Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life by Nancy Koester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Harriet Beecher Stowe is forever known in American cultural history in the words Lincoln reportedly spoke to her when she met him in 1862: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” What Nancy Koester’s “spiritual life” of Stowe gives us is a narrative of the spiritual journey of Stowe throughout her life. We see her spiritual development from the stern New School New England Calvinism of her father, Lyman Beecher, to a much broader Anglo-Catholic Christianity centered around the life and love of Christ.
Koester’s chronicle begins with her youthful struggles to meet the conversion criteria of New England Calvinists even as she awakens to a love for Christ. We follow her family west to Cincinnati and the struggles of her father as President of Lane Theological Seminary–a microcosm of the struggles within the Presbyterian church over versions of Calvinism, Old and New, her partnership with Catherine in a female academy, and her first exposures to slavery, and growing involvement with abolition and the Underground Railroad. This exposure provided the basis for the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had such a profound impact both upon the nation, and her own life.
While in Cincinnati, she married Calvin Stowe and moved back to New England so that he can pursue his academic career and Andover Seminary. During this decisive period, Koester chronicles her struggles with parenting including a six month hiatus at a water-cure spa, resulting from exhaustion and her struggle to write the book and the critical encouragement she received from brother Henry, her husband, and her publisher. Its publication, first in serial form and then as a book thrusts her into the competing factions of the abolitionist movement and attacks upon both the literary and factual character of the book. Koester explores these criticisms, which continue to the present, including the portrayal of Tom, the mawkish character of some passages, and the literary power of the book. She shows the grittiness of Harriet, who charts her own course and defends her work with a follow up work, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin that documented the work and showed that the reality of slavery was actually worse than she portrayed.
Perhaps lesser known and of great interest is her later life and her journey away from Calvinism. It seems that the decisive event was the death of her son Henry in 1857, due to a drowning accident. It was not clear that he was “converted” at the time and Stowe struggled with the question of the eternal fate of her son. She dabbled in spiritualism and moved to a position closer to universalism in envisioning a “wideness to God’s mercy.” She embraced a form of Anglo-Catholicism centered around liturgy, the sacraments, the church year that emphasized a growth into belief rather predestination and the struggle of her youth to experience conversion.
Koester chronicles her later literary career–she contributed the bulk of the family’s income. We see her contact with and differences with the women’s movement. We conclude with her and Calvin’s ministry in Florida, where they establish a church and promote Florida’s citrus agriculture. Koester helps us see the continuing center of Stowe’s faith in the person and work of Christ, however one may assess her later spiritual journey.
We have here a whole-life, multi-faceted portrait of Stowe against which we see the spiritual and national struggles of her age and her own role in those struggles. I would highly recommend it to understand the life of the woman who wrote the most published 19th century work after the Bible.
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