Tim Stafford's Stamp of Glory is the first in a four-part series of novels published by Thomas Nelson Publishers. "Put together, these books are meant to chronicle the ways in which faith interacts with social justice," says Stafford. "I consider abolition the most important movement in American history, and also the most interesting, full of drama and tragic irony. The movement sprang out of Christian revival, so it has many insights to lend Christians who want their faith to make a difference today. Politics, protest, violence, race, the question of how 'Christian' America can be and should be—these topics are all front and center." Subsequent novels will chronicle the woman suffrage, prohibition, and civil rights movements.

1824: Liberty to the Captives

In the cold, wet months of the winter of 1824, Martin Nichols withered and failed to eat. He showed no signs of disease, no fever or diarrhea, but the sickness cut into him like a north wind. He lost his taste for food, and his sparrowlike limbs grew daintier, his skin more like parchment. In this sickness old Black Mary, the keeper of the house and ruling mother for all the slaves, watched over Nichols night and day, spooning food into his mouth, wiping his chin. He lay like a doll in his mahogany bed, lost in its coarse, woven blankets. She would put one vast hand on the small of his back, lifting him upward toward the teaspoon she wielded in her other hand. When he utterly refused to eat, she occupied the kitchen, concocting delicacies to tempt him toward life. The house was filled with aromas then, as she stewed and spiced the venison with her best magic. Still he had no appetite and would only take a spoonful and then turn his head away. She told him sternly he must eat, but he did not.

Nichols was a planter near Triana, where the broad plain of the Tennessee River created bottomland for cotton. Nichols was old; his body had shrunk down to a frail, childlike frame with wrinkled, yellow skin stretched over the bones. Once he had been a strong, mean-souled Caesar, carving the plantation out of wilderness. Now his sons kept the farm without consulting him about it. Nobody paid much attention to the old man except the house slaves, some of whom were nearly as old as he was, and looked older. Nichols had brought them with him when he came from South Carolina twelve years before, when the country was opening up to settlement. They took their worth from that: the original settlers of north Alabama, Carolinians to the day they died. The head of the field hands said, those house servants don't know they are Negroes.

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Nichols kept his bed by the window, so he could see every hint of life on the compound below. He watched the Negroes, mostly. You could rarely find his sons at home. They were out and about, riding and hunting and visiting their reckless friends. Nichols's daughter, too, was usually gone to Huntsville, where she could find society. Black Mary sat with the old man in his cold and forlorn room, unchanged since his wife had died, the French paper darkened with patches of creeping mildew. Mary listened as he pronounced doom on everything and everyone, particularly his sons.

"They're draining it," he said in a high, raspy voice, referring to the value of the land he had bought and partly cleared. "All the labor of my hands is draining away. Mark me, you'll be left with nothing." If you had overheard him you would have thought he expected Mary to feel the same alarm he did. But in reality she was only a slave, not someone he could treat with feelings, even if she did know and understand him more than any of his own flesh and blood.

Any time bad news had to be given the old man, his oldest son, Martin, Jr., would get Mary to tell it. Somehow she could get the old man to see the will of God in unpleasant matters. Nichols was a pious Methodist, though there was no Methodist church in Triana. He couldn't abide the Presbyterians or the Baptists, so went to no church at all. Yet he remained a Methodist, firmly.

Every day Nichols told Mary to send for the Methodist minister in Huntsville. Go now, go now, get the preacher. She said, right away, yessir, she would do it. He would hear her toiling down the stairs, breathing hard. Each step took half a minute; he would listen to the familiar squeak of each floorboard and grow furious knowing she could ignore his orders. After she had gone his mind would wander, however, and he forgot his need. The next day he would remember in a spasm of anxiety and ask again. She said the same thing, yessir, she would do it, right away.

In reality the minister had already come, riding into the yard on a frozen January morning, his nag's hooves making hard, metallic raps on the stiff ground. He had glanced at the old man with his practiced eye and knew he was not yet ready to go.

"When I'm needed, send word for me," he told Martin, Jr., and the young man understood. It was a day's ride to the plantation from town and back; the minister could not come until death was imminent.

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The old slave Mary did not tell this to the old man; there was no need. "The preacher will come," she told him. "Don't you worry. He is a good man, that one. He will surely come."

Nichols was afraid to die, not that he doubted in the least that he would be united with his Savior when he awoke, but that he felt alone. None of his children had professed religion. He wanted to talk with someone who knew what he was talking about, and it would never have occurred to him that Mary qualified. He had that peculiar blindness of slaveholders: he would talk with Mary about his land, his children, his departed wife with an intimacy that no neighbor would ever gain, yet he thought of these conversations as no conversation at all, but more like thinking out loud to himself. He was, by his own accounting, quite alone at the end.

