Christians in the Cause
"In the world, but not of it" is a challenging position for Christians to occupy. It's also a challenging position for the writer of historical fiction. Tim Stafford, senior writer for CHRISTIANITY TODAY, maintains it well in his new novel The Stamp of Glory (Thomas Nelson), especially considering this is his first foray into the genre (his only other novel, A Thorn in the Heart, is a police mystery). Extensive research helps him step into the years preceding the Civil War; living this side of Civil Rights allows him to connect the crusade for emancipation to today's political climate.
Stafford says he was drawn to the abolitionist struggle because it is "the most important movement in American history, and also the most interesting." He also sees "eerie parallels" between abolitionists and current Christian social reformers, a connection he demonstrated in a recent CT article ("How God Won When Politics Failed," January 10, 2000). Abolitionists were told their sentiments were causing violence, a charge that has recently been leveled at pro-lifers, Baptists, and anyone who speaks out against homosexual practice. They were frustrated with both political parties of the day—Whig and Democratic—because neither would take a strong stand on the divisive issue. They tried, unsuccessfully, to enter their own candidate into the political arena. They felt like failures.
The main characters in The Stamp of Glory are not failures, but what ground they gain is hard fought. Thomas Nichols, the son of a Methodist plantation owner who unexpectedly freed his slaves in his will, first must conquer materialism, lust, and atheism, and even then ghosts from his slave-master past dog his every reforming stride. Theodore Weld, a passionate anti-slavery crusader with grand ideas for education, has the ghastly experience of watching many students at Cincinnati's fledgling Lane Seminary die of cholera. Arthur Tappan becomes the target of mob riots and death threats after years of being a highly respected merchant in New York. Instead of wondering why it took this country so long to end slavery (as someone too young to remember the Civil Rights movement might), the reader has to marvel that emancipation came at all.
Stafford's book succeeds in portraying abolition's lurching progress both inside the crusaders' minds and outside in the public world. Between passages detailing the often agonized thoughts of Nichols, Weld, and others, people like Charles Finney, Nat Turner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frederick Douglass intersect the action. The transitions between Stafford's narrative and his historical reporting are not always smooth, but it is very useful to see how these headline-makers influenced people who reaped the consequences of their actions. For example, Catherine, one of Nichols' freed slaves, and her friends are hunted after Turner's rebellion is reported in the local newspaper.
Unfortunately, the inclusion of so many people and events sometimes clouds the narrative, which is already complicated by the fact that it spans nearly 40 years. This tension is made obvious by two different descriptions of the book—the back cover calls it "the compelling story of the Nichols family," while Stafford, on Amazon.com, says it is "a novel about the abolitionist movement." Stafford strikes closer to the truth; the movement, in the abstract, is in some ways a stronger "character" than any of the book's human protagonists. This stands in contrast to the visceral, immediate confusion of a book like William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, where the characters don't understand their place in the sweep of history and readers can only guess. While Faulkner's characters move, often blindly, Stafford's tend instead to be moved, carried by the momentum of the anti-slavery campaign.
The Stamp of Glory is the first of a four-part "River of Freedom" series in which Stafford will focus on women's suffrage, prohibition, and civil rights. He says the books "are meant to chronicle the ways in which faith interacts with social justice." One hopes the characters in these novels will live in their changing worlds as fully as they are agents of that change. But as long as the future books convey the passion of Christians and the complexity of history as well as this one, they will help give perspective and energy to Christian social justice today.
* For background information, see:
CHRISTIAN HISTORY issue 62: Black Christianity before the Civil War
CH issue 20: Charles G. Finney
CH issue 33: Christianity and the Civil War, in which Stafford wrote on the abolitionists.
The PBS documentary "Africans in America" at www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia
Elesha can be reached at cheditor@ChristianityToday.com.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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