The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabinhad an immense impact on the abolitionist movement to end slavery. Her famous novel even caught the attention of Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly said to her, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” The fame and influence Uncle Tom’s Cabinhad and continues to have can definitely be accredited to its anti-slavery message. However, Stowe had another goal in creating this acclaimed novel. For Stowe, more crucial than ending slavery was in fact the salvation of her readers. Jane Tompkins’ piece of scholarly criticism, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabinand the Politics of Literary History,” works to defend Stowe’s sentimental novel. Because of the 19th century audience Stowe was appealing to, her strong Christian position is supposed to move her readers to rise up against slavery. Tompkins notes, “Reality, in Stowe’s view, cannot be changed by manipulating the physical environment; it can only be changed by conversion in the spirit because it is the spirit alone that is finally real” (564). Stowe strives to divulge the individual’s spirituality rather than their political ideals, for in her view, God is the only one who can influence a nation to end slavery. To make her message clear, Stowe uses characters like Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird, Eva, and Uncle Tom, to demonstrate how biblical truth and Christ’s love and sympathy can transform the present reality of slavery. Tompkins again argues that Stowe “recommends, not specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements, but rather a change of the heart” (564). Stowe wants to see an end to slavery, but more importantly, she wants her readers to be transformed from the inside out. Once a person’s heart is focused on God, their outward actions will line up with Christian morals, and thus fight to end to slavery.
In the story it’s obvious that both Eva and Uncle Tom’s roles are to imitate who Jesus is. Eva and Tom’s embodiments of Christ are two important ways we physically see Christ’s love and sympathy for others. But, another key way characters show love for others and opposition towards slavery is through the Bible. Both Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird are faithful Christians who closely cling to the truth of God rather than getting wrapped up in worldly obligations. When Mrs. Shelby discovers, through a conversation with her husband, that he plans to sell Tom and young Harry to a slave trader, she is furious. It is not just because she loves and admires both of these faithful slaves, but it is due to her Christian conviction that Mrs. Shelby is disturbed by her husband’s actions. It is now, facing the tragedy that slavery brings to families, when Mrs. Shelby realizes, “It is a sin to hold a slave under law like ours,–I always felt it was…I thought so still more after I joined the church; but I thought I could gild it over…fool that I was!” (Stowe 41). Stowe wants her audience to know that even when a slave owner treats his/her property with respect and care, it doesn’t mean what they are doing is right, especially in the eyes of God. Mr. and Mrs. Shelby have been kind slave owners, yet now she realizes that their kindness doesn’t change anything for Harry and Tom. Though Mrs. Shelby cannot convince her husband to retract his sale of their two slaves, she is able to indirectly set Eliza and Harry free. She distracts the slave trader and is able to give Eliza and her son time to run away. Once Mrs. Shelby comes to understand that the Bible and God are against slavery, she does everything in her power (which is little compared to her husband) to set her slaves free.
With the help of Mrs. Shelby stalling Mr. Haley, Eliza and Harry successfully run away and find refuge at the Bird family residence. Prior to the mother and son’s arrival, Mrs. Bird has a convicting conversation with her husband, a senator of Ohio. They disagree on whether they should abide by the law or abide by the Word, and–purposefully done by Stowe–the Bible wins. The senator has just returned from a meeting about the fugitive slave law, and Mrs. Bird insists that she won’t obey this law. She must follow her bible, which asks her to take care of the poor and hungry. To this, the senator tells her that “doing so would involve a great public evil–” but Mrs. Bird interrupts, “Obeying God never brings on public evils. I know it can’t. It’s always safest, all round, to do as Hebids us” (Stowe 83). She is firm in her faith and will go against the law to obey God; to do as He commands should be their highest obligation. Mrs. Bird challenges her husband to consider what he would do if a woman knocked on their door, would he turn her away? When the Birds welcome Eliza and Harry into their house, the reader knows that Mrs. Bird has radically influenced her husband. Tompkins’ criticism acknowledges this as well as she notes that Stowe rests “her case, absolutely, on the saving power of Christian love and on the sanctity of motherhood and the family” (Tompkins 575). Though Mr. Bird is a powerful politician, Stowe highlights that true power comes from God’s love. This power is exemplified through Mrs. Bird’s internalized morals and the compassion she has for the runaway slaves. It is quite clear that if it weren’t for Mrs. Bird’s biblical and Christian influence on her husband, Eliza and Harry may not have found safety in their home.
Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird demonstrate a platform of biblical truth that society should stand on–and more importantly act on–in the 19th century. God has called His people to love one another and to clothe and feed the poor. Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird play powerful roles as two white women who lean on their faith to direct their decisions. Their hearts reflect the outward actions they take, such as helping slaves and convincing their husbands to do the same. Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird are pivotal characters that show how Christian morals are not only higher than worldly law and obligations, but that internalizing these biblical morals is a powerful tool that can influence those around you to fight slavery.
