01/15/2013 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Prophetic Engine

See 'The Abolitionists' starting Jan. 8 on PBS featuring the intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown.

Harriet Beecher Stowe famously said that she did not write "Uncle Tom's Cabin," God did. Stowe's blockbuster anti-slavery novel had its origin in what she described as "almost a tangible vision." Although a nationally recognized writer, up until this point Stowe had been for the most part a passive spectator to the anti-slavery agitation that had been roiling the United States. But as she wrote to her editor, the nation was in such peril that "even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak."

Soon after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which required all citizens, on pain of fine and imprisonment, to assist in the return of fugitives, Stowe was in church when, during the communion service, instead of seeing Christ on the cross, she saw an image of a slave being whipped. Overcome with convulsive sobs, she hurried home and committed to paper this scene, which would become the climactic chapter in Uncle Tom's Cabin in which Simon Legree, enraged at Tom for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of two escaped slaves, has him whipped and left to die.

Stowe's ability to see Christ in the face of the oppressed slave was central to the prophetic power she mobilized in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Just as important was the powerful emotional response she had experienced, one she aimed to evoke in her readers. The story is told of a contemporary traveler on a train who hears in the compartment next to him the distraught sounds of crying and moaning. He calls out, "Hello, are you in distress, or are you reading 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'?" Stowe's access to this emotional expressiveness was fostered not by the Calvinism of her youth, but by the "holiness" movement of the 1840s and '50s. Radically egalitarian, it emphasized subjective experience and personal testimony. Meeting in small groups in people's homes, the holiness movement particularly empowered women to speak.

The fact that Christian ministers maintained a timid silence in face of the Fugitive Slave Law both infuriated Stowe and propelled her to speak out. Describing in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" the everyday operations of the slave trade, she wryly remarks, "The trader had arrived at that stage of Christian and political perfection which has been recommended by some preachers and politicians in the north, lately, in which he had completely overcome every humane weakness and prejudice."

Appealing to a higher law than the state, Stowe urged civil disobedience to what she considered a patently unchristian law. She employed a similar set of priorities when she challenged President Lincoln, who wrote during the Civil War, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it." Stowe rewrote Lincoln's words to reflect the priorities of "the King of kings": "My paramount object in this struggle is to set at liberty them that are bruised, and not to save or destroy the Union. What I do in favor of the Union I do because it helps to free the oppressed." Stowe's hero Tom embodies the victory of personal sanctification and martyrdom over the demands of the state, as Christ did in Roman times.

Stowe was also propelled by a domestic event that was as common as it was profound in 19th-century family life. The year before the Fugitive Slave Law, the Stowes' sixth child, Samuel Charles, died in a cholera epidemic. Stowe later wrote that the death of Charley made her understand what the slave mother felt when her child was taken away at the auction block. There were circumstances of such bitterness and cruelty about the manner of his death, Stowe wrote, that she did not feel she could be consoled "unless this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some great good to others." Stowe was responding to an injunction from the Calvinism in which she had been raised: If God sent his children pain and death, it was their Christian duty to submit to his chastening rod and to learn from the experience -- in the language of the time, to "improve the affliction."

By insistently looking at the way the slave trade separated fathers, mothers and children," Uncle Tom's Cabin" made white readers connect their grief over lost children to the way slave parents felt when their children were forcibly removed. In so doing Stowe transformed her loss of Charley into a prophetic engine that stirred the nation, improving the affliction and afflicting the comfortable.