Speaking For The Lowly
“Hattie, if I could use a pen as you do, I would write something to make this nation feel what a wicked thing slavery is.” According to family legend, upon reading these words from her sister-in-law, Harriet Beecher Stowe rose up from her chair, crumpled the letter in her hand and vowed, “I will write something, I will if I live.”
What she wrote was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By all accounts her “something” is the most influential American novel ever written. In the U.S. alone it sold 10,000 copies in the first week, 300,000 in the first year, and 500,000 in the first 5 years.
It became an international bestseller and was translated into 60 different languages. She made three trips to the British Isles and Europe between 1852 and 1859. A petition signed by half a million English, Scottish, and Irish women, addressed to the women of the U.S., led to the first trip and her recognition as an abolitionist leader. Because of the poor copyright laws in Europe it is hard to tell how many copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were sold in Europe but estimates usually end up at 1.5 million.
Stowe’s novel became the bestseller of the century. It was second only to the Bible and has never been out of print.
Her novel was not the direct cause of the American Civil War but it did convert thousands to the anti-slavery cause. It forced people to make a stand. David Reynolds summarizes the matter in these words, “With its dramatic portrait of the evils of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin intensified the public sentiment behind the rise of Lincoln and the Republicans. It also caused a reactionary surge of pro-slavery feeling in the South, exacerbating the tensions that led to the Civil War.” Stowe’s book made history by bringing the anti-slavery cause into the mainstream and changing public opinion.
She wrote with purpose. It is revealed in the preface where Stowe writes, “The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so unnecessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away with the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their friends, under it.”
The last chapter of “Concluding Remarks” reads like a sermon. She calls Christians to prayer, she challenges the Church to open its doors to the lowly, and she warns of the coming judgment of God. She summarized it all when asked why she wrote, “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted, with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity, because as a lover of my country I trembled at the coming day of wrath.”
I am writing this article with a very specific purpose myself. You can blame it on a graduation party Reba and I attended. I asked the young woman what she was going to study at college. Her reply, “I want to do something in the arts.” My response was brief, “Amen! Good for you. We need Christians in the arts.” Here is a crying need in our day. So I urge you parents to challenge your children and grandchildren to consider the arts. I call young people of our church to think about the arts. We need Christians in the performing arts, political science, journalism, etc. Who knows, maybe God will use you to be the next Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Do we tremble at the coming day of wrath when we consider our country? Will it stir us to write something or do something or be something for the kingdom of God that will challenge our culture and change our society? Let us pray for God to call those from our midst who will rise to the challenge of our days and purpose to do something by the grace of God to change our society!