe Memorial Window in this church, though the Tiffany-executed glass was not installed until well after her death, in 1916. Once a familiar tourist attraction, it was later destroyed by Hurricane Dora in 1964. Today, the writings themselves must be viewed as the best memorial of this extraordinary author, churchwoman, and unordained minister of the word.

John Gatta is professor of English at the University of Connecticut and a member of St. Paul's Church, Windham Center, Conn.