Unlike the two previous characters, Stowe designs Eva St. Clare and Uncle Tom to be imitations of Christ. The young child and the old slave have profound impacts on those around them simply by showing their love and endurance. But, ultimately it is their death that truly brings people to Christ. Eva gathers the servants and members of her father’s house to speak to them all prior to her passing. It’s evident that Eva fervently loves everyone in her life, however we specifically see a profound transformation–due to Eva’s Christ-like sympathies and love–in Topsy, Miss Ophelia, and her father. Arguably Eva’s most direct influence is on Topsy, who is forever changed by Eva and Jesus’ love. Topsy declares to Eva that she can’t ever be good and no one likes her because she is black. Miss Ophelia would “soon have a toad touch her” (Stowe 268) than have Topsy lay a hand on her. To this, Eva bursts out “Ilove you…don’t you know that Jesus loves all alike? He is just as willing to love you, as me” (Stowe 268). Topsy, an enslaved, wicked, traumatized child, has never been loved or taught of Jesus’ love. Stowe is showing us that true freedom doesn’t come from emancipation, but more crucial is the freedom God gives to his children. Tears stream down Topsy’s face and “a ray of real belief, a ray of heavenly love, had penetrated the darkness of her heathen soul!” (Stowe 268). Up until this interaction with Eva, Topsy is seen as a lost cause, but Stowe explicitly displays the loving grace of God through Eva, which saves Topsy’s soul. Topsy’s transformation, unfortunately, does not end slavery. But through Topsy, Stowe achieves her goal of first changing the heart; “By giving Topsy her love, Eva initiates a process of redemption whose power, transmitted from heart to heart, can change the entire world” (Tompkins 562). Once again, it is not by man’s politics and laws that a shift will occur, rather the love Christ freely gives should be shared throughout the nation, for that is when inward transformation will translate to outward progress.
Stowe purposefully uses Topsy to impact Miss Ophelia, for this demonstrates how a changed christianized heart begins to have a ripple effect on the world. Miss Ophelia and Mr. St. Clare overhear Eva and Topsy’s conversation. Watching how Eva treats and loves Topsy makes Miss Ophelia envious of the child’s loving heart, she tells St. Clare that Eva is “no more than Christ-like…I wish I were like her. She might teach me a lesson” (Stowe 269). Then, just as Jesus’ death on the cross has saved many souls, Eva’s death makes Miss Ophelia strive to be more like her. Miss Ophelia comes to realize, through Eva, that the love of Christ surpasses worldly judgements and flesh’s own prejudices. She tells Topsy, “I can love you…I hope I’ve learnt something of the love of Christ from her. I can love you” (Stowe 283). Because Miss Ophelia loves Topsy, it’s evident that she has dropped her judgements of black people. Witnessing Eva’s Christ-like love and sympathy for Topsy changes the way Miss Ophelia feels about the troubled slave. She ends up buying the child in order to set her free in the North. It is because of Eva’s impact on Miss Ophelia that Topsy is set free. Stowe wants her audience to see how Christ (shown through Eva) \changes a person’s heart, which in turn changes the way they view slavery.
The way Miss Ophelia is initially skeptical of black people is similar to how Mr. St. Clare is skeptical of Christianity. His salvation comes through a combination of the death of his beloved daughter and him conversing with Tom about faith. Eva gathers the St. Clare household together to speak to everyone about their souls; she pleads to them, “I want you to remember that there is a beautiful world, where Jesus is…it is for you, as much as me…if you want to go there, you must not live idle, carless, thoughtless lives. You must be Christians” (Stowe 274). Her plea sinks deep in her father’s heart as he begins to contemplate Christianity and God. She insists that people need to live caring and meaningful lives, which is not how her father is living; a life prolonging the institution of slavery. Mr. St. Clare offers to read the bible to Tom, and it is after reading scripture from Matthew 25 when the man realizes his daughter “had set her little simple soul on a good work for [him]” (Stowe 296). It is true that St. Clare is a good man, but Jesus calls His people to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty so that those in need will be guided to God and salvation (Matthew 25: 31-45). Like Eva said, you mustn’t live idle and careless lives, but rather live for the glory of God, and then he will see you in heaven. St. Clare believes the only way to be a Christian, in his present society, is to “throw the whole weight of his being against the monstrous system of injustice that lies at the foundation of all society” (Stowe 296). This is a perfect example of Stowe’s main purpose for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Eva’s embodiment of Christ and her Christ-like death has transformed St. Clare’s heart, now not only is he a believer, but he sees the cruelty of slavery. His goal is to first set his slaves free, but perhaps someday he “can do something for a whole class; something to save my country” (Stowe 297). Saving America from slavery may seem like a dramatic and impossible feat for one man to accomplish on his own, but Stowe’s point here isto display the dramatic effect of what God’s love does, it is, what Tompkins describes as, “a continual reenactment of the sacred drama of redemption” (566). Because Mr. St. Clare’s life has been redeemed by the saving power of Jesus, he is ready and motivated to go out and change the present condition of slavery in America. Without the inward transformation of St. Clare’s soul, he would not have outwardly committed to the goal of ending slavery.
