“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – A Model for the Study of Moral Theology

This book by the mid-19th Century American author, Harriet Beecher Stowe is well known to many from their school days. The themes posed are certainly not childish and a second reading reveals them in a different light. In childhood we ignored the book’s Christian component, being enthralled by the captivating plot – this Christian component becomes evident to the mature eye.
Fr. Philip Parfenov | 06 May 2010

This book by the mid-19th Century American author, Harriet Beecher Stowe is well known to many from their school days. The themes posed are certainly not childish and a second reading reveals them in a different light. In childhood we ignored the book’s Christian component, being enthralled by the captivating plot  this Christian component becomes evident to the mature eye.

It is most noteworthy that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in the USA in 1852, was so popular that the first edition of 300,000 books sold out immediately. Abraham Lincoln upon meeting the author said, «So this is the little lady who started this great War!» Let’s make an attempt to view this book from a Christian perspective.

Prayer for One’s Enemies

Tom, the Negro is the main character of the novel. He is a deeply religious Christian who scrupulously bears his cross. Tom is sold into slavery by his indebted owner and separated from his wife and children. Even though he is semi-literate, Tom knows the Bible well and is always guided by it. He does not advocate for a change in the existing slave-master order. He prays for his owners without complaining. Tom willingly, repeatedly and consistently sacrifices himself  initially by saving his indebted owner from losing everything to creditors (at the same time saving his own family from a worse fate), and at the end of his journey, giving his life to save two women from certain death at the hands of the sadistic plantation owner, Simon Legree.

The sad news of Tom’s separation from his family catches his wife Chloe and children completely by surprise. They angrily and emotionally discuss the slave trader Hailey, who had just purchased Tom. Let’s look at their various thoughts and approaches to this situation:

“He’ll go to torment, and no mistake,” said little Jake.

“He deserves it,” said Aunt Chloe, grimly; “he’s broke a many, many, many hearts! I tell ye all” .

“Sich’ll be burnt up for ever, and no mistake; won’t ther?” said Andy.

“I’d be glad to see it, I’ll be boun’,” said little Jake.

On the other hand, Tom softly, but convincingly interjects:

«Forever is a dre’ful word, chil’en; it’s awful to think on’t. You oughtenter wish that ar to any human critter.”

Is this not essentially what is said word-for-word by Elder Siluan of Mt Athos regarding the eternal nature of the torment of sinners? More often than not, love for one’s enemy is supplanted by a more utilitarian, but wholly natural human sense of justice, which is also evidenced by the Bible itself in many Psalms. Tom’s wife, in particular, expresses this:

“Don’t natur herself kinder cry out on ’em? ” said Aunt Chloe. “Don’t dey tear the sucking baby right off his mother’s breast, and sell him? And der little children as is crying and holding on by her clothes, don’t they pull ’em off and sells ’em? Don’t dey tear wife and husband apart?” .

“Pray for them that ‘spitefully use you, the Good Book says,” says Tom.

“Pray for ’em,” said Aunt Chloe; “Lord, it’s too tough! I can’t pray for ’em.”

“It’s natur, Chloe, and natur’s strong,” said Tom, “but the Lord’s grace is stronger. Besides, you oughter think what an awful state a poor critter’s soul’s in that ‘ll do them ar things; ‘you oughter thank God that you an’t tike him, Chloe. I’m sure I’d rather be sold ten thousand times over than to have all that ar poor critter’s got to answer for.”

At least, we must admit honestly: who of us can pray for their enemies in the belief that the Grace of God will subdue his own nature? There are very few such people. How many more people try to clothe their (spiritual) nakedness in high-minded rhetoric and quotes from the Gospel? Although Chloe does not do this she is overcome with emotion, she rises up and her soul rebels:

“S’pose we must be resigned; but, O Lord! How ken I? If I know’d anything whar you’s goin’, or how they’d sarve you! Missis says she ‘ll try and ‘deem ye, in a year or two; but, Lord! nobody never comes up that goes down thar! They kills ’em! I’ve hearn ’em tell how dey works ’em up on dem ar plantations.”

“There’ll be the same God there, Chloe, that there is here.”

“Well,” said Aunt Chloe, “s’pose dere will; but de Lord lets drefful things happen, sometimes. I don’t seem to get no comfort dat way.”

