Presbyterians of the Past

The Theological Transition of Harriet Beecher Stowe

The name Harriet Beecher Stowe brings to mind an influential book in American history, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Whether President Lincoln’s comment when meeting the author is true or apocryphal, “You are the little lady that started this great war,” it is certainly true that her book accelerated abolitionist efforts to end slavery. But in addition to Cabin, Stowe wrote extensively for periodicals on subjects including personal experiences, religious-popular theology, and romance works, as well as other genres that would all be collected in 1896 in sixteen volumes titled The Writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe. A portion of her works are the New England novels that were written based on her experiences in Connecticut as the daughter of a minister. Titles within the series include The Minister’s Wooing (1859), The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), Oldtown Folks (1869), and Poganuc People (1878). Theology related subjects addressed include Calvinism and Arminianism, regeneration and salvation, the Puritan Sabbath, religion and government, and original sin. Over the course of her life Stowe moved from what she believed was Old Puritan Calvinism to Arminianism and membership in an emotionally more appealing Episcopal Church.

Her path to theological change was provided by the New England Theology. New England Theology is a specific vein of doctrine and not just any theology founded in New England. It evolved from the teaching of Jonathan Edwards through influential figures that included two of his students—Samuel Hopkins and Joseph Bellamy, as well as his own son Jonathan Edwards, Jr., and then culminated with the theological perspective of Nathaniel W. Taylor in the mid-nineteenth century. Fundamental to the later years of New England Theology was transition from the substitutionary view of the atonement—Christ died for sin and took its penalty upon himself as a necessary sacrifice, to the governmental view of the atonement that interpreted the death of Christ as an example of the seriousness of sin that inspires sinners to repent and live sacrificial lives for others. The emphasis of the former view is the sacrificial work of God; the emphasis of the latter is the sacrificial work of man.

In this post Stowe’s New England Novel Oldtown Folks will be assessed for its presentation of the New England Theology and its influence on her thinking. Page references are to the version published in volumes 9 and 10 of Stowe’s Writings, Riverside Edition, 1896.

But before Oldtown, some biographical information will show some of the influences on Stowe’s thinking. Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, June 14, 1811. Her father Lyman Beecher was a Congregational-Presbyterian minister trained in the New England Theology at Yale during the presidency of Timothy Dwight. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher, after being refused ordination by the Old School, was ordained by the New School Presbytery of Cincinnati, 1838. Her mother Roxana Foote Beecher died in 1816 when Harriet was but four years old. The next year her father married Harriet Porter who raised her stepdaughter until she moved to Hartford Female Seminary to live with her sister Catherine who oversaw the school. Two aspects of the seminary that were not normally in the curriculum for women were Latin and William Paley’s The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. Harriet married Calvin Stowe who was a faculty associate of her father at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. Harriet died July 1, 1896. The Stowes had seven children.

Stowe’s Oldtown Folks is a romance novel that tells the story of life in the village of Oldtown, Massachusetts. Woven into the tapestry of local color are the author’s experiences growing up in New England, assessment of contemporary issues, and most importantly, her theological views showing her religious transition. Some of her characters, such as Rev. Moses Stern, have names matching their theological-political-social attributes similar to the allegorical individuals in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In Stowe’s day, Pilgrim’s Progress was second only to the Bible in popularity, so it was common for writers to borrow Bunyan’s method. Rev. Stern is Mrs. Stowe’s unyielding proponent of Old Calvinism; thus, he was stern. The main character and narrator is Horace Holyoke. Two orphaned children, Harry and Tina, were adopted by separate families. Harry lived with a local alcoholic and his wife. Tina was taken in by a wretched woman named Miss Asphyxia (suffocating). The children fled their abusive environments and were given more agreeable homes. Oldtown is described as a “severe Puritanical village” (10:373). Horace’s grandmother is a “disciple of the sharpest and severest Calvinism” (10:428). The character of Rev. Moses Stern exemplifies, according to Stowe, the hard nature of the most inflexible Calvinism, but contrasted with Stern is the kinder, gentler, Rev. Mr. Avery who resides in a town called Cloudland. Avery’s theology was permeated with cheerfulness and hope. Another villain is Ellery Davenport with whom orphan Tina falls in love. They were married but Tina found out her husband had been living with a woman earlier in life. Tina and Ellery move to England and after a decade of marriage problems, Ellery dies in a duel. Tina was freed from her marriage.  The story continues with events stitched together in an episodic narrative. Oldtown Folks concludes with summaries of people and events to tie up loose ends. An aspect of Stowe’s New England Novels is they were originally written for serial publication, so each entry needed a cliff-hanger that encouraged readers to buy the next issue of the periodical and continue the story.

An example of theology in the novel is Miss Mehitable Rossiter who exemplified what Stowe believed was the continued anguish of heart and soul induced by Calvinism. Miss Mehitable’s concerns about salvation extended to her family members as she struggled with her sister Emily’s unbelief (10:247-250). In Stowe’s own life she worked to reconcile her experiences with what she had been taught about Calvinism. Miss Mehitable’s concerns about salvation reflects Stowe’s own doubts as she moved in steps from what she perceived to be “Old Calvinism,” to the encouraging aspects of “New Calvinism,” with her resolution ultimately found in the Episcopal Church and Arminian theology.

