This year has forced us to wrestle with the legacy of a system of race-based slavery in the United States. What better time than now to read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), a novel with huge influence in turning public opinion in antebellum America toward abolition—and possibly even influencing Lincoln’s drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century in the US. And though it would still take a civil war to end slavery here, the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was undeniable.
When I began listening to an audio version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I expected to find a taste of how nineteenth-century Americans thought about slavery and how this book depicted the tragic slave experience. And I did find that. What I did not expect to find was a commendation of Christianity and an exhibition of true Christian living in the face of tremendous trials and temptations. Stowe doesn’t let Christians off the hook entirely, for she relates the failings of many such Christians. But she also presents a moving picture of how Jesus can transform a man.
Stowe’s writing is certainly reflective of the fiction writing of the time. She provides the type of satisfying, tidy ending that readers expected. The narrator comes into vision too frequently. She explicitly calls Tom the “hero” of the book at one point (telling rather than showing). But if the reader accepts—as is only fair—that she wrote within nineteenth-century writing norms, the reader will find an intriguing plot and, perhaps most striking, an array of well-developed characters. That cast of characters is one of the strongest points of the book because it allows readers to see how antebellum Americans viewed slavery from all kinds of angles.
One of the characteristics of political discourse that marks our time is the difficulty of speaking with nuance, complexity, shades on a spectrum. The trolls are waiting for an opportunity to pounce on anyone who makes the slightest nod to the “wrong” position—whether that be to the right or the left. Any concession to the opposing view is marked as a betrayal.
That is one area where I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin refreshing. Stowe takes time (it’s no quick read) to develop complex characters who represent all sorts of people who made up Northern and Southern antebellum society. For example, there are those who are sympathetic to slaves, those who are complacent toward slavery, those who are complicit in slavery, and those who exploit the slave system. And in each case, we understand better the complexity of the slavery problem, the challenges to overthrowing it, and the justifications that both Southerners and Northerners put forth for of continuing it.
It is the complexity of characters that makes this book stand above the echo chambers of those who want simply to be accepted by a certain tribe, rather than to understand the nature and difficulties of the issue. But understanding an issue is essential if we will find effective strategies and proposals for resolving it.
Resolving it, to be sure, is precisely what motivated Stowe to write the book—as is evident from the closing remarks of the volume. In the final chapter, Stowe steps away from the narrative to make a plea to her fellow Americans. Here Stowe is to be commended for not exempting Northerners from guilt in slavery. Merchants far too often engaged in slave trading with Southerners to improve their economic net gain. And again, it is the time she devotes to developing a wide array of characters that allows readers to enter into her world, a world before there had been an American Civil War, and to see how people—white and black—thought about slavery and acted in response to a society resting on it.
We could talk about many different figures. Augustine St. Clare depicts the conflicted Southern plantation owner who is frustrated with slavery and spoils his slaves but who nonetheless fails to act in doing anything permanent to change the slave system or protect his slaves. Simon Legree gives us the Southern sadist who delights in humiliating his slaves. And there are all kinds of characters along the spectrum. But I want to focus on Uncle Tom himself.
Truth be told, Uncle Tom must be one of the most Christlike figures in all American literature. He is a remarkable figure marked by selflessness, a passion for God and his ways, love for even his enemies, a settled rest in the sovereignty of God, and ultimately a sacrificial manner.
Today it is not uncommon in racial discourse—no matter what perspective is being promoted—to hear anger, frustration, even hatred. And much of this seems rather justified.
I guess that’s why Uncle Tom is such a powerful character. (And his was a character inspired by the real-life story of Josiah Henson.) Uncle Tom breaks from the mold of what everyone expects to hear. And yet it is precisely the surprising quality about him that has the power to change someone, to awaken a slumbering soul, to disarm the hostility that marks so much of American life. And the only way he can achieve this kind of quality is because he has eyes to see a better country, to see the life of glory with Jesus beyond. It is in that settled hope—and only there—that one finds true freedom.
One of the best ways Tom describes it is in an encounter with Simon Legree, who claims to own Tom, both body and soul. At that, Tom breaks out into joy, because he knows that Legree can never own his soul, for his soul belongs to his Redeemer, Jesus Christ. The irony in that relationship is that Legree, who is supposed to be the master, is actually portrayed as the one who us enslaved, enslaved to the power of sin and a corrupted heart. So the master (Legree) is the slave, and the slave (Tom) is the freeman.
Inevitably, someone will say that I’ve merely spiritualized freedom and that spiritualized freedom is no freedom at all. I feel the weight of this critique. But Uncle Tom—who longed for earthly freedom—would have rejected such a critique. The complexity is found in the responsibility we have to improve the material conditions of all kinds of people in this life, even as we never lose sight of the deeper realities that spiritual freedom is the real freedom—and it is even more real than whatever freedom might look like in a temporal realm.
As we continue to consider proposals for improvement in this world, I think one thing that Uncle Tom shows us is that the best way to better conditions for all, no matter what perspective or racial background, is the way of Jesus: humility, sacrifice, selflessness, love for enemies—all resting on the foundation that our Redeemer has secured true freedom for us, freedom that transcends this world and can never be touched by anything anyone else might do to us on earth. Only the way of Jesus—which Tom so poignantly portrays—has the power to bring forgiveness, reconciliation, equity, and peace.