Theodicy[i] according to Beecher Stowe

If we believe that everything is up to God’s Will, then we must of course admit with Chloe, «the Lord lets dreadful things happen, sometimes.» But God does not will for men to sin a fact attested to by many verses of Scripture, as well as by one’s conscience and common sense. The sins of some inevitably lead others to sin, even though temptation is unavoidable in this world, as the Saviour said (Matthew 18: 7), nevertheless, woe unto those who give them rite of passage. Thereby, the usual animosity magnified into unbelief is sparked in others suffering in slavery. The fugitive slave, George Harris who decided to secure his freedom by any means even if it meant the loss of his own life meets his former benefactor (the owner of a factory) during his escape and among other things, this exchange takes place:

«Trust in the Lord, George. I wish in my heart you were safe through, though,that’s what I do.”

“Is there a God to trust in?” said George, in such a tone of bitter despair as arrested the old gentleman’s words. “Oh, I’ve seen things all my life that have made me feel that there can’t be a God. Tet, Christians don’t know how these things look to us. There is a God for you, but is there any for us?”

Something akin to this is often heard in our day: It is easy to believe in God when all your energy is not consumed simply by the effort to find your daily bread for the elementary existence of your family. However, when everything is dedicated simply to this task, there is no strength left, neither for prayer, nor for contemplation of God and His beneficence or the meaning of life. Moreover, life seems to be an absurd plaything tossed about by the whim of unforeseen circumstances.

Of course, life’s various difficult situations can serve as a justification for their persistence in unbelief for some. But who can say that about George in this instance? In general, this novel presents the problem of theodicy with raw simplicity. The main characters of the story do not tarry in this world, which «lies under the sway of the wicked one,» they perish, but evil often finds no obstacles to its fruition. Notwithstanding, the story is vivacious and optimistic, even though that optimism is mixed with bitterness and tragedy. Christ’s contemporaries could have misconstrued His mission as a complete failure, but, nevertheless, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1: 5)

This «light» shines not only in Tom, but also in others, intertwined with him in the storyline. Tom’s new masters are Augustine St. Clare and his bewitching daughter Evangeline. At first, St Clare seems to be a sceptic, influenced by the French Enlightenment. But it soon becomes apparent that under the veil of his external unbelief and opposition to established religion a delicate, good, loving and scrupulous heart is hidden. His wife Marie is a complete antithesis, being pious, diligently attending Sunday services, and all the while being completely self-centred in her caprices and suspicions. No one, she says understands her sickly suffering and intimate feelings, especially those Negroes  are they even capable of it? Really, how can her feelings be compared with the feelings of Negroes, who are egotists! One Sunday, Marie and her husband have the following conversation. Marie is admiring the preacher in church, who:

«showed how all the orders and distinctions in society came from God; and that it was so appropriate, you know, and beautiful, that some should be high and some low, and that some were born to rule and some to serve, and all that, you know; and he applied it so well to all this ridiculous fuss that is made about slavery, and he proved distinctly that the Bible was on our side, and supported all our institutions so convincingly. I only wish you’d heard him.»

“Oh, I didn’t need it,” said St. Clare. ” I can learn what does me as much good as that from the Picayune any time, and smoke a cigar besides; which I can’t do, you know, in a church.”

And further into the conversation:

“Well,” said St. Clare, “suppose that something should bring down the price of cotton once and for ever, and make the whole slave property a drug in the market; don’t you think we should soon have another version of the Scripture doctrine? What a flood of light would pour into the church, all at once, and how immediately it would be discovered that everything in the Bible and reason went the other way!”

Such criticism, of course, is wholly justified, but that which people like St Clare in this instance, regard as the Church, is not the True Church

Man – the «bolt»

Unfortunately, history has often shown that Church teachers being guided completely by earthly interests, proclaimed that which a definite group of people, above all the powerful of this world, wanted to hear from them, instead of the righteous and impartial word. This is not only true of slave-trading America, but also of Russia with its serfdom. Anything can be justified through making a collage of quotes and a manipulation of Holy Scripture. But as St Clare says, one cannot be of two minds concerning slavery:

«Planters, who have money to make by it,clergymen, who have planters to please,politicians, who want to rule by it,may warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity! They can press Nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service; but, after all, neither they nor the world believe in it one particle the more. It comes from the devil, that’s the short of it; and, to my mind, it’s a pretty respectable specimen of what he can do in his own line.”

