On Harriet Beecher Stowe’s divine inspiration

Catherine Brekus describes the genesis of one of the most influential books in history.



Catherine Brekus describes the genesis of one of the most influential books in history.


Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter of one of the most prominent ministers in New England, Lyman Beecher. He was a Congregationalist with definitely a Calvinist bent. And she and all of her siblings grew up in a very Christian household, but they – all of them, all the siblings found it very hard to accept their father’s Christianity, which they found very severe. And so all of the Beecher siblings ended up trying to carve out a different kind of Christianity.

For Harriet, she became convinced that the central message of Christianity was Christ suffering on the cross, and Christ’s love for sinners. And she saw that love as being so strong that it could eradicate all the evil in the world. She claims that she had a vision around 1843 when one of her siblings committed suicide. He seems to have been in so much despair about his own religious struggles that he took his life. And in the wake of that, she claimed to have a kind of second conversion in which she then understood that God was love. And she saw a vision of a slave man being whipped, who was a sort of Christ-figure. And in her vision she saw two black men whipping him to death and a cruel white master watching. Later she claimed that was the genesis for the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

She actually claimed that she had not written Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And by that she meant she actually picked up the pen, but she claimed that it had come to her as a series of visions, and that the book had been literally inspired by God. That she was a kind of instrument of God, and God was writing that book through her.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin features two characters who are Christ figures. One is Uncle Tom, a slave, and the other is Little Eva, who’s a child. And this was a very radical statement to make – that the salvific power in Christianity comes from the weak, it comes from children, it comes from the oppressed. She did not believe that Christianity was about the power that ministers had or that elites had, but that the power of Christianity lay in the lowly people.