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Harriet Beecher Stowe, Spiritual Adventurer
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Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Library of Religious Biography (LRB))
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Library of Religious Biography (LRB))
Release Date
January 13, 2014
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The novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) became one of the 19th century's literary superstars with the publication of her most famous work, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book came into being first as a magazine serial and then as a 2-volume work published in 1852. Besides its status as one of the great anti-slavery polemics of its time, the extremely popular novel features a long cast of interesting characters, a wide geographical sweep, and extensive examples of the rhetorical debates that were common in the decade leading up to the Civil War.

Within a decade of publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe met President Lincoln at the White House. The legend developed that he said to her, upon their first encounter in 1862, "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" Whether Lincoln uttered these specific words (or made any similar observation) is unknown. Yet the anecdote does reveal the extent to which Stowe had already become a famous cultural spokesperson, She championed the American civil religion, articulated a conservative message of women's rights and motherhood, and a envisioned a Christian America unified around a strong embrace of Scripture. In short, Stowe gradually became a recognized cultural heavyweight with wide ranging political influence—one of the first American women to achieve that stature.

As great as her reputation was during her lifetime, Uncle Tom's Cabin began taking some critical hits with the advent of a new century. There arose a more modern temperament in literature that grimaced at the book's appeals to sentiment and faith. As a consequence, Stowe's masterpiece was relegated to the ash heap of literary history. But Stowe has been making a comeback among literary critics for a long time now, at least since the 1970s. Ironically, much of the credit for this goes to certain feminist scholars, including Ann Douglas and Jane Tompkins, who often have disparaged older forms of evangelical Christianity.

Only recently, however, have we been given a full treatment of Stowe's spiritual adventuring during an era noted as one of America's friskiest periods of religious awakening. With Nancy Koester's new "spiritual biography," we have the first full-scale attempt to outline Stowe's career and writings as spiritual phenomena, which they surely were. Koester's volume places Stowe within the context of a rapidly emerging religious milieu, and surrounds her with many of the key shapers of that culture. It also frames Stowe as a significant and influential voice shaping America's religious history in profound new ways.

Deep Religious Thinker

Everyone knows about Stowe's anti-slavery emphasis. Often forgotten, however, are the deep spiritual currents at work beneath it. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, a variety of characters have mystical experiences, and Scripture is sprinkled throughout. Tom seems to hear Eva's voice at times after her death, as in a dream. By the time she wrote the novel, Stowe was confirmed in her conviction that faith has supernatural elements, including the dreams and visions mentioned throughout the Old Testament prophetic books, the Gospels, and the Book of Acts. She believed, moreover, that both sexes could experience these phenomena: "I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions" (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17). She had written in letters of yearning to be "baptized in the Spirit," and she took a keen interest in the many variations and quirks of American Christianity.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe, Spiritual Adventurer