The problem is not slavery per se. In early capitalism, society was often no less severe nor inhumane. If a slave owner could destroy a family by selling the children, the capitalist with as much success, condemned entire households to a meagre existence, or even starvation by terminating the breadwinner’s employment. Therefore, in its time the Marxist movement was a very valid and natural reaction to the entrenched class distinctions. In a more general way, disguised forms of slavery develop every time people who have more power and strength, strive to use those who have less power as a means, a function, as bolts in a certain mechanism, and look upon them only as something to be used for the realisation of their plans. As living beings, these «bolts» only minimally interest those endowed with power while they contribute to this derelict mechanism, but as soon as they are worn out there is nothing, as we know, that cannot be replaced.

Those who have not subscribed to this established and well-tuned relational mechanism often do not tarry long in its system. They either willingly sacrifice themselves, or Providence mystically sacrifices them, often in an uprising of the forces of evil, making it appear that God’s gracious Providence is once again defeated. The small, frail girl Evangeline dies of tuberculosis. But how much comfort has she been able to bring to the oppressed in her last years of life!

“Are these (diamonds) worth a great deal of money, mamma?”

“To be sure they are. Father sent to France for them. They are worth a small fortune.”

“I wish I had them,” said Eva, “to do what I pleased with!”

“What would you do with them?”

“I’d sell them and buy a place in the free States, and take all our people there, and hire teachers, to teach them to read and write.”

This global plan was doomed to failure. Evangeline although, was an immeasurably more convincing angel-messenger of love and freedom. These two attributes she showered upon all the tortured servants, more than all the many thousands of professional missionary preachers of her time. For example, Eva managed to melt the embittered heart of the Negro Topsy, a hard-hearted girl her own age, afraid of no one and nothing, tempered like a rock by the brutal torture inflicted by her previous owners.

«Don’t you love anybody, Topsy?”

“Dunno nothing ’bout love; I loves candy and sich, that’s all,” said Topsy.

“But you love your father and mother?”

“Never had none, ye know. I telled ye that, Miss Eva.”

“Oh, I know,” said Eva, sadly; “but hadn’t you any brother, or sister, or aunt, or,,”

“No, none on ’em,never had nothing nor nobody.”

Evangeline endowed this girl (one who had never known love) with love and saved her soul, at the expense of her own health and in the end, her own life. Her death transfigured the wild Topsy. «Love first, then mission.» as the great Russian missionary Archbishop Nicholas of Japan taught.

“Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?”

Eva affirmed. Although she did receive the most pragmatic answer from her cousin:

“Oh, the Bible! To be sure, it says a great many such things; but, then, nobody ever thinks of doing them,you know, Eva, nobody does.”

Soon after Evangeline’s passing, St Clare also departs this life. Trying to break up a fight in a cafй and relieve one of the men of his knife, he is killed by this very knife. His plans to free all his slaves are cut short, having not yet come to fruition. His widow Marie immediately sells all the Negroes, including Tom at auction – only Topsy is saved by St Clare’s cousin, who had already taken her in.

Uncle Tom’s Calvary

In the final stage of his life, Tom ends up in a faraway deserted backwater with the cruel plantation owner Legree, from whence there is no return. Accursed surroundings, God forsaken land  for him these were not just simple words. Can anyone feel the Presence of God in those places where the name of God is not entreated, where no one is guided by His commandments? When Tom ends up here, he reveals God’s presence to his neighbours:

«Tom’s whole soul overflowed with compassion and sympathy for the poor wretches by whom he was surrounded. To him it seemed as if his life-sorrows were now over, and as if, out of that strange treasury of peace and joy with which he had been endowed from above, he longed to pour out something for the relief of their woes. It is true, opportunities were scanty; but on the way to the fields and back again, and during the hours of labour, chances fell in his way of extending a helping hand to the weary, the disheartened and discouraged. The poor, worn-down, brutalised creatures, at first could scarcely comprehend this; but when it was continued week after week, and month after month, it began to awaken long silent chords in their benumbed hearts. Gradually and imperceptibly the strange, silent, patient man, who was ready to bear every one’s burden, and sought help from none,who stood aside for all, and came last, and took least, yet was foremost to share his little all with any who needed,the man who, in cold nights, would give up his tattered blanket to add to the comfort of some woman who shivered with sickness, and who filled the baskets of the weaker ones in the field, at the terrible risk of coming short in his own measure,and who, though pursued with unrelenting cruelty by their common tyrant, never joined in uttering a word of reviling or cursing,this man at last began to have a strange power over them.»

Compare these lines with the narrative of a century later – not in the hot, southern plantations of the USA, but in the Stalinist labour camps in the northern USSR during the severe, freezing cold:

«The two sick men received only half their ration and Fr Arseny hid a little piece of fish for them under his clothing. Later Fr Arseny started feeding the two patients. He heated up some water with pine needles, mixed it with aspirin and gave some to both men. He divided the bread and the fish between them.