Stowe’s opposition to Calvinism is not only apparent in the positive light she casts on Arminian theology, but in her assessment of the political atmosphere of the day and its relevance to her theological past. Stowe believed that Calvinism found its basis and support in monarchical government and that once the ties to monarchy were broken successfully with the American Revolution, it was inevitable that Calvinism would begin to wane as a theologically acceptable system. So, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” could not abide belief in the sovereign God. For Stowe, divine sovereignty and the sovereignty of the earthly king went hand in hand, but her perspective on the British monarchy did not inhibit her from its episcopal church polity.

Arminian theology is presented in a positive light by Stowe in the character of Parson Lothrop. Lothrop’s theological background was Calvinism, but as he aged his views aligned more and more with his congenial personality (10:6). Generally, as Stowe changed from Old Calvinism to the New England theology, to Arminianism and the Episcopal Church, her fictional characters represent her own transition. The new theology is expressed in gregarious, kind, and friendly characters, but the Calvinist system, according to Stowe, yields characters who are stern and cold.

Parson Lothrop belonged to a numerous class in the third generation of Massachusetts clergy, commonly called Arminian—men in whom this insensible change had been wrought from the sharply defined and pronounced Calvinism of the early fathers. They were mostly scholarly, quiet men, of calm and philosophic temperament, who, having from infancy walked in all the traditions of a virtuous and pious education, and passed from grade to grade of their progress with irreproachable quiet and decorum, came to regard the spiritual struggles and conflicts, the wrestlings and tears, the fastings and temptations of their ancestors with a secret skepticism—to dwell on moralities, virtues, and decorums, rather than on those soul-stirring spiritual mysteries which still stood forth unquestioned and uncontradicted in their confessions of faith. (10:6)

Lothrop abandoned his Calvinist roots. Stowe presents the reverend as a selfless minister who faithfully visited the members of his church. On one occasion, as he was leaving his home to call on a bereaved member, his wife thought to herself that even though he was not in the Church of England, he “was every way fitted to adorn it had he only been there.” (10:11) Stowe’s description of Lothrop showed the changes taking place in the religious life of New England and the transition in Stowe’s thinking as she moved from Calvinism to what she believed was the kinder and gentler Arminian soteriology.

However, Stowe’s assessment of the Calvinists of old was not completely negative because she credited them with exemplary pious living even though she thought it was overshadowed by dark doctrine. Calvinists of New England’s past were obsessed with the quest for truth. Truth at any cost was the goal of New Englanders, according to Stowe, but truth which was particularly grim, dark, and duty oriented suited them best. Before Stowe presented her characterization of Horace Holyoke’s grandmother, she commented through him that New Englanders…

never expected to find truth agreeable. Nothing in their experience of life had ever prepared them to think it would be so. Their investigations were made with the courage of the man who hopes little, but determines to know the worst of his affairs. They wanted no smoke of incense to blind them, and no soft opiates of pictures and music to lull them; for what they were after was truth, and not happiness, and they valued duty far higher than enjoyment. The underlying foundation of life, therefore, in New England, was one of profound, unutterable, and therefore unuttered, melancholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority of human beings, an inconceivable misfortune. (10:421)

Stowe’s life was one marked by “unuttered melancholy.” Her husband Calvin was afflicted with melancholia (depression). She had a son who suffered from addiction and may have committed suicide at sea. Another son drowned in the Connecticut River. Then there was a child that died of cholera during an epidemic in Cincinnati. One of her brothers and a half-brother both committed suicide. A daughter died at the age of forty after years of morphine addiction. These are just a sample of tragedies suffered by Mrs. Stowe. How much her antipathy to Calvinism is based on what she believed was a stern, unyielding God, is not clear, but even though the theology of Scripture is truth that is to be believed—experiences can obviously affect one’s perception of the truth. Was her resentment of the sovereignty of God an expression of disappointments suffered in life because he allowed the tragedies to occur?

One of the characters introduced in Oldtown Folks is the local ner-do-well, jack-of-all-trades, and free offeror of unwanted opinions, Sam Lawson. As Mrs. Stowe prepared for the introduction of Lawson, she said that every “New England village, if you only think of it, must have its do-nothing as regularly as it has its school-house or meeting-house.” (10:32) Sam was skilled at some trades and even had a blacksmith shop. Sometimes, when Sam felt moved, he would open the shop for business and shoe a horse or two. But Sam’s forte was doing nothing while he talked endlessly about something. On one occasion, when asked his opinion of Parson Simpson’s sermon, Sam opined.