Mary noticed his cough in the late afternoon. A succulent fruitiness had replaced the ordinary dry hack, and when Mary put her hand to Nichols's forehead she found it warm and moist as a July afternoon. Mary sighed and shook her head. "What are we going to do with you?" she said, as though speaking to a child, and then turned to go downstairs.

She was not afraid of death, she had nursed it a great deal, and as far as she was concerned Martin Nichols was only one more puny man before the awesomeness of God. She was a Christian and, regardless of what she might think of Nichols's character, wanted to well guide him over the river. She could let go of this old man, to whom life had bound her, only when he was safe in the Savior's arms.

Descending the stairs she heard the rain hammering against the windows, as it had all afternoon. Martin the son was in the library, his feet up to the fire, his face sulky and mean. Even for him the weather was too wet, and being trapped inside left him restless and moody. Mary noted the squeezed lemons, the sugar, and the rum by the fire near his feet. All his father's threats and imprecations were no longer able to control his drinking in the house. She stood in the doorway, humming under her breath, waiting for some time before he noticed her.

"What's the matter?" he asked loudly. "Something wrong, Mary?""There is maybe," she said. "Your father has a bit of the fever."

Martin sat up in his chair. "So?" he said.

"You know, he is pretty weak, and sometimes when a man is puny the fever can take him quickly."

Martin picked up his glass, which was on the floor by his chair, and had a sip of its liquor. He was a strong, stocky man, thick waisted. His hair hung down long and uncombed onto his neck. "I'm sure you know how to treat a fever, Mary, as well as any doctor."

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"Yes, Master Martin," she said. "I do. But your father wanted the preacher to come, you know."

He looked at her, scowling. "Mary, you don't expect me to go out in this weather!"

"No, Master," she said stubbornly, "I don't expect. I just thought you would want to know." She turned her large, thick body slowly, like a heavy ship tacking into the wind, and began out of the room.

"Mary," he said, and she stopped. "Did the fever just come on?"

"It just did," she said, turning back to him but not letting him see her eyes.

"Don't you think it might pass?"

"It might."

"Then let's wait a little longer. Even if I got to Huntsville in this rain, the preacher wouldn't come before the morning."

"The river might be up," she said.

"That's true," he said. "Then I'd be stuck there in town and no help to you either. Let's wait. I'll send Brady up to help you.

"Brady was the youngest son. Ten years old, he ran wild on the plantation and had never gone to school. His mother had died at his birth, so Mary had raised him, if anyone had. He came upstairs and sat in a chair in the old man's room. He was towheaded and impatient like all the Nicholses. After Brady had bothered Mary with a dozen questions and kicked at the wall half a hundred times she sent him off to get the dinner bell for her. She said she would use it to call him if she needed him.

Mary sat by the sleeping old man, wiping his sweat with a cloth. The rain continued to pound. Late in the evening Martin came in, yawning. He turned up the light and looked closely at his father's sweat-beaded face, keeping his hands at his sides, not touching the old man. "He looks all right," he said. "He'll be fine, don't you think, Mary? Just a passing fever from this damp air."

She responded with a grunt that could pass for anything.

Martin sat down in the chair that Brady had used. "I'm going to go to bed, Mary. If anything happens in the night, you call me. If he's bad in the morning, I'll go get the preacher."

"If he goes that way, he won't need a preacher. Except for a funeral."

He scowled at her. "Listen to that rain. Now Mary, you can stop looking at me that way. I am not going out for an old man's whim. The preacher won't come now anyway. Methodist though he be, he is not a complete fool."

"The man said he would come when it was time."

"Well, how do you know it is time? Do you think I can go and say, 'Reverend, come on with me, let's swim the creek in this storm because an old black woman says it is time'? Do you think I can say that?"

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Mary did not answer him. The rain sounded like sand being thrown violently against the house."

Well, I am not going to say that. I am not going to ride to Huntsville in this rain in the dark. On a fool's errand."

"That's right," Mary said finally. "You get some sleep, Master." She had that ability, to go along with a master's authority yet reserve the judgment of her own mind.

This aggravated Martin, and he could not help himself; he still tried to win the argument. "If he is going to pass on, the preacher cannot stop it. Why does he want the preacher? The man has no power over life and death."

She grunted assent. "That's right. Your father just wanted to talk, you know."

"He can't talk anyway. Now can he?"

"No, Master. He hasn't got any talk in him just now."Martin stood up and took a long, silent, clinical look at his father. "He looks all right to me," he said, and went out. Continued on next pageReprinted with permission of Thomas Nelson Publishers.