Harriet Beecher Stowe and the 1849 Cholera Pandemic

Harriet+Beecher+Stowe+722

Nancy Koester, a writer and historian, is the author of an informative religious history of Harriett Beecher Stowe titled Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life.  If you are interested in how Stowe’s faith informed her activism, I recommend Nancy’s book. See our interview with Koester here.

In her recent piece at The Christian Post, Koester discusses how Stowe dealt with the death of her son Charley during Cincinnati’s 1849 cholera epidemic.

Here is a taste:

…cholera came to town in January 1849.  It started among the poor. African Americans and immigrants often lived in cramped quarters, with poor sanitation.  They suffered disproportionately then as now. 

But by late spring the disease was spreading.  Calvin was out of town, so Harriet wrote often. Doctors were getting “used up,” she said. There weren’t enough hearses to haul away the bodies, so farm wagons and furniture trucks were used.  On the streets people burned coal fires, laced with lime and Sulphur to combat the miasma.  One hundred and sixteen people died in a day.  Although the mayor proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, the bars were so packed that drinkers went out to the streets and imbibed next to coffins awaiting transport.

Then Charley got sick….

Read the entire piece here.

The Beechers

Harriet+Beecher+Stowe+722

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Walter Woodward, the Connecticut State Historian, discusses the most accomplished family in Connecticut history.  A taste:

The son of a New Haven blacksmith, Lyman Beecher (1775 – 1863) became one of America’s most influential Second Great Awakening ministers while fathering 13 children who helped profoundly transform 19th-century America’s views on slavery, education, women’s rights, and religion. Beecher himself was a complex figure: though virulent in his anti-Catholicism, he was co-founder of the American Temperance Society and an outspoken anti-slavery voice who modeled the concept of passionate advocacy for his children, many of whom followed in his footsteps.

All seven of Lyman Beecher’s sons who survived to adulthood became ministers and anti-slavery advocates. Edward (1803 – 1895) organized the first anti-slavery society in Illinois. Charles (1815 – 1900) moved to Florida at war’s end to minister to newly freed slaves.

Read the rest here.

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

The Author’s Corner with Nancy Koester

Nancy Koester holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Luther Seminary and currently lives in St. Paul, MN. This interview is based on her new book, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, January 2014).

JF: What led you to write Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life? 

NK: I’ve always been fascinated by the anti-slavery movement, especially the contributions of women. In a conversation with an editor, I learned that Eerdmans Publishing Co. wanted a volume on Harriet Beecher Stowe for their “Library of Religious Biography.” They wanted a book that would work more deeply with Stowe’s religious faith than some of the existing biographies. I followed up with a will!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life?

NK: Stowe’s fight against slavery and her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, expressed the moral vision of New England Calvinism: a society reflecting the love of God. But after she was a famous author, the death of her unconverted son made her question her inherited Calvinism, leading her on a quest through spiritualism to the Communion of Saints.

JF: Why do we need to read Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life? 

NK: Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed history by turning public opinion against slavery. To know Stowe’s life story is to enter into defining conflict of our country, and also to explore some fascinating byways of 19th century life. Readers have told me that as the story unfolds, Harriet becomes real to them, and seems to remain with them long after they close the book.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

NK: When I was growing up, my parents took me to historic sites, and gave me books to read about American history. History has always seemed alive to me, and (paraphrasing Lincoln) I am almostready to say that this is probably true: time travel is possible if you have a disciplined imagination.

JF: What is your next project?

NK: Right now I am revising and expanding my Fortress Introduction to the History of Christianity in the U.S. After that, I hope to write a biography of Sojourner Truth. I love writing biographies, because it is rewarding to get to know someone from the past as deeply as you can.

JF: Thanks, Nancy

Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner. 

Reviewing "The Abolitionists"

A couple of days ago I did a post at The Anxious Bench on the new PBS three-part series on abolitionism.  It focuses on the lives of five prominent nineteenth-century opponents of slavery: Frederick Douglass, Angelina Grimke, John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriett Beecher Stowe.

Over at The Junto, Jonathan Wilson and Ken Owen (with whom I had an invigorating conversation this weekend in New Orleans about the American Revolution in Pennsylvania) review the series

They are not very impressed.

Here is a taste of Wilson’s analysis:

So Part I of The Abolitionists leaves a lot to be desired. But I’m still thinking of using it in my course. Mostly, a good teacher should be able to fill in the gaps. Taken as the story of certain abolitionists rather than “the” abolitionists, this part of the film leads in some promising directions. It just doesn’t go there itself. I found the dramatizations effective; I think they will make it much easier for students to visualize life in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. (Tim Cragg’s cinematography is downright pretty.) And I consider that to be one of the most important — and difficult — things to get right in a history classroom.

And here is a taste of Owen’s analysis:

While the abolitionists are brought strikingly to life, 19th century society seems strangely flat. In contrast to Jonathan, I was disappointed by the portrayal of religion. The beliefs of all the key participants were mentioned, but (brief cameos from Stauffer and Gilpin aside) seemed to be skated over quickly, rather than explained in greater detail (positioning this within a wider movement of religious revival would have been helpful). The ideology of paternalism, in all its hypocrisies, was never adequately explained. Perhaps this highlights the biggest difficulty in portraying slavery to a modern audience. The complicated story to us today isn’t why Garrison, Grimke, Brown and Douglass despised slavery and campaigned so vigorously against it – it is why so many other people remained complicit with the slave system. Hopefully the next installments will go some way to creating a more vivid and dynamic world in which the institution of slavery became more strongly challenged.

In addition to these thoughtful reviews, this post also includes links to seven other reviews of the documentary. Check them out.

Books That Shaped America

Over at U.S. Intellectual History, Tim Lacy reflects on the Library Congress exhibit: “Books That Shaped America.”  The exhibit includes 88 books that have been important to Americans.  It is based on an online survey in which participants are asked to choose three books “written in America by Americans, and had a profound impact on our nation.”

Check out the survey and get back to us.  Which books did you choose?  

I picked Common Sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Private Life of Benjamin Franklin (also known as Franklin’s Autobiography.