Walking with the Saints

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Writer and Prophetic Witness, 1896

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811, and from an early age was influenced by the humanitarian efforts of her famous parents. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was known for his zealous preaching and involvement with the temperance movement, while her mother, Roxana Foote Beecher, ran a school for girls and publicly advocated for the intellectual development of women.  Harriet was the sister of the educator and author, Catherine Beecher, and clergymen Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Beecher and Edward Beecher. Her sister Catharine led the women’s opposition against the Jackson Administration’s Indian Removal Bill.   

Harriet Beecher Stowe was an outspoken critic of slavery, an institution that she believed to be fundamentally incompatible with the theology of her Calvinist upbringing.  In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, prohibiting assistance to fugitives.  Stowe was moved to present her objections to this law on paper, and in June 1851, the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in the antislavery journal National Era. The novel is a sermon-like work that chronicled the life of a slave family in the south. In particular, it recounted the tragic consequences of slavery on families, consequences that were for Stowe to be counted as one of the worst evils of slavery.

A year later, in 1852, the serial novel was published as a book. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the bestselling book of the nineteenth century, second only to the Bible, and was influential in both America and Britain.  Her book made her an instant celebrity. It inspired anti-slavery movements in the North and provoked widespread anger in the South. Her work intensified the sectional conflicts that would eventually lead to the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, was alleged to have said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war!”  (Note: This quote is regarded as apocryphal.)

Stowe’s book, together with her public anti-slavery work, was largely responsible for bringing the evils of slavery to light not only in America, but in Britain, Europe, even Russia. Tolstoy greatly esteemed her work and her moral courage, heaping lavish praise on her. She was renowned then, as now, for her boldness and willingness to expose the harsh realities of slavery to the public eye.

Harriet Beecher Stowe died in Hartford, Connecticut on July 1, 1896.

(Adapted from A Great Cloud of Witnesses, published by The Episcopal Church)