Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life

Article excerpt

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life. By Nancy Koester. Library of Religious Biography. (Grand Rapids, Mich., and Cambridge, Eng.: William B. Eerdmans, 2014. Pp. [xii], 371. Paper, $15.95, ISBN 978-0 8028-3304-4.)

"I did not write it," Harriet Beecher Stowe once remarked of Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston, 1852); "God wrote it. I merely did his dictation" (p. 322). In her biography of Stowe, Nancy Koester comes close to endorsing Stowe's claim. Koester, a historian of American Christianity and an ordained Lutheran minister, presents a portrait of a deeply devout Christian whose personal relationships, political activism, and public writings were shaped by and expressions of her faith. While Stowe's Christian faith was always central to her life, it was far from static. The story Koester tells is of the gradual, occasionally arduous evolution of Stowe's faith, as she eventually distanced herself from the doctrines of New England Calvinism in favor of what Koester characterizes as "a kinder, gentler form of Christianity" (p. 311).

Stowe's father, the famed Congregationalist evangelical minister Lyman Beecher, looms large in Koester's account. While Beecher softened the edges of Calvinism by insisting that men and women possessed the free agency to choose to be saved, he still insisted that salvation required a conversion experience. The absence of conversion meant damnation. The theology of her father shaped Stowe's early work, particularly Uncle Tom's Cabin, where she depicted slaveholding sinners in the hands of a not-quite-as-angry God who needed to--and fortunately could as moral agents--repent to escape his wrath.

Koester suggests that Stowe began to pointedly question Calvinist theology after the death of her unconverted nineteen-year-old son Henry in 1857. While Stowe had earlier manifested some interest in broadening her religious experience beyond her Congregationalist New England religious heritage--for example, by finding some religious sustenance in the art of Catholicism, particularly pictures of the Virgin Mary--after her son's death the anxiety that he might be damned led Stowe to reevaluate what she believed was fundamental to being a Christian. …

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