Five days later, the twos sick prisoners started feeling a little better. They would probably live, but they could not get up. Fr Arseny cared for them at night and, when he had time, during the day. He also gave them part of his own ration .

They accepted the care of Fr Arseny with no enthusiasm, but they could not survive without him [and if it were not for him, they’d be lying in the frozen earth long ago.]» (Fr Arseny 1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spritual Father pp. 12-13)

The more Tom supported the suffering slaves, the more hatred and rage he summoned from Legree, the quicker the hour of his Calvary approached. The passion to reign over others, especially over those who are superior, is so irrational in ordinary people, that common sense is powerless to stop it. In practical terms, it would seem that Tom is a valuable worker, a jack of all trades, industrious, obedient, not shying away for the worst jobs  people such as Tom should be spared! But unbridled lust for power crushes the spirit and will of such servants; it needs to break them at any price, to make them go against their own conscience. Tom truly is the «rock of faith»:

«Here, you rascal, you make believe to be so pious,didn’t you never hear, out of yer Bible, ‘Servants, obey your masters?’ An’t I your master? Didn’t I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is in yer old cussed black shell? An’t yer mine now, body and soul?” Legree said, giving Tom a violent kick with his heavy boot.»

But these words awakened a triumphal joy in Tom’s tortured soul:

«He suddenly stretched himself up, and, looking earnestly to heaven, while the tears and blood that flowed down his face mingled, he exclaimed,  “No, no, no! My soul an’t yours, mas’r! You haven’t bought it, ye can’t buy it! It’s been bought and paid for by One that’s able to keep it. No matter, no matter, you can’t harm me!”

Are these words not reminiscent of the life of the Confessor, St John the Russian, captured in the Russo-Turkish War of 1711-1718? He was taken to a Janissary camp under the control of a certain Turkish Agha and subjected to beatings and insults to force him to give up his faith. He answered his captor with these words: «As a captive, I submit to your commands in regards to labour, but in my faith in Christ the Saviour you are not my master. It is more appropriate to listen to God, than to man.» In some cases, when there is still some semblance of conscience and humanity left in slave-owners, such humility as shown by Tom and St John, can subdue them and bring them to their senses, as it did in the life of St John. On the other hand, in scum such as Legree, it inflames the vile passions all the more, and Tom perishes.

However, the memory of the light that Tom emanated lived on in the hearts of those who knew him. It inspired his young friend George Shelby, the son of Tom’s first master and also many of his contemporaries to the fundamental goal of completely abolishing shameful slavery in which America was mired. And although it was legislatively abolished, unfortunately it was not immediately abolished in the hearts and minds of many Americans – one needs simply to recall the example of Martin Luther King a century later…

«Blessed are the peacemakers» – Tom truly was such a peacemaker. The making of peace often is joined with sacrifice. The bringing of peace into this world which lies in the sway of the wicked one, means constant readiness to sacrifice one’s own time, strength, and talents, if not one’s whole life. Faith working through love (Gal. 5: 6), can influence men’s stale and immovable hearts, performing miracles which are far greater than the simple moving of mountains or the calming of storms upon the sea (For it was Christ that said: «He who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do.» [John 14:12]) Of course, this in no way implies that success will accompany every believer all the while on this journey. On the contrary, he passes from either victory to defeat, or defeat to victory. Going from one defeat to another is even more common, than from one victory to another. Seeming defeat may bring, rather most certainly will bring, the fruits of victory in the future, but not necessarily in the here and now. To «move the mountains» of men’s passions and prejudices one must be ready to constantly risk all and lay down his life for one’s friends (see John 15: 13), at the expense of one’s own prosperity, and even one’s own life.


In an attempt to diminish the significance of her novel, some contemporaries and critics of Beecher Stowe have called it sentimental. The fact is, this is a work of spiritual sobriety, far from any tinge of sentimentalism. Moreover, it is a work of Theology, in the most vibrant and practical way. As some strugglers of piety taught: «If you truly pray, you are a theologian»

Illustrations from the novel «Uncle Tom’s Cabin», Harriet Beecher Stowe (Dougherty, 1929) with permission of the Library of the University of Virginia Library. Archival photographs from the Civil War 1861-1865 from the website of the US House of Congress

[i] Theodicy –  noun, a vindication of the divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice, in establishing or allowing the existence of physical and moral evil.

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