The finale of Uncle Tom’s Cabinis the death of Uncle Tom. Simon Legree, Tom’s slave owner, is so infuriated that Tom will not reveal the whereabouts of two slaves that he insists on killing Tom. However, Tom is not scared because he is destined for eternal life in heaven. Rather than being frightened, Tom is concerned for his master’s soul and pleas to him, “don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than ‘t will me…my troubles will be over soon; but if ye don’t repent, yours won’t neverend!” (Stowe 386). Some may see Uncle Tom as staying submissive to his master until the end, but Stowe asks the reader to see Tom, like Eva, as an embodiment of Christ, who seeks others’ salvations until he breathes his last. Though he does not succeed in saving Legree’s soul, his unwavering faith and love transforms others who encounter Tom during his final moments.
It is not until Uncle Tom’s death where Stowe unapologetically reveals “the true goal of [her] rhetorical undertaking is nothing less than the institution of the kingdom of heaven on earth” (Tompkins 572). Tom’s death requires readers to witness earth and heaven colliding. Though a man enslaved his whole life Tom lived freely, for “Who,–who,–who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Stowe 392) he asks moments before departing from this life. Tom’s being was dedicated to serving, worshiping, and obeying God. Because of this, he has the final victory; eternity in heaven. Not only does Tom’s Christ-like death signify that Jesus’ sacrifice is the “finale” of Stowe’s novel, the story goes on to show just how salvation can diminish slavery. First, Sambo and Quimbo (Legree’s overseers) discover the power of salvation through Tom. They ask the dying man who Jesus is, and so Tom retells the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Tom is “willing to bar’ all if it’ll bring ye to Christ,” he prays, “give me these two more souls” (Stowe 388). Thus, Sambo and Quimbo believe and Tom’s prayer is answered. Again, Stowe shows the sacrificial embodiment of Christ, in which Tom will die in order to see lost souls go to heaven.
Throughout his life Tom seeks others’ salvation, yet it is in his final days where we see his faithful servitude come to fruition. After this successful interaction with Sambo and Quimbo, young master George Shelby arrives at the plantation, moments before Tom dies. George is wildly impacted by his former slave’s death. The words “What a thing it is to be a Christian!” (Stowe 392) stick with George, and he prays to God, “Witness, eternal God…from this hour, I will do what one man can to drive out this curse of slavery from my land!” (Stowe 393). Because of Uncle Tom, George Shelby is committed to living a life that serves God, and his first mission in doing so is to set his slaves free. Again, Stowe is expressing that George’s decision to free his slaves is a byproduct of his changed, Christianized heart. He does not go to his plantation and ask for praise nor thanks for freeing his slaves, rather he points back to Christ and tells them to let “Uncle Tom’s Cabin…be a memorial to put you all in a mind to…be as honest and faithful and Christian as he was” (Stowe 410). George is happy to free his slaves, but what is more important to him is that they all live their lives in accordance with Christ.
There is no doubt that Stowe intended to send a political message of ending slavery when she released the acclaimed novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Contrary to what some readers of today might think, Christianity was not simply a tool to appeal to a large 19th century audience, but rather Christianity was the sole reason Stowe wrote this book. She creates characters like Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird, who know the bible, to explain how God’s Word judges the institution of slavery. Through these two women, the audience sees that Christians are called to serve those enslaved, not the other way around. Furthermore, Stowe incorporates actual Christ-like figures as an example of what Jesus did for humanity when he died on the cross. It is her ultimate goal for readers to understand that Jesus can change ones heart, which can impact another, which can influence a nation, and hopefully end the institution of slavery all together. As much as Stowe hates slavery, it philosophically cannot be her only objective, because if slavery were abolished by means of politics and law, “the moral conditions that produced slavery in the first place would continue in force” (Tompkins 564). Thus, Stowe’s end goal is an inward transformation of the individual soul, for it is through Christ that slavery will see its demise.
Joswick, Thomas P. “‘The Crown Without the Conflict’: Religious Values and Moral Reasoning in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction. University of California Press, Dec. 1984.
Evans, Curtis. “‘The Chief Glory of God [Is] in Self-Denying, Suffering Love!’: True Religion in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The Journal of Religion. The University of Chicago Press, Oct. 2012.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin.Edited by Elizabeth Ammons, W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2018.
Tompkins, Jane P. “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, third Norton critical edition, 2018, pp. 554-576.