“Wal,” said Sam, leaning over the fire, with his long, bony hands alternately raised to catch the warmth, and then dropped with an utter laxness, when the warmth becomes too pronounced, “Parson Simpson’s a smart man; but I tell ye, it’s kind o’ discouragin’. Why, he said our state and condition by natur’ was just like this. We was clear down in a well fifty feet deep, and the sides all round nothin’ but glare ice; but we was under immediate obligations to get out, cause we was free, voluntary agents. But nobody ever had got out, and nobody would, unless the Lord reached down and took ’em. And whether he would or not nobody could tell; it was all sovereignty. He said there wa’n’t one in a hundred—not one in a thousand—not one in ten thousand—that would be saved. Lordy massy, says I to myself, ef that’s so, they’re any of ’em welcome to my chance. And so I kin o’ris up and come out, ’cause I’d got a pretty long walk home, and I wanted to go round by South Pond, and inquire about Aunt Sally Morse’s toothache.” (10:83-84)

Do-nothing Sam says nothing specifically about Calvinism, but it is clear that a caricature of Calvinism is on his mind because Sam’s comments include the sovereign act of God in salvation. At this point Sam could have been shown Psalm 40:2 by an editor of Stowe’s narrative, “He brought me out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.” Substitute a glare-ice well for miry clay, and the sovereign grace of God would bring sense to Sam’s conundrum as the Holy Spirit called him and he embraced the gospel, but this was not in Stowe’s plan as she left behind the sovereign Lord of salvation and moved along the New England Theology path to Arminianism. Sam believed the message of Parson Simpson was absurd, the odds against Sam were tremendous, and he figured he was wasting his time, so he left to go about other business. The theology presented by Sam Lawson represents Stowe’s perception of Old Calvinism: one is a sinner, salvation is needed, the grace of Christ is the answer, but the sinner cannot do anything, so he must wait, wait, wait, and wait some more for God to work.

Rev. Avery is introduced by Stowe as an enlightened and modern minister in the village of Cloudland. Horace Holyoke described Avery’s preaching as manly preaching involving the full use of one’s reasoning abilities. Central to Avery’s theology was the free agency of man. Narrator Horace said that every line of Avery’s sermons proclaimed, “you are free, and you are able,” and as a  result of this truth he emphasized the personal responsibility that each one of his listener’s bears (11:59). Horace notes the difficulties of Avery’s position.

Of course, as a Calvinist, he found food for abundant discourse in reconciling this absolute freedom of man with those declarations in the standards of the Church which assert the absolute government of God over all his creatures and all their actions. But the cheerfulness and vigor with which he drove and interpreted and hammered in the most contradictory statements, when they came in the way of his favorite ideas, was really quite inspiring. (11:59)

Stowe’s use of “all his creatures and all their actions” from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 11, shows her familiarity with the standard which likely was learned as a child. The issue raised by Stowe’s Rev. Avery is whether or not one can be a Calvinist and believe in the total and complete free agency of man. God is either sovereign and acts sovereignly, as Calvinism affirms, or God is not sovereign in salvation and the application of redemption comes through the agency of man. To put it simply, Avery believed he was a professing Calvinist, but his practice was Arminian.

In conclusion, at the time of the writing of Oldtown Folks, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s growing dissatisfaction with Calvinism, whether it was the Old Calvinism of New England Puritanism or even the more friendly New Calvinism of New England and Yale, had developed to the point where she broke with their teachings. For her, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty was a rigid and harsh teaching that could no longer be accepted by citizens of the United States of America. The common person must no longer accept the monarchical rule of God; there is neither a king in New England nor one in heaven. For Stowe, Calvinism, in any form was no longer pleasing, but she thought that Arminianism was acceptable to the minds of the common New Englander. She found the Arminian soteriology of the Episcopal Church agreeable. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s presentation of New England Puritanism, Calvinism in general, the New England theology, and Arminianism in her popular fiction influenced the thinking of many of her readers and contributed to the depreciation of Calvinism in her time. Should the Reformed write more theological fiction?

Barry Waugh


Notes—Finding a header image was tough, so the one given is not the right era but it is the quaint village of Annisquam, Gloucester, in Massachusetts. The editions of Stowe’s works can be confusing, but several copies of her writing are available both as the set of works and individual volumes on Internet Archive. The biography used for this post was Joan D. Hedrick’s thorough account of Stowe’s life, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, which was published in New York by Oxford University Press, 1994. With regard to the views of the atonement, see J. Gresham Machen’s, “The Bible’s View of the Atonement,” The Presbyterian Guardian, January 10, 1935, pages 3-5. Two good but possibly dated books about the New England Theology are Frank H. Foster, A Genetic History of the New England Theology, New York: Russell & Russell, 1963, and Charles H. Foster, The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe and New England Puritanism, Durham: Duke University Press, 1954. Also, A. C. Guelzo’s “New England Theology (1750-1850),” in Dictionary of Christianity in America, 1990, editors D. G. Reid, R. D. Linder, B. L. Shelley, and H. S. Stout, IVP, provides a brief survey of the era delimited in the title, and Guelzo’s later work with Douglas A. Sweeney is a collection of sermons titled, The